Seoul, PRK: Food trucks – Where are they at?

The "Miss Corea" food truck parked on a street / Courtesy of Miss Corea

By Yun Suh-yong  |  Korean Times

Customers line up in front of a "Kimchi Bus" food truck  parked inside Common Ground, a shopping complex near Konkuk  University in Seoul. / Courtesy of Kimchi Bus
Customers line up in front of a “Kimchi Bus” food truck parked inside Common
Ground, a shopping complex near Konkuk University in Seoul.
Courtesy of Kimchi Bus

When the film “Chef” (“American Chef” in Korean), about a head chef of a popular restaurant opening his own food truck, was released locally in January last year, it created a huge sensation. Viewers watched it more than once as they were inspired by the story and vicariously satisfied by the scrumptious Cuban sandwiches sold from the food truck. It stimulated people to go home and make the same Cuban sandwiches featured in the film. Some left the cinema mumbling maybe they should start a food truck like the protagonist Carl Casper did in the film.

The cinema-induced fervor may have been temporary, but in reality, the food truck business is actually growing in Korea. Many young would-be entrepreneurs are looking into the field with heightened interest, carefully gauging the pros and cons of the business before they make a final call.

Nearly two years have passed since the Park Geun-hye administration decided to deregulate the rules that had limited the operation of food trucks. Food truck owners hailed the decision when it was announced in March 2014 during the ministers’ meeting on deregulation that they would ease regulations about selling food from vehicles to help foster the business.

In July, 2014, food trucks were approved to legally operate inside amusement and public parks. Later, the approval was expanded to include sports facilities, riversides, college campuses, and highway rest areas.

Food truck owners say the deregulation measures taken by the government have definitely improved their situation, but also say there is still a long way to go so that their businesses can flourish.

“It’s really hard to operate in Korea if you drive away from the designated area. The reason food trucks should be allowed mobility is because of potential sales in different areas. At the moment, the approved areas are places that are not really profitable,” said Ryu Si-hyeong, owner of “Kimchi Bus,” a food truck selling kimchi-infused Mexican food at Common Ground, a shopping complex near Konkuk University in Seoul.

“That’s why each food truck should be given a license of its own to move around freely. It would be far more efficient to operate that way for the food truck owners. In the United States, there aren’t fixed locations that restrict the operation of food trucks.”

Ryu’s food truck is in a fixed location operating only within the compounds of Common Ground.

“I think a food truck can operate in a fixed location when it’s in an area that is unique. Because Common Ground is a special place with an identity and where many people come, I’m okay with operating this way. But in general terms, food trucks are supposed to be mobile,” he said during a presentation at the “K-food truck” forum held at the Dongdaemun Design Plaza, Tuesday.

The forum was an event for food truck operators, government-affiliated organization officials, would-be entrepreneurs, and professionals from the food and design fields to share their experience and knowledge of the food truck business and discuss ways to improve it.

Ryu also mentioned that the sizes of the food trucks currently approved are too small to run food businesses. “Inside the trucks, we need machines such as a water tank and a generator. We also need space to store ingredients. If we have a small space, we can’t prepare much so we can’t sell much,” he said.

The city is planning to ameliorate the situation by allowing larger models to replace the smaller ones.

“We hope food trucks can lead Seoul’s food culture and start a new trend. We are looking into expanding the food truck models from the current 1-ton Damas and Porter to County models and trailers,” said Shin Yoon-jae, director of Seoul Design Research Institute at the Seoul Design Foundation, an affiliate organization of Seoul Metropolitan Government.

“We will operate a three-step project for food trucks starting this year. We will invite public participation for entrepreneurs and provide consulting, we will test-operate 20 food trucks at the Smart Mobility Show this year and conduct K-food truck tours.”

Many in the audience who are interested in launching their own food truck businesses, asked questions.

“Are there support funds or projects coming from the city?” asked Kim Jin-seok, who was preparing his own food truck.

“It requires a consensus between different administrative departments. A merging of these various departments is essential in order to muster support,” Shin answered.

Ryu Si-hyeong, center, CEO of "Kimchi Bus"  poses with kimchi in front of his food truck with  his two chefs and co-workers Jo Seok-beom,  left, and Kim Seung-min. / Courtesy of Kimchi Bus
Ryu Si-hyeong, center, CEO of “Kimchi Bus”
poses with kimchi in front of his food truck with
his two chefs and co-workers Jo Seok-beom,
left, and Kim Seung-min.
/ Courtesy of Kimchi Bus

Hopes are high

Owning a food truck is an attractive startup medium for young entrepreneurs, mainly because it costs less than starting any other business. The startup cost on average is somewhere between 20 to 40 million won.

Yim Jin-young, owner of a food truck called “Miss Corea” that sells kimchi fried rice, said she gave up her high-paying jobs at foreign companies such as Disney and Sony Pictures because she wanted to find her own dream. She began her business last year.

“I wanted to live a meaningful life and money wasn’t everything,” said Yim.

“I wanted to spread Korean food to the world and I thought that owning a food truck was the best way to do it.” She has plans to take her food truck overseas to Northern Europe and the United States.

Her husband Baek Lae-hyuk, who worked at a foreign finance company in the financial district of Yeouido, also joined in to help her business.

“Sometimes I wonder why I’m scooping up fried rice in the street, but it’s worth the effort,” said Baek.

When they first began, they knew they had competitors who had already established their reputations such as Ryu Si-hyeong who became famous with his Kimchi Bus. He traveled the world for 400 days and published a book on the experience.

“But just because someone else was doing it didn’t mean we should give up. We could seek our uniqueness,” said Baek.

Ryu, who was already a reputable figure and had established himself at Common Ground, said the advantage of food trucks is that it costs little to start and is a great way to communicate with customers through its unusual atmosphere.

“At first, I didn’t do this for money. When I first started out, the truck was just transportation for my road trips and I wanted to share Korean culture by giving out samples of Korean kimchi. My world travel projects are still non-profit but I have a profit-making business and together the two create a synergy,” said Ryu.

The kimchi fried rice from food truck "Miss Corea" / Courtesy of Miss Corea
The kimchi fried rice from food truck “Miss Corea” / Courtesy of Miss Corea

“I like that a food truck can offer a variety of menu items just like a restaurant does. It’s only been a year since food trucks started appearing in Korea so we can’t expect much yet. But if we can get over the prejudice that food trucks are unhygienic and their food must always be cheap, I think the food truck business can positively develop here. We would have to break the prejudices with our uniqueness and stories.”

Jeon Bong-hyun, actor-turned-chef who consults restaurant businesses and develops menus, said one of the problems he noticed while consulting food truck operators was hygiene and preparation.

“I think the hygiene level and the storage and packing systems should be improved. Couple this with a good menu and a food truck can succeed,” he said.

“When creating a menu, you need to think objectively whether you’d pay the price for your own food. You need time to remedy your shortcomings.”

Jeon mentioned the success of Roy Choi who is the actual figure on which the film “Chef” was based. With food truck Kogi, selling galbi quesadilla and kimchi taco, Choi soon dominated the food truck market in Los Angeles since his debut in 2008. Mexican restaurants Grill5taco and Vatos in Korea all received their recipes from Roy Choi, according to Jeon.

The growth of food trucks in L.A. was heavily influenced by efficient administrative procedures, Ryu said, hoping Korea would emulate them.

“The U.S. is the best example of success, especially L.A. where the food truck business began 10 years ago. They have over 4,000 food trucks around L.A. (In New York, 3,000.) This is not only because they have bigger trucks with more room for various facilities but also because of their administrative system,” said Ryu.

“For a food truck to operate in L.A., a health permit, a business license, fire insurance, food insurance, and a supply kitchen for storing ingredients are required. Such detailed requirements are needed but once you have it all, you can move around freely.”

The "Miss Corea" food truck parked on a street / Courtesy of Miss Corea
The “Miss Corea” food truck parked on a street / Courtesy of Miss Corea