“K-chicken wave” takes world by storm

Posted on : 2022-10-10 17:05 KST Modified on : 2022-10-10 17:05 KST
BBQ Chicken opens 150 restaurants in 20 US states and BHC and Kyochon expand into Malaysia, Singapore, and UAE as Korean Wave and oversaturated domestic market turn attention abroad
Americans enjoy chicken at a restaurant in Manhattan’s Koreatown. (Genesis BBQ)
Americans enjoy chicken at a restaurant in Manhattan’s Koreatown. (Genesis BBQ)

Oliver Grant, a famous YouTuber with 2.09 million subscribers, posted a clip of his family’s visit with an uncle in Denver, Colorado. In it, he takes them to a “Korean” restaurant called BBQ Chicken, where they soon get a taste of Korean fried chicken.

Grant’s uncle orders boneless galbi chicken, while Grant’s mother gets honey garlic chicken. Grant and his wife order the seasoned chicken. The couple also get a side of sausage and rice cakes for their daughter Cherry.

After tasting Korean fried chicken for the first time ever, Grant’s uncle and mother marvel at how “sweet” the seasoned chicken is. “It’s better than the wings we had growing up,” Grant’s mother comments.

They also taste the pickled radish and express amazement at how it balances out the greasiness of the fried chicken. Titled “American Grandma and Grandpa Eat Korean Fried Chicken for the First Time,” the video recorded 1.28 million views within three weeks of being posted.

Korean fried chicken is taking the world by storm. The K-chicken industry is speeding up its expansion into markets beyond Asia, where it is already popular in places like Japan, Taiwan, Malaysia, and Vietnam.

Now it is moving forward in Canada, Germany, and the US. Having run into limits with a highly saturated market at home, the industry is turning its attention to larger markets by piggybacking on the K-pop and K-drama waves.

YouTuber Oliver Grant’s family members look over the menu while visiting BBQ’s Denver restaurant. The side items include kimchi fried rice, sausages and rice cake (soddeok soddeok), and simmered rice cakes (ddeokbokki). (screen capture from Grant’s video)
YouTuber Oliver Grant’s family members look over the menu while visiting BBQ’s Denver restaurant. The side items include kimchi fried rice, sausages and rice cake (soddeok soddeok), and simmered rice cakes (ddeokbokki). (screen capture from Grant’s video)

Genesis BBQ, the company that runs the fried chicken franchise, announced Friday that it would be opening an Oklahoma City branch of BBQ Chicken in the midwestern US. This branch will be the first BBQ in the state of Oklahoma — the 20th US state to have one of the restaurants.

Currently, BBQ has restaurants in 20 US states, including California, New York, Washington, Texas, and Hawaii. The fried chicken franchise plans to open new stores in Alabama, Arizona, Delaware, and Indiana in the second half of 2022.

“Korean dishes like kimchi fried rice, ddeokbokki [simmered rice cakes], and japchae [stir-fried glass noodles] are also being sold alongside the fried chicken as sides,” explained Choi Du-jin, Genesis BBQ’s executive director of public relations. “We are attempting to expand the horizon of K-food, starting with fried chicken.”

Since venturing into the US market in 2006, BBQ has focused mainly on expanding its business in the country through an overseas expansion policy. Currently, BBQ has roughly 150 restaurants in 20 states.

Sales are growing. In 2019, BBQ recorded US$28 million in sales; that number has since increased to US$33 million in 2020 and US$73 million in 2021.

A BBQ official commented, “When expanding into a foreign market, we keep the original Korean recipe but make little changes—for example, in Japan, people pointed out that the ‘Golden Olive Chicken’ was too spicy for children, so we reduced the spiciness.”

“The interesting thing is that the sweet and spicy Korean yangnyeom [seasoned] chicken is also very popular in the US,” the same official noted.

A BBQ Chicken restaurant opened in Oklahoma City by Genesis BBQ. (Genesis BBQ)
A BBQ Chicken restaurant opened in Oklahoma City by Genesis BBQ. (Genesis BBQ)

Other fried chicken companies are also eyeing overseas markets. BHC Group, which has only had two overseas restaurants in Hong Kong since 2018, is planning to open its first restaurant in Malaysia this upcoming November, as well as another first restaurant in Singapore in April next year.

A BHC official said, “In addition to fried chicken, we’re also planning to take the Korean beef restaurant franchise Changgo 43 overseas.”

“Starting in the second half of this year, our core capabilities will be devoted to our foreign ventures so that various dine-out brands can enter the foreign market and the world can learn about Korean food culture,” the official added.

Kyochon already has 70 restaurants in six countries. During the first half of this year alone, the company opened two in Malaysia and a fifth in Dubai.

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, Kyochon has transitioned to a “delivery and take-out” model in overseas markets as well. The first Kyochon in Dubai, which opened last December, has been successful among residents, recording 150 million won in sales within a month of setting up shop.

The fried chicken industry is scrambling to expand overseas, boosted in large part by the Korean wave that has swept over the world.

Choi explained, “Thanks to growing interest in K-pop acts such as BTS and Blackpink and the global popularity of Korean dramas such as ‘The Goblin,’ ‘The King,’ and ‘Crash Landing on You,’ interest in Korean fried chicken — which has often appeared in those dramas — has also increased. This is why our main consumer base is young, consisting of people between their teens and 30s.”

The heavily saturated domestic market is another reason the fried chicken industry is looking abroad.

Observers say the industry is in search of a new “blue ocean” following the “half-price fried chicken war” prompted by large supermarket chains, along with criticism over “gouging” chicken prices and an excessive rate of return on sales.

An industry insider said, “While price tags of 20,000 won [US$13.90] for fried chicken have led to a backlash in South Korea, fried chicken has sold for more than US$30 in the US, so it’s not considered too expensive there, even when you take into account the difference in prices and labor costs.”

The same source added, “The main targets now are Asia, where the Korean Wave has a huge influence, and the US, where delivery food such as pizza is commonplace and there’s a large population of Asian-Americans.”

By Yu Sun-hui, staff reporter

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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