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Korean food wave hits Manila

2011/06/02 | 1195 views | Permalink | Source

Bon Chon Chicken restaurant, located in the Makati financial district, has helped introduce tasty Korean-style fried chicken to Filipinos.

Hallyu wave at fever pitch fuels Korean franchises

By Cathy Rose A. Garcia

MANILA ― Kimchi, bulgogi and bibimbap used to be the only Korean dishes that Filipinos knew about. But a new wave of Korean franchises such as Red Mango, Bon Chon Chicken and Caffe Ti-Amo have introduced Korean-style yogurt, fried chicken and ice cream to Filipinos.

Korean-style fried chicken became an instant hit with the opening of Bon Chon Chicken, a New York-based chain, at the Ayala Triangle in the heart of the Makati financial district, last November.

Filipino food bloggers raved about the light and crisp fried chicken with its irresistible special soy garlic and ginseng sauce, and the online buzz translated into long lines at the restaurant.

Felicity Ardo, a freelance writer, did not know much about Korean-style fried chicken but reading reviews about Bon Chon Chicken persuaded her to check it out. She found the chicken to be tasty, but more expensive than other fried chicken chains.

"With Bon Chon being a Korean brand, it may or may not explain for the long queues. Filipinos have a natural liking to good food, not to mention good fried chicken, it just happened that the restaurant's menu offerings were Korean in nature", Ardo said.

Perhaps due to the high volume of customers during peak lunch and dinner hours, Bon Chon's service leaves much to be desired. The Korea Times had to wait 40 minutes before being served an order of two drumsticks and a serving of rice (145 pesos or 3,600 won), a far cry from the ppali-ppali Korean way.

Another Korean franchise that is finding success in the Philippines is frozen yogurt chain Red Mango. It opened here in 2009 at the peak of the "fro-yo" craze, but still managed to gain market share after promoting yogurt as a "healthy" alternative to ice cream and other cold desserts.

Red Mango has expanded rapidly, opening outlets in major shopping malls in Manila, as well as Cebu City. Its Philippine page on Facebook already has more than 50,000 fans, who write messages like "Red Mango's yogurt is the best!"

Similar to its menu in Korea, Red Mango offers the original and green tea yogurt flavors, with various fruit and candy toppings, as well as yogurt drinks and patpingsu or Korean shaved ice.

Caffe Ti-Amo, a Seoul-based coffee chain, is also trying to find its niche in the already crowded café scene dominated by U.S. giant Starbucks by offering not just coffee but also waffles and gelato.

The first café was opened last year by its Philippine franchise owner Jollibee Foods, who operates the country's largest fast food chain.

When The Korea Times visited the Caffe Ti-Amo in the posh Greenbelt mall last week, the cafe interiors did not look much different from their branches in Korea. The only difference was the huge posters on the wall showing Caucasian and Asian models enjoying cups of coffee.

The pricing of the coffee is crucial, with a cup of latte priced almost the same as Starbucks at 90 pesos (2,300 won). But it seems that the main attraction was the gelato, with small scoops of dark chocolate and cheese flavors (55 pesos or 1,400 won) were earning raves from customers.

No doubt Korean dramas have unwittingly boosted these food establishments' initial success. While there is little to indicate the Caffe Ti-Amo or Red Mango are originally from Korea, that hasn't stopped K-pop-obsessed fans from flocking to these places.

"I've seen all those cute cafes in Seoul through Korean dramas. The cafes look really nice and warm. I think Caffe Ti-Amo has that same feeling, making me want to hang out here all day", Melissa Cruz, a 19-year-old college student, said.

There are also customers who are unaware of these establishments' Korean origins and are just there to try out something new. Some initially thought Caffe Ti-Amo was an Italian chain because of its name, which means "I love you" in Italian.

However, these Korean restaurants run the risk of becoming too closely linked with hallyu, which may spell disaster if the trend fades.

"I think the wave of Korean chains setting up branches here is largely fueled by the hallyu wave that is pretty much at fever pitch. But you have to serve the good stuff to build a good following. Filipinos usually come in swarms to try something new, but the fanfare dies down as soon as they discover that it doesn't appeal to their palate", Ardo said.

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