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[Hallyu Power] K-pop powerhouses looking to take a bite out of culinary world

Hallyu continues to forge ahead around the globe, with K-pop powerhouses unrelenting in finding new ways to spread Korean culture, even if it means venturing outside the entertainment field.

One of the biggest current trends in the local entertainment community involves celebrities and entertainment agencies taking a stab at the food and beverage scene.

Many Korean celebs have invested in their own cafes or dining establishments, such as Grill5taco owned by Super Junior’s Dong-hae, JYJ Junsu’s Misarang Imshil Cheese Pizza and G-Dragon’s Cafe Monstant Aewol on Jejudo Island. The country’s leading K-pop agencies are also jumping on the bandwagon, rapidly penetrating the food market with their eyes set on successfully pioneering a chain of Korean cuisine eateries outside the peninsula. 

An interior view of SM Entertainment’s restaurant SMT Seoul, located in Gangnam-gu (SM Entertainment)
An interior view of SM Entertainment’s restaurant SMT Seoul, located in Gangnam-gu (SM Entertainment)

Following the unveiling of its SMTOWN@Coex Artium – an entertainment hub complex in the center of Gangnam that features a merchandise store, theater, studio and a cafe – last year, SM Entertainment forged ahead with its third attempt at the restaurant business by opening the five-story multi-complex restaurant SMT Seoul earlier in January in the posh neighborhood of Cheongdam-dong, Seoul.

The eatery not only offers diners a variety of fusion food options such as Seoul-style tapas, as well as other Asian dishes, it also oozes K-pop goodness -- featuring hologram projections of the agency’s artists -- making it the ultimate dining option for die-hard fans or curious patrons.

According to officials at SM, the agency has tentative plans to launch the restaurant franchise overseas, with aims of opening an SMT Tokyo and an SMT LA sometime later this year.

A promotional image of the food selection at SMT Seoul (SM Entertainment)
A promotional image of the food selection at SMT Seoul (SM Entertainment)

“Creating a global establishment has always been the plan for our restaurant ventures from the start,” said a representative of SM Entertainment. “The concept for SMT Seoul is to meet our aims for having our style of Korean food being tasted at an international level.”

Despite its sky-high ambitions, the restaurant marks SM’s third attempt at penetrating the food market. In 2008, the company opened the Korean restaurant e-table, but eventually had to close its doors in 2011. The following year SM attempted to open the Chi Mc pub in collaboration with the local hamburger joint Kraze, but the project ended up going bust at the last minute.

“Having run a number of test-runs in the restaurant business in the past, we now feel like we possess the know-how (with the SMT franchise),” the SM spokesperson added. 

In a media presentation earlier this year, SM founder Lee Soo-man announced his initiatives to continue expanding the company’s celebrity-based merchandise stores and international projects.

“SM has now come of age, and is looking forward to taking another leap. We will accomplish the world’s greatest ‘blooming of culture,’” Lee said during his presentation.

Rivaling SM is another top dog in the Korean entertainment industry – Yang Hyun-suk of YG Entertainment.

An interior view of YG Entertainment’s barbecue restaurant, Samgeori Pujutgan, located in Hongdae (YG Entertainment)
An interior view of YG Entertainment’s barbecue restaurant, Samgeori Pujutgan, located in Hongdae (YG Entertainment)

No stranger to appearing on the small screen, the cafeteria at YG’s company headquarters has garnered much public attention in the past. Audience members have gotten quick glimpses of the agency’s notoriously tasty, in-house cafeteria food through various K-pop reality shows, with Yang famously having stated, “Our families must eat well to work well.”

In 2004, the company established a dining subsidiary YG Foods which opened its first Korean-style pub Samgeori Pocha in 2004. Noh Hee-young, former brand executive of mega-conglomerate retail giant CJ Group, was later appointed to head YG Foods leading to the unveiling of the agencies new Korean barbecue franchise – Samgeori Butchers. 

Customers wait in line to eat at YG Entertainment’s Hongdae barbecue restaurant Samgeori Pujutgan. (YG Entertainment)
Customers wait in line to eat at YG Entertainment’s Hongdae barbecue restaurant Samgeori Pujutgan. (YG Entertainment)

Last June, the agency opened the first Samgeori Butchers in Hongdae. In less than a year, the company has already launched two branches of “YG Republique”  -- which feature YG’s Samgeori Butchers, K Pub and 3 Birds cafe -- in the bustling tourist hotspots of Myeong-dong and the IFC Mall in Yeouido.

“YG Republique is not just a brand that is launching in Korea. We are currently preparing to expand our brand into the overseas market,” said a spokesperson at YG Foods, adding that the company plans on opening a YG Republique complex in ShowDC Mall in Bangkok in June.

Later this year YG expects to open its Republique dining complexes in Orange County, California and China. 

An interior view of YG Entertainment’s 3 Birds cafe in Myeong-dong. (YG Entertainment)
An interior view of YG Entertainment’s 3 Birds cafe in Myeong-dong. (YG Entertainment)

Along with his fellow agency rivals, mega K-pop producer and founder of JYP Entertainment Park Jin-young has also taken a stab at the restaurant scene, with hopes of global expansion. However this was met with little success.

In 2012, JYP Entertainment opened a chic, upscale Korean barbeque joint, Kristalbelli, near Korea Town in downtown Manhattan. Park had announced that he had invented the restaurant’s signature grill, as well as created his own grilling manual after visiting numerous barbecue establishments in his home country.

Banking on its success, JYP Entertainment had announced its plan to open branches in cities worldwide including Los Angeles, Tokyo and Beijing. However, the agency ended up selling off the restaurant and was unable to expand the brand.

By Julie Jackson (juliejackson@heraldcorp.com)

This is the 13th article in a series that explores the driving forces behind hallyu and the global rise of Korean pop culture. -- Ed.
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