The way I look at it, the world is just one giant plate—one that in the wake of the latest Hallyu wave is increasingly piled high with Korean cuisine. My own neighborhood is one of many reaping the delicious benefits of new Korean and fusion restaurants, but one in particular is leaving a trail of delighted eaters urging their friends, family, and neighbors to try the “best fried chicken they’ve ever had”—a trail that led me to Bonchon’s doors a few weeks ago.
With a name that translates to “My Hometown” and an expansive restaurant network spanning two continents, Bonchon has been bringing Korean culture and cuisine to all corners of the world for almost twenty years now. With no signs of slowing anytime soon, I caught up with Bonchon’s Marketing Associate, Victor Chang, to find out more about this fine casual dining chain that’s turning the world into Korean fried chicken believers.
“Our mission is to share our culture with as many different countries and people as possible. It goes back to the idea of ‘My Hometown,’ which is the idea of going to new places and carrying with us our local food and heritage, an experience anyone can relate to," Victor said. “It has become a lot more of a personal mission for our American team, as most of us are first and second gen-Americans and just now experiencing the influx of international culture in Western life—something we ourselves did not grow up with or even expect to ever see. So, in a way, it’s not just about spreading Bonchon, but culture as a whole.”
Bonchon first came to life in Busan, South Korea in 2002. Founder Jinduk Seo, with a twenty-year career in the restaurant industry, set his sights on expanding Korean fried chicken beyond Korea’s borders. Specifically, he wanted to sidestep an already oversaturated market and introduce a hometown favorite to new cultural borders. In 2006, Bonchon's first international location opened in Fort Lee, New Jersey, and was met with success. This led Seo to open up even more locations in countries like Singapore, Thailand, Cambodia, Kuwait, Bahrain, UAE, Myanmar, and the Philippines--with Vietnam and Bangladesh coming soon--laying the groundwork for the global chain it is known as today.
“The original concept for expansion was: avoid domestic competition in South Korea and an oversaturated market for fried chicken restaurants. The model is now the same but driven more by foreign entrepreneurs who see Bonchon as a unique product that can become very popular in their home countries, without much competition. This is what’s happened in the Philippines,” Victor explained.
With such a broad restaurant model expanding across a variety of international markets, I asked Victor if I could take a peek at Bonchon’s recipe for success—a recipe that Victor noted involves fusing Bonchon’s Korean dishes with local cuisines. For example, Bonchon has altered its bibimbap recipe in the States to fit the American palate, like adding quinoa and removing pickled yellow radish and raw egg—a move that wasn’t always as beloved as it is now with Bonchon restaurant-goers.
“Korean fried chicken, at its heart, is a fusion dish—a mix between American and Korean ideas—and we’re always going to be an Asian fusion restaurant, albeit the best that we can be. Our goal is to make our food as accessible and enjoyable as possible for our patrons. In America, that means adding our own twist to traditionally-American side dishes, like kimchi coleslaw or popcorn shrimp with spicy Sriracha mayo,” Victor revealed. “Whenever we’re newcomers in a different country, we do our best to accommodate cultural tastes and tailor the intricacies of local tastes to be part of the Bonchon food standard. But the core ‘heritage’ of Korean fried chicken always remains the same.”
At this point in the conversation, there was nowhere else to turn, but to the true star of Bonchon’s menu: the signature Korean fried chicken.
“I encourage anyone who hasn’t tried Bonchon to give our fried chicken a taste. It’s truly a unique experience, and we try our absolute hardest to make sure our chicken’s quality and taste is one of the best you’ve ever had,” Victor said. “That being said, we also appreciate when customers order some of our traditional Korean dishes. It shows that Korean food is properly integrating into American culture.”
And, of course, the chain hasn’t reached the point it is at today without having its finger on the pulse of consumer wants and needs. With 2019 only weeks away, Victor revealed Bonchon is in a place where it is figuring out how to best leverage the rising interest in foodie culture and Asian cuisine around the world. Bonchon is also working hard to adapt to the on-the-go trend that is taking over food service and beyond by developing a mobile app for faster deliveries as well as an express-type model for malls, food courts, and busy office districts.
“In 2019, we’re also sharpening our focus on social media. Like cuisine, cross-culture as a whole is becoming more prevalent in American media, and multicultural Americans are becoming more comfortable expressing themselves and their identity. This is something we want to be a part of and contribute to. All in all, we’re very excited for what’s to come in 2019,” Victor concluded.
With a horizon full of even more success (and fried chicken), Bonchon is one to watch as Korean cuisine continues to make its way into the world’s heart—and plate!