By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
SEOUL - In South Korea, where talk of the border rarely involves dinner options, Taco Bell this summer opened a restaurant, its only one in Asia. But indeed, not its first.
Taco Bell had tried Asia before, and the pair didn't get along. The chain closed its two previous South Korean franchises in the early 1990s. It then pulled out of China in 2008, restoring Asia's reputation as a continent unconquered by the taco.
Taco Bell chose Seoul for its Asian re-launch, though, for a reason that has little to do with refried beans and sour cream. Seoul appealed to Taco Bell, executives say, because few cities on Earth can better turn a novelty into a mainstream obsession. In the time it takes for other countries to warm to a new product, South Koreans have already liked it, loved it, photographed it, blogged about it and waited in 30-minutes lines for it for two weeks straight.
Far away from a customer base in the United States that knows the delights and agonies of late-night taco dining, paid for entirely with pocket change, Taco Bell seeks a higher level of trendiness in South Korea. The new store's menu appears on an LED board. Wall hangings display a succession of culinary mood words: sizzle, steam, smash.
Shin Sang Yong, chief executive officer of M2G Ltd., the company that brought the chain to South Korea, thinks Taco Bell can work here because "people are ready for something new. They've had 20 years of pizza and hamburgers." Shin envisions opening 30 South Korean franchises in the next three years. One hundred in the next six. Right now, Seoul has about 30 Mexican and Tex-Mex restaurants.
The city's three-story Taco Bell opened July 11, with 40-minute lines on the first day. Business in the first month exceeded projections by 20 percent, Shin said.
It remains to be seen whether Taco Bell will prosper here, or elsewhere in Asia, over the long term. Since Taco Bell last existed here 15 years ago, little has fundamentally changed in the way people eat. What's different is how they decide where to eat. In the world's most wired country, two of every five people, according to some estimates, maintain a blog. One of South Korea's preeminent search engines, Naver, has a special category for "powerbloggers," many of whom love writing about food. Taco Bell has held special events for these bloggers, hoping to win their approval.
"They can kill a company," said Paul Yang, general manager of M2G. "People here are very fast. One of the fastest places to pick up trends. They lead pop culture in Asia - ahead of Japan, ahead of Hong Kong."
Food trends in South Korea can start from almost anywhere. In the past few years, South Korea has had sudden love affairs with doughnuts, frozen yogurt and waffles.
The kebab craze started on a street corner in 2006, when Turkey native Omer Yilmaz sold his signature dish to a few fanatics, who spread the gospel. Soon Yilmaz had one store, then two more, and now there are many copycats.
This year, self-trained chef Suji Park - who had created a mini-empire of restaurants that taught South Koreans to love Western-style brunch - has her sights on starting a new trend, introducing South Koreans to piled-high pastrami sandwiches.
It is a cross-cultural truth that people like large quantities of sodium and fat, whether melted atop crust, sandwiched in a bun or stuffed in a tortilla. But Mexican food still faces some hurdles in Asia. Unlike other Yum! Brands franchises - KFC and Pizza Hut, in particular - Taco Bell has a limited international footprint, with just 250 stores outside the United States. Theories abound as to why Mexican food is a hard sell, but many food enthusiasts in Seoul say they think South Koreans are itching not just for Western food, but also for food that Westerners like.
"A crowd draws a crowd," said Daniel Gray, a Seoul resident and food blogger who offers Korean cooking classes and restaurant tours. "The fact that the foreigners start to go there, there's a huge line around the block - everybody sees that."
Taco Bell's menu, for now, is simple: burritos, tacos, nachos, quesadillas and other demonstrations of nacho cheese engineering, such as the Fries BellGrande, which consists of fries, sour cream, cheese and meat all layered together.
Yang says the restaurant might soon put up a sign showing newcomers how to properly eat a taco; so far, he has noticed South Koreans struggle to angle their heads, leading to a "taco at the wrong orientation," and spillage of ingredients.
Several young women sat on the second floor of Seoul's Taco Bell one recent evening, devoted equally to consuming and photographing their food. Jung Ji Yoon, a 20-year-old college student, said that she had eaten at Taco Bell several times this summer, finding the taste to be "good - especially compared to the price."
But Jung recently decided to go on a diet, meaning that on this particular night, she planned to use Taco Bell as a meeting spot only, ordering nothing. She brought a small packet of tofu instead.