If you were to ask what cuisines are popular at the moment, all you have to do is go to any large chain and look at its base menus. But ask chain officials what’s coming next—and you may get a puzzled look or no answer. For many, it’s a much harder task to identify what cuisines are emerging and ripe for retail new product development. 

At Asenzya®, we pride ourselves on being on the forefront of culinary trends and bringing that to our partners. We use many techniques in tracking the hottest global cuisines. 

One of our favorites, and strongest early indicators, is to answer a simple question: “Has it broken out of the family-run model yet?” What this means, is: “Has the cuisine been picked up on a larger scale in the quick-service restaurants (QSR) world?” This break-out could involve the cuisine’s debut at a small, super-regional chain, or maybe its use in a limited-time offer (LTO) option on a larger QSR’s menu. 

When an ethnic cuisine starts to emerge on a chain-level, the all-important retail consumer education process is beginning on a larger scale. Once this indicator of breaking out of the family-run model spreads into the middle of the country, the education process is in full swing, and it is prime time to take a serious look at the top menu performers from this cuisine for retail product lines concepts. 

When using this method to determine what the next big global cuisine could be in America, it may surprise you when I say we should be watching Korean restaurants more closely. At its core, the cuisine is flavorful, delicious, simple in preparation, and semi approachable – these are key points for Americans. 

Another big factor is until recently, the only Korean dish most people knew was Korean BBQ, or bulgogi, but this has begun to change rapidly. Today, we are seeing small Korean cuisine-based chains pop up, and Korean indigenous ingredients, such as gochujang, the flavorful fermented hot sauce; or Kimchi, South Korea’s national dish, to be listed on menus across the US. Thanks to this acceptance in the foodservice world, we are seeing the dishes, flavors, and more importantly—the education of Korean cuisine—slowly becoming widespread in America. 

Dive a little deeper in the US foodservice scene, and you’ll see Korean cuisine is breaking out of the little family-run model in a big way, and quickly gaining a spot in the warm glow of the culinary spotlight. 

One of the more recent darlings of the foodservice world is Korean fried chicken. So popular in fact, that it has spawned many small restaurants and a few chains. Korean fried chicken is a double fried piece with a cornstarch breading that makes for an extra crispy and juicy finished product served with a light sauce or spicy glaze. 

Of course, when you look at America’s love for Asian, particularly Korean food, the West Coast has been dabbling in it for years, but now you’re seeing many of these small chains branch into the middle of the country. There are many restaurant examples that point to Korean food as a late emerging phase. 

A few of the main operations to watch are:

Bonchon out of New York is a super-regional chain which has opened up around 90 stores in small pockets across America. They are promoting their unique and delicious fried chicken glazed in two Asian profile sauces; this is an extremely smart approach using “safe exploration.” People know and love fried chicken, and they understand basic Korean flavors, so this is a safe step. 

Crisp in Chicago is a small, popular restaurant that specializes in Korean fried chicken wings. It has a small, efficient footprint, and is busy non-stop.

Seoul Taco is a St. Louis-based, Midwest chain with five units. It started off as a food truck, and was so popular that it quickly moved to brick and mortar. 

Bop-n-grill specializes in Korean American fusion in Chicago. You can get Korean-inspired burgers as well as more traditional dishes.

Bibigo in Southern California is where you build your own bibimbap bowl. It reminds me of a Korean Chipotle. 

Bibibop is a Columbus, Ohio-based Asian Grill with 29 units. 

Kogi food trucks are often given the credit for the food truck boom as well as the introduction to Korean food in Los Angeles.  Kogi has lines each and every day for its Korean fusion tacos. 

Gogi grill is based in New Jersey and is in the early stages of franchising. It currently has three locations. It is taking a very consumer educational approach with a primarily English menu using the Korean dish names as the secondary title. Americans don’t seem to like to ask a lot of questions about a menu, and this lets them know what they’re buying prior to having it end up on the table in front of them. 

When we combine all these factors detailed above, they point to the likelihood that Korean is in a good position to be the next Asian cuisine that could capture the American attention and desire for something new, yet safe. At this time, we haven’t seen much proliferation into the retail world beyond the generic Korean BBQ profile, but as more and more Korean-orientated chains continue to enter the food scene, the greater the likelihood for this humble, yet flavorful cuisine to find its way onto retail shelves. 

Dax Schaefer is the corporate executive chef and director of culinary innovation at Asenzya Inc. Readers may contact him at (414) 764-1220 x325ext, or at dax.schaefer@asenzya.com.


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