South Korean food companies are finding a growing market in the United States for their kimchi, tofu, ramen and other products that appeal to health-conscious consumers looking for Asian flavors.
“The time is right for Korean food to be introduced to U.S. consumers, who are increasingly tempted to try ethnic flavors in line with their search for new taste experiences,” said Lim So-Hyun of the Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency, a South Korea government agency located in the United States.
“Americans’ interest in Korean barbecue and lactic-acid fermented foods such as kimchi is picking up.” A recent report from the state-run Korea Agro-Fisheries & Food Trade Corp. cited increasing interest in fermented foods and vegetables.
“A lot of Korean cuisines use fermented ingredients and are based on vegetables, which should help position Korean food as being healthy and appeal to health-conscious Americans,” the report said.
CJ CheilJedang, a spinoff of South Korean food and entertainment conglomerate CJ Group, is expanding its production capacity in the United States. Last year it built a new plant in New Jersey and is adding to production bases in Fullerton, Calif., and Brooklyn, N.Y. The company also bought two American frozen food companies, Schwan’s and Kahiki Foods, last year.
The company said the Schwan’s deal gave it tens of thousands of distribution channels in the United States. It is working to make its Korean foods more palatable to American tastes — especially its Bibigo brand “K-mandu,” a Korean dimsum. The demand for tofu is also growing in the United States. South Korean Pulmuone Foods’ U.S. unit saw its tofu sales rise 11.1 percent in 2018 from a year earlier, grabbing 73.8 percent of the U.S. tofu market. After years of research and development in its laboratory in Los Angeles, following its acquisition of U.S. tofu brand Nasoya Foods in 2016, the company recently rolled out a diversity of ready-to-eat tofu products.
“We aim to break through $100 million in U.S. sales this year, which would be an increase of 12.3 percent from last year, through continuous investment in research and development and the launch of new tofu varieties,” said Cho Gil Su, manager of Pulmuone Foods USA, adding that prospects in the U.S. tofu market are bright with increasing consumer interest in vegetable protein.
Sempio Foods is also taking advantage of healthy eating trends in America with its soy-fermented Yondu, a vegetable-based seasoning with no synthetic additives. Last March, Yondu was selected as a next-generation “innovative product,” a first for a Korean company, at the Anaheim Food Show. In September, Sempio opened the Yondu Culinary Studio, offering cooking classes and workshops, in New York. Nongshim Co, a leading South Korean instant “ramen” maker, exported more to the United States last year than to Asian countries.
It started selling its Shin Ramen at about 4,000 Walmart stores across the United States in 2017, as well as Costco and Kroger stores. The company has a plant in LA that is targeted for expansion and is considering building one on the East Coast. South Korean companies’ exports of ramen to the United States jumped 32 percent to $79.79 million in 2017 from $60.36 million in 2014.