The “2016 Overview of Franchise Outlets by Industry,” released by the Korea Fair Trade
Mediation Agency, shows there are 24,678 fried chicken shops in the country,
second only to the 30,846 convenience stores. In third place are eateries serving Korean food,
totaling 19,313. A large number of independent business owners choose to open
fried chicken shops because “it does not require specific skills.” In this red ocean market,
businesses may get by without any special skills but they need “special principles” to succeed.
Jeong Cheol-sun and his wife, who run a franchise fried chicken shop in the Seochon area of Seoul, never lose their smiles despite their exhausting daily routine.
When office life gets tough, a lot of people dream about handing in their resignation. They picture themselves setting up all sorts of independent businesses and believe they can do anything they set their minds on, if only their bosses aren’t breathing down their neck. There is also that sense of anticipation — they can turn their lives around completely and be the envy of all their friends — as well as the sense of urgency that comes from the nagging thought, “…before it’s too late!”
In practice, however, going it alone isn’t easy. Starting a business means overcoming huge doubts and anxiety. Despite all that, the high level of self-employment in Korea reflects the fact that many feel miserable about their office life while there is a huge lack of appropriate jobs for those who retire early.
With the domestic market stagnating in the midst of low growth and recession, starting a self-run business does not necessarily guarantee success. Jeong Cheol-sun, who runs a fried chicken franchise in Seochon, central Seoul, is certainly more successful than most of his peers.
To put it simply, he’s a happy man. His family motto, “Do your best wherever you find yourself,” is framed and hangs on the wall of his home. Born in 1960, he has been running his fried chicken shop for 20 years now, and the experience and ideas he’s amassed over that time have made their way into the franchise company’s policy.
“I often go to the corporate headquarters in my role as operating committee member and sit at a big conference table with the owner, the president and the directors,” Jeong says. “At the headquarters, they draw up guidelines based on extensive surveys, and I’ve been actively involved right from the beginning. I’ve also received a few awards.”
For a recent event held at the International Convention Center Jeju, the company chartered 10 planes to get all participants to the island. Jeong won the most important award and his entire family was invited to join him on stage as he collected it. Jeong and his wife are so famous within the franchise that from time to time, they feature in the company’s TV commercials. Perhaps because they are so positive, exercising regularly, actively taking part in local community activities, and smiling all the time, they both have radiant faces. In fact, spending all their days side by side, their smiles look like carbon copies of each other.
The Secret to Great Flavor
Having worked at a firm in Seoul for over 10 years, Jeong Cheol-sun realized one day that he had no future as an office worker. Just as he was grappling with how to make a change to his life, his brother-in-law, a civil servant in Gongju, South Chungcheong Province, suddenly passed away. Jeong’s widowed sister then moved up to Seoul, and the two of them opened a galbi (beef ribs) barbeque restaurant. Since neither of them had any experience in running such a business, they had to close down a mere three months later. Thus he experienced early on the bitterness of defeat in the restaurant business.
It was because of that painful experience that Jeong chose to open up a franchise. With support from the headquarters, he thought he’d be able to run his business with a better safety net. He decided to turn the video rental shop his wife had been running for seven years into a fried chicken shop. But it wasn’t an easy decision to make.
“There was a rotisserie chicken place right next door, so I wavered a lot. For them, if the video shop turned into a chicken shop it would mean competitors popping up right next door,” he says. “But I finally made the decision because I thought that ‘rotisserie chicken’ and ‘fried chicken’ were different. People hardly separate the two these days, but back then they were completely different. Anyway, to this day we’re still getting along with each other as good neighbors.”
At Jeong’s shop, apart from fried chicken, they also sell pizza as well as a variety of side dishes like cheese sticks, and even draft beer. But chicken still makes up 80–90 percent of sales. All these years, Jeong has run his shop in the same way, and one comment he often hears from customers is, “Even though it’s the same brand, the chicken doesn’t taste as good at other shops.”
Of course, such compliments don’t come for nothing. Jeong and his wife have made a concerted effort to overcome the general assumption that “all franchise food tastes the same.” His wife’s culinary intuition has played a big part in marking their fried chicken out from the rest. There is also one rule that they adhere to for the best taste, which is to heat the oil 2°C higher than the temperature stated in the manual provided by the headquarters. Jeong says it enhances the chicken’s crispiness.
“Everyone gets exactly the same manual from the headquarters, but it’s inevitable that tastes will differ slightly at each shop,” he says. “If you were to give a group of housewives all the same ingredients and ask them to make kimchi, they wouldn’t all produce exactly the same taste. And more than anything, it’s the freshness of the oil that determines the taste of fried chicken. The olive oil we use is around four times more expensive than regular cooking oil, but even so, if you don’t change your oil often enough your chicken will turn out less tasty. My son was born around the time we opened this shop and now he’s about to graduate high school. I always fry the chicken in oil that’s new enough that I’d be happy for my son to eat it.”
Making food with the conviction that it must be good enough to feed your own child — this extra level of care and attention seems to be the secret to great taste. But that’s not all.
“At the headquarters, they carry out continued research to provide every shop with the very best recipes, but when it gets busy it’s easy not to follow the manual to the letter. You’re supposed to brush the sauce onto each piece of fried chicken individually, and if you try to save time by pouring the sauce over the pieces and mixing it all up, it just doesn’t taste as good. No matter how busy we get, we always stick to the guidelines. That’s the secret to why our chicken always tastes good,” he says.
Making food with the
conviction that it must be good
enough to feed your own child
— this extra level of care and attention seems to be the
secret to great taste.
Taking in delivery of ingredients, cleaning, cooking and serving customers, Jeong and his wife have almost no time to rest. They work all year round, rarely taking a single day off.
They believe that using only the best oil and making their chicken with the care they would take when cooking for their own children is the secret to great taste and the key to success.
The Secret Recipe for Happiness
The Seochon area, where Jeong’s shop is located, used to be a quiet neighborhood adjacent to an ancient royal palace. More recently, however, it has appeared on the media radar as a cultural hotspot, so the streets are always bustling with people. But Jeong’s shop hasn’t really been swept up in this wave of change. Working hard day in day out over the years, he has become financially stable and bought the two-story house his family of five used to rent. There’s nothing more they need, as Jeong says.
Located close to Gwanghwamun Square, however, Seochon is highly impacted by the many large-scale demonstrations held there. When a barricade of riot police buses is set up to block the demonstrators, Jeong’s delivery scooter can’t pass by and he can hardly take any orders. But this is not the only reason why Jeong hopes that political and social conflicts will decrease and stability return to Korean society.
Koreans are so fond of fried chicken that it seems like every other shop is a chicken shop. Jeong thinks this is because “it’s easy on the wallet” and that “the generous servings, the way the chicken is cut into conveniently-sized pieces and that crispy crunch when you bite into it” all contribute to the enormous popularity of fried chicken.
As someone who also helps other people set up their businesses while running his own, and who works as a mentor for existing branches of the franchise, there is one issue that always troubles him: how best to do deliveries. Making deliveries himself, Jeong says, “These days, most branches use specialized delivery services which cost around 3,000 won per order. To be honest, that’s less of an overhead than employing someone directly. But the problem is that the service isn’t guaranteed.”
While being self-employed, Jeong’s physical health has slowly deteriorated. Opening up shop at 11 a.m., he and his wife are kept busy all day long, cleaning, preparing ingredients, cooking, serving customers, taking orders, and doing deliveries. Especially between 5 p.m. and 9 p.m., when most orders come in, they are constantly on their feet. There is so much to do that the work day only ends at around 1 a.m. They hardly ever have a day off, so the exhaustion is indescribable. But Jeong is satisfied with his circumstances and doesn’t wish for more.
“Our place isn’t some famous restaurant where customers queue round the block. It’s just a shop with a reputation for relatively tasty chicken compared to others in the same franchise. That’s enough for me,” he says.
That’s it. Jeong Cheol-sun knows precisely the position of his business and the level of success he should be satisfied with. Which is probably why he’s always smiling.