The iceman maketh

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The iceman maketh

In the middle of a college accounting class, Kim Sung-nam glanced at his wristwatch and then hastily rushed out of the room, without asking to be excused. The professor and the other students gaped in wonder at the abrupt exit. Later, when his friends asked him about it, the Yonsei University junior said, "Oh, that -- I had to sell some stock, and 3 p.m. was the best time to do it."

A business star is born.

That determination and willingness to push aside a formal education has helped Kim, now 28, to build a small shop into a chain of stores selling bingsu, a local summer treat of shaved ice topped with chunks of fruit, red bean sauce and ice cream. For Mr. Kim, one good idea has been all he has needed to succeed.

"I thought I could be the only game in town that sold a particular item year round," Mr. Kim says, sitting in his newly opened Gangnam branch. "People ask for naengmyeon (a cold noodle dish) in the winter, even if it is a summer treat; that got me thinking about a store that sold bingsu 365 days a year. I knew it would take off." His idea took a few years to materialize, but his initial Iceberry store in the Sinchon area, near Seoul's Yonsei University, was a hit from the time it served up its first bowl of bingsu to a customer on May 3, 1999.

Before Mr. Kim started his business, no shops specialized in bingsu. Restaurants and coffee shops would sell the treat in summer, but once the weather began to cool you were out of luck. Mr. Kim's first Iceberry shop changed that; people who wanted a light, healthy and refreshing treat knew there was one place where they could always get it.

Mr. Kim's strategy was targeted at students, and now about a third of his 25 branches in Seoul are near universities. He charged a low price -- a bowl of bingsu now costs about 3,000 won ($2.50); by contrast, the dessert often sells for more than double that at cafes and department store food courts.

And Mr. Kim has helped to make bingsu feast a party. If you go to Iceberry in a group, instead of ordering individual bowls of bingsu, you can get the king-size wang bingsu, which is enough for six -- it comes in a bowl the size of a bisected basketball, with enough shaved ice, fruit slices and wedges and ice cream to feed a team. And the price is fair, at 11,000 won, but people order wang bingsu for the pure fun of sharing.

One reason for Iceberry's success is that it offers more freedom of choice for the bingsu eater. When you get bingsu at a coffee shop, the result is almost invariably the ice with red bean sauce, fruit cocktail pourings and a spoonful of ice cream -- try to tinker with that formula and the waiter will only scowl. Mr. Kim wanted to spice up the dessert, so he made sure to offer fresh fruit like bananas, kiwis, watermelons and strawberries, and heap on more ice cream. "Many people like their bingsu without the bean sauce, so I decided to let customers pick and choose their own toppings, including fresh fruit," he says. So at Iceberry, if you're not keen on kiwis, you can get a double dose of strawberries instead.

But Mr. Kim tries to keep things simple, and focus on what he does best. The menu at Iceberry contains only four items: bingsu, fruit drinks, sandwiches and toast. The bingsu is for many people a lunch, perhaps with a sandwich or toast on the side. The toppings offered are the same at all branches, featuring the red bean sauce, jelly, a fruit cocktail mixture of pineapples and peaches, fresh banana and watermelon slices, strawberries, kiwi, and soft vanilla ice cream. You take your bowl of bingsu and, with a spoon, mix all the ingredients into one big bowl of mush, so you wind up with ice pudding. Then you dig in. A bowl of bingsu is satisfying, but doesn't leave you bloated like ice cream can.

There's nothing fancy about the service at Iceberry; while the atmosphere of the shops is pleasant and conducive to chatting and people-watching, the places are strictly self-serve. Some regulars say it would be nice to get served at their tables. Mr. Kim shrugs and says, "The reality is, Iceberry is like a fast-food store."

Mr. Kim says he was born to be a businessman. "Ever since I was in middle school [in Daegu], I've always wanted to start my own business, make a lot of money...that's all I thought about." His father, an engineer, at first disapproved of his son's entrepreneurial bent. But Mr. Kim's dreams were indomitable. That became clear once Mr. Kim started college; while majoring in business administration at Yonsei, he started one business after another, all of them failures, until finally hitting on a winning formula. His first business was a Korean buffet restaurant, started with loans from relatives and money he earned from tutoring. Next was a Baskin-Robbins ice cream store, then a movie room.

Mr. Kim's college friend, Choi Moon-sub, remembers a time when Mr. Kim worked as a taxi driver for one semester after blowing his tuition money on the stock market. "He was always diligent and eager to make money back if he lost it, always attempting new things," Mr. Choi says.

Mr. Kim says that his failures have always helped him one way or another. "I've learned how to deal with co-workers and how to deal with customers from the various disappointments I've had," he says.

When his friends were cramming for exams, Mr. Kim was busy thinking about his next business venture. Eventually, Mr. Kim, with help from a classmate at Yonsei, opened the first Iceberry in a small space near the university that used to be a rice cake joint. His start-up money, about 20 million won ($16,000), came from friends and his luck with stock trading. Students hanging out in the Sinchon area took to the store. By that September, Mr. Kim had made a net profit of some 100 million. The next year, he opened two more stores, and the year after that, nine. This year to date, Mr. Kim has launched 13 more Iceberry stores across Seoul. He owns and controls all of his branches, and spends his day visiting branches and checking up on the service.

So in August, everything's peachy. But does the Iceberry founder worry about the dark days of winter that always come? Mr. Kim acknowledges that the cold season freezes up his profit flow. But hope springs eternal, as the saying goes. "More and more people want to eat bingsu in the winter, so I doubt Iceberry's profits will plummet as much this year once it gets cold." Logic leaps aside, only a few of the 25 Iceberry stores have substantial operating losses in the winter months.

Did the self-made bingsu tycoon have time to finish his degree while he was attempting one business after another? "To me, college was about getting the credits to graduate," Mr. Kim explains. "I didn't want to kill myself getting good grades. If I passed, I was happy." After breaks for military service and for focusing on his various businesses, Mr. Kim will finally be graduating this month, a good nine years after he began.

What's next for Mr. Kim and his dreams? A special kind of wintery dessert? "No, right now I'm focused on expanding Iceberry," he says. "Next year, I will open branches in Busan and Daegu, and then I want to open stores in the U.S. and China. I'd be focusing on selling to Korean expats or ethnic Koreans who have a nostalgia for bingsu." He also wants to get bingsu on shelves, making Iceberry a widely recognized name. "My dream is to make Iceberry into a product sold in local supermarkets. But that's just my dream."

by Choi Jie-ho

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