Tray magnifiqueLee Sang-jin stared at the clock in his office in Gangnam, southern Seoul, watching the hands tick toward his lunch break. If the noon whistle had a sound, for Mr. Lee, 32, it should be like chimes rung by a dozen angels. “I’ve been waiting for this moment,” said Mr. Lee. “Lunch time is my favorite time in the entire workday.”
With three co-workers in tow, Mr. Lee rushed out to the street. The group with him wondered aloud where they would go for lunch. “Why don’t we get some pizza?” asked one colleague. “Hmmm. Don’t you think galbi would be better?” pondered another.
Instead of those kinds of places, Mr. Lee led the group to the 20th floor of the Dongwon Industries building, which was only a few minutes walk down the street from their real estate office.
The restaurant they selected was a company cafeteria. That’s right, a company cafeteria.
Once the bane of eaters everywhere, well known for their bland food, metal trays, less than clean utensils and sour looks from the help, company cafeterias are now enjoying a surge in popularity. Menus have been upgraded, tables cleared regularly and surly lunch ladies sent packing. Meanwhile, prices have remained easy on wallets.
The company cafeteria Mr. Lee and his pals chose was crowded this day with Dongwon employees wearing green jackets, but also with many other hungry people from outside the building. The Dongwon cafeteria this noon offered two choices -- Korean food or Western. Mr. Lee’s group went Korean -- bring on the bibimbap.
“It may not be five-star chow, but it’s better than standing on the street, trying to decide on a restaurant for nearly half an hour,” said Mr. Lee. “Besides it’s dirt cheap compared with the prices that a lot of private restaurants ask.”
The meal was very simple; bibimbap for the main course, a hot miso soup, a small plate of kimchi and pink sausages covered with egg yolks. All this for only 3,000 won ($2.50), while the price of a lunch at a private restaurant usually starts at 4,000 won.
One of Mr. Lee’s co-workers had a minor complaint. “I wish they put more effort into the side dishes,” Kim Hyung-joon, 27, whined. “Their sausages are the cheapest you can get in any market.”
This group of “outsiders” comes to cafeteria two times a week. “You can’t eat at private restaurants all the time,” said Mr. Lee, “no matter how tasty their food is.”
When you’ve discovered that company cafeteria food has changed, you start to hunt for better company cafeterias.
“I heard the food at LG’s cafeteria is really good,” said Byun Hyeong-sup, 29, another of Mr. Lee’s co-workers. “They have three different choices: Korean, Chinese and Western.”
One of the men said, “It might be more expensive.”
Mr. Byun frowned. “It’s only 500 won more expensive than here, and the quality is much better, or so I heard.”
Two other diners sitting at a table behind Mr. Lee’s group had almost finished with their bibimbap. “It’s our first time at this cafeteria,” said one of them, Kim Dong-seop, 34. “We came to this area on a business meeting and we didn’t know which restaurant to go to so we came here.”
“It’s different from the food that we eat at home, but it would be greedy if you asked for more at these prices,” said Mr. Kim. “It’s not particularly delicious, but it’s fulfilling.”
According to the branch manager of the Dongwon cafeteria, Heo Ji-sun, 600 to 700 customers go through the cafeteria’s line each lunchtime. “We can’t compete with the private restaurants in taste, because we can’t serve food the way restaurants do, which comes out fresh when orders are in,” Ms. Heo said. “But we try our best.”
In fact Ms. Heo said she spends a great deal of time trying to think of new menus for the following week. “Every Wednesday I have to submit the menus for the next week to our main office, Dongwon Home Foods.
“We never have the same menu for at least three weeks. What’s more, we have Korean and Western foods to choose from,” Ms. Heo added.
The Dongwon cafeteria even serves breakfast and dinners, but unlike lunch there is only one menu offered at those meals.
“A lot of our customers are people who hate to make choices or who don’t have much time to wait for a table,” Ms. Heo said.
“The weather is another contributing factors.” she went on. “Office workers in this building are reluctant to eat outside if it looks like rain or if the temperature drops. So in bad weather, we have a lot more customers coming in.”
After working at the cafeteria for three years, Ms. Heo said she has nearly run out of ideas. “These days I’ve been searching the Internet for menus. Sometimes our main chef throws in few unusual menus that he had seen in other restaurants.”
She even gets menus from other branch office managers. In addition to thinking up menus, Ms. Heo and the main chef check out the quality of food supplies before the cooking and boiling begins. In fact, most mornings she sits down and tastes each lunch item.
“We’re different from any restaurant because the ingredients always have to be fit for a large group,” said Ms. Heo. “Still, we try to satisfy as many customers as we can.”
The Dongwon cafeteria chefs, said Ms. Heo, are veteran cooks with 5 to 10 years of experience at private or hotel restaurants.
“At small cafeterias, most of the chefs don’t have this kind of expertise,” she said. “That’s why at smaller cafeterias there’s less to choose from and the food isn’t as good as ours.”
Ms. Heo said she occasionally hears complaints but never the two gripes that plague most company cafeterias: repeating menus and appallingly bad food.
After finishing his lunch, Mr. Lee went over to the cafeteria’s water fountain for a drink. “To be honest, I’d try fancier restaurants every day if I could. But my wife cut my allowance. She found out that I’ve been spending a lot of money drinking with my friends.”
6 firms, 5-star lunches
CJ Corporation (Next to the Seoul Hilton in northern Seoul)
Clean and delicious. Korean and Western. There’s even a salad bar.
Samsung Everland amusement park. (Yongin, Gyeonggi province)
A buffet with a wide variety of side dishes. Menus change weekly.
Doosan Construction & Engineering (Nonhyeon dong, Gangnam)
Expect yogurt or fruit for desert.
Samsung SDS (Seolleung station in Gangnam)
You can pile side dishes as high as you wish. Extremely sanitary.
SK Global (Near from the Kyobo Book Center)
Look for steak now and then.
Yohnap News (Across the street from Gyeongbok palace)
Pork cutlets and bulgogi are regulars. Samgyetang as good as any restaurant.
by Lee Ho-jeong