A trillion won’s worth of Choco-PieIt probably isn’t the only fistfight that’s ever taken place over a Choco-Pie, but because it’s the only one Huh Jeong-min’s ever been in, he remembers it well.
“I was in basic training when the fight happened,” recalls Mr. Huh, who now works for an advertising agency.
“Every day was like a living hell. The only comfort we could find was when the army passed out Choco-Pies.”
One day, a recruit next to him gobbled down his own Choco-Pie, then reached for Mr. Huh’s.
“That’s how I got a black eye that lasted for weeks,” Mr. Huh says.
Perhaps the nation’s most venerable packaged snack cake, the Choco-Pie established a record in the history of Korean sweets this year.
It passed 1 trillion won ($848 million) in total domestic sales, the first time a single confectionery product has done so, according to its manufacturer, Tong Yang Confectionery Corp. (As of September, cumulative domestic Choco-Pie sales totaled 1.2 trillion.)
Another way to look at it: Since they were introduced to the market in 1974, 8.5 billion Choco-Pies have been sold and, presumably, eaten, which is about 180 Choco-Pies for every Korean now alive.
“When there’s hundreds of new (snack) products pouring out in a year and disappearing without a trace in the domestic market, it’s amazing how Choco-Pie has survived the last 29 years,” said the admittedly biased Kang Won-ki, of Tong Yang’s marketing department. “Truly a people’s snack” is another encomium Mr. Kang proposes for his company’s crown jewel.
By this point, non-Korean readers might be asking: What’s a Choco-Pie?
If you’re American, think Moon Pies and you’ve pretty much got the idea. A Choco-Pie is two soft cookies with marshmallow filling sandwiched between them, and a chocolate coating over the whole thing.
It’s not for everyone.
“I don’t like the marshmallow,” says Cho Eun-ah, a 27-year-old Web designer. “The texture feels weird and it’s just too sweet. I don’t understand how Americans enjoy such substances.”
According to Tong Yang, the talismanic treat was the brainchild of Kim Yong-chan, who in 1973 was a 10-year employee of the company, working in the research department.
Around that time, Korean tastes in snack foods were evolving, with more Western products entering the market.
That year, Mr. Kim and representatives of three rival companies went on a five-month tour of European and U.S. confectionery factories, sponsored by the Korean Foods Industry Association. The idea was for the Korean snack food makers to benefit from exposure to Western technology and ideas.
In a 1987 account of the invention of the Choco-Pie, Mr. Kim wrote that the idea came to him while in a hotel cafeteria on the tour, where they served a chocolate-covered cookie with a glass of milk.
It was a revelation for Mr. Kim, because in Korea at that time, when you said “chocolate,” you basically meant a chocolate bar. The idea of a snack food that used chocolate in an essentially supporting role was a new one.
When he got back from the tour, Mr. Kim got to work on his new idea. Three months later, the Choco-Pie was primed for world domination ― or, at least, domination of Korea’s candy racks.
Mr. Kim says Choco-Pie’s success benefited more companies than Tong Yang alone, calling it “a vanguard in cultivating the chocolate market.”
Indeed, a number of pseudo-Choco-Pies sprung up in the wake of the original. But to date, none of them have sold enough to circle the earth 15 times.
There are several variations on the basic Choco-Pie experience. One approach you don’t want to take is trying to separate the two cookies to get to the filling first, a la the Oreo cookie in the United States. Try that with a Choco-Pie, and you’ll have chocolately crumbs everywhere.
Some people freeze it, which gives the normally rather mushy product a texture more like hard ice cream.
For some reason, for some Korean men, Choco-Pies seem inextricably linked with their memories of military service. “When I was in the army, which was in the mid-’90s, soldiers would do anything for a piece of Choco-Pie,” said Park Soo-bin, a graduate student.
He remembers having to hide in the bathroom to enjoy what he called “the only available sugary snack in the army.”
Mr. Park recalls many of his friends attending church every weekend, not out of religious belief, but because the church gave out Choco-Pies. Why the church was in the Choco-Pie business is unclear, although the fact that it got Mr. Park’s friends in the door may speak for itself.
Tony Han, the head of Tong Yang’s marketing department, has a poignant Choco-Pie memory from his college years, of a friend’s birthday party. “We had little money in our pocket, so we bought a Choco-Pie and used a match in place of the candles,” he said.
Besides Korea, Choco-Pie sells well in China, and is exported to about 50 countries, including Russia. Overseas sales have skyrocketed in the last decade, according to Tong Yang ― from $1.4 million in 1993 to $45 million last year.
So what’s the secret to its success? “You can’t put Choco-Pie in any category of confectionery products,” Mr. Han raves. “It’s an amazing combition of biscuit, bread and chocolate.”
A true acolyte, Mr. Han goes so far as to say that his company’s bestseller is a symbol of jeong, which can be translated as sentiment and compassion. “A lot of people practically grew up on Choco-Pie, and therefore you can say Choco-Pie brings memories,” Mr. Han says. “The tradition is passed along from generation to generation ― from mother to son, and so forth.”
by Lee Ho-jeong