Hokkaido roll cakes are selling like hot cakes
At 10:30 a.m. sharp, the gate was flung open and people rushed into the store. What they desperately wanted was neither a limited edition iPhone nor a freebie, but a roll cake that is made with fresh cream produced on Hokkaido, Japan’s second-largest island.
Soon, a long line formed in front of a tiny roll cake shop called Mon Chouchou, which is about 6.6 square meters (71 square feet).
Since the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in March 2011, sales of almost all Japanese products from beer to cosmetics took a nosedive, but the roll cake is an exception.
The shop, which first opened in August, sees a constant stream of customers. Thanks to these loyal fans, the roll cake usually sells out at about 2 p.m., six and a half hours before the department store closes.
There is another branch of Mon Chouchou at the Apgujeong-dong branch of Hyundai Department Store, but the cakes are hard to get there, too.
However, this shop gives out tickets with numbers. If you fail to receive a ticket before 3 p.m., you can’t buy a roll cake, which costs 18,000 won ($17), nearly twice as much as an ordinary roll cake from a franchise bakery.
“I dropped by the department store one day early in the morning and saw a group of people running in the same direction,” said Kim Eun-gyeong, the president of Moonhak Soochup, a local publisher.
“I thought they are busy like me, but later found out that they all ran for a roll cake. The roll cake is popular in Japan, but you can still buy it even if you don’t run,” Kim added.
Mon Chouchou was first launched in Osaka by a Korean-Japanese woman in 2003. With 27 branches across Japan, the roll cake is popular there, but Japanese residents also do not wait and run for it.
This type of food craze is nothing new in Korea. Soft-serve ice cream that is topped with honeycomb is enjoying superstardom, too.
Food craze or snob effect?
Softree, the soft-serve ice cream joint, first opened in June on Garosugil, a popular tree-lined street in southern Seoul. Apart from using premium and organic milk, the ice cream company also differentiates its offerings by putting a morsel of honeycomb on the top of the ice cream.
The combination of honeycomb and soft-serve ice cream attracted a lot of people. During the summer, it took about 30 to 40 minutes to purchase a cone, which costs 4,800 won, but people didn’t mind queueing in the scorching heat.
The lines have become shorter because of the low temperatures, but many people still queue in front of the Garosugil store.
Over the course of six months, the number of Softree ice cream joints also increased from one to 11.
Bubble tea franchise Gong Cha also attracts crowds. Even after a study came out from a German publication that tapioca pearls, the main ingredient of bubble tea, may contain a cancer-causing agent, sales of the bubble tea didn’t budge at all.
It seems like Koreans are constantly in search of food that they can go wild for.
About a year ago, it was Schneeballen. People struggled to get a bite of the German delight, which means snowball in English. They took pleasure in cracking the fist-size crispy ball with a wooden hammer. Before Schneeballen, there were Belgium waffles.
Responding to the food craze, Beom Sang-kyu, a professor of marketing at Konkuk University, said, “People assume that there is a reason for a long line. Not to be outdone, they line up. Otherwise, they think they might lose a chance to purchase a good product.”
Park Jung-ja, an honorary professor at Sangmyung University who published “Extravagance of Robinson Crusoe,” which analyzes modern society’s shopping patterns, defines such an act of people waiting in a line as “tiring labor” because people always try to catch up with others by purchasing the same things.
“A product has its own value, but people also see it as a tool that identifies themselves. For example, the roll cake is not what people really want, but it is one of those products that reflect their desire to become different,” added Park.
Some think of the food craze as a snob effect.
“By consuming relatively lesser-known products, people think of themselves as trendsetters,” said Beom.
Jung Hee-won, a public relations official at Shinsegae Department Store, agrees with Beom.
“Since Mon Chouchou has only two branches in Korea, people feel a kind of achievement when they succeed in purchasing the roll cake,” said Jung.
Whether they get it or not, people share their adventure through social networking sites. By doing so, they want to imply that they are the ones who are ahead of the trend.
Not every food becomes a star, though. The cronut, a hybrid of a doughnut and a croissant, took the United States by storm earlier this year, but it failed to do so when it arrived in Seoul in September.
Even if a certain food becomes a star, its heyday doesn’t last that long. One of them is the aforementioned Schneeballen. The German dessert was tremendously popular, but its popularity faded with the advent of copycats.
At the Gangnam branch of Shinsegae Department Store, Mon Chouchou and Schneeballen stores stand side by side, but the Schneeballen store is not as crowded as Mon Chouchou.
“We often say popularity comes to an end once imitation products are put up for sale. That is because those fake products downgrade scarcity values,” said Han Jong-wook, an official who is in charge of consulting start-up companies at Daehan Business United Company.
Fake Schneeballen pastries are available from many street stalls.
But some say these products are bound to be short-lived.
“It seems like Koreans want to indulge in something,” said Choi Hye-kyung, a professor of consumer studies at Ewha Womans University. “They fall for certain food products, but they also easily stop admiring them when they realize they have no value. And then they move onto something else.”
Why the fuss over food?
Bags, shoes and clothes are considered traditional items in which people can express their personality.
But people now go after food.
“You can easily find out people who carry the same bag as yours. That is because we’ve been consuming similar things too much over the past years,” said Park Sang-jin, the CEO of Interfashion Planning, which analyzes trends. “Thus, people started to focus on things they eat, instead of things they wear or carry.”
Some experts also see food crazes as a natural phenomenon.
“People didn’t have time to think about something else other than easing their hunger in the past, but people began to think of food from a different point of view as the national income goes up to $20,000,” said food critic Hwang Kyo-ik.
There is another reason behind the never-ceasing popularity of food.
“With relatively little amount of money, people can go shopping for food for change,” said Jung, the public relations official at Shinsegae Department Store.
BY SHIM YOUNG-JU, CHO HAN-DAE [email@example.com]