Gim fad the beginning of huge U.S. business

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Gim fad the beginning of huge U.S. business

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They came from the United States in pursuit of gim, and found it.

Five years ago, four friends who met when they were students at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., arrived at Incheon International Airport and immediately drove down to a gim, or Korean dried seaweed, manufacturing plant in Hongseong, South Chungcheong.

Because of work commitments, they could only stay for two days in Korea, but they were determined to strike a deal with the owner of the plant to supply them with the base materials for gim.

They told the factory owner that gim had become a huge new fad item in the United States, and they desperately wanted to bring the traditional Korean food to meet the growing demand there. After numerous negotiations over a couple of days, the four visitors returned home with a supply contract in their hands.

That is essentially how New Frontier Foods, the San Francisco-based company that produces Ocean’s Halo Seaweed Chips, began.

The four dads who co-founded the company include Michael Shim, who was an executive at Groupon and Yahoo; Robert Mock, who used to work at Bank of America Merrill Lynch; Michael Buckley, who is Facebook’s global business communications vice president; and Shin Rhee, who was a general manager at LG Electronics and more recently vice president of marketing for the Korean pharmaceutical company Hanmi.

Ocean’s Halo Seaweed Chips are cracker-type snacks with nuts and almonds added to cater to the appetites of U.S. consumers. Since 2014, the product made its way into U.S. coffee chain Starbucks and is due to be supplied to other Asian markets, including Malaysia and Hong Kong.

The company this year is expecting its gim snack revenue to increase 200 to 300 percent to $10 million.

“Many referred to it [seaweed] as black paper and considered it disgusting, but the recent trend of searching for healthier snacks is changing the food on U.S. dining tables,” said Shin Rhee, one of the four founders of New Frontier Foods.

Korean cultured seaweed products are becoming a moneymaker for domestic exporters due to the surging popularity of gim in the world’s biggest markets, including the United States and China.

According to the Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries, export sales of gim almost tripled to $305 million last year compared to five years ago, when sales first exceeded $100 million in 2010.

The ministry explained that while domestic exporters used to label gim products under “nori,” a Japanese word for edible seaweed, some exporters began using the Korean name “gim.”

“The variety of gim products that go well with alcoholic beverages are especially popular,” said Oh Woon-yul, general director of the Aquaculture Policy Bureau in the Fisheries Ministry. “We expect exports of gim to increase around 20 percent on year.”

In Korean history, Kim clans operated a large-scale gim culturing business in Gwangyang, South Jeolla, 400 years ago during the Joseon dynasty. The record also shows that gim was served to the king at the time. The name gim was preserved through history through the Kim clan. Kim and gim are pronounced similarly in Korean.

Gim is mostly cultured by three countries in Asia - Korea, China and Japan.

Domestic manufacturers suggest the recent popularity of the Korean product could be due to global warming, marine pollution and various gim manufacturing methods. Gim is usually cultured in the winter, but due to global warming, the culturing farm in the southern sea is increasingly moving upward in latitude toward Chungcheong in Korea from Japan.

With marine pollution in China and the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan, the market value of products manufactured in the two countries is also deteriorating. And while Japan has been producing a thicker type of seaweed product mostly to wrap around its rice balls, Korea has a variety of gim products to cater to different needs such as for gimbap (Korean rice rolls), triangular gimbap, cooking and snack manufacturing.

“Korean gim tastes good and also has variety of choices, from thick to thin products, which can cater to tastes of consumers all over the world,” said Yang Keum-cheol, a chief director at the Korea Layer (Gim) Industry Association. 


BY KIM MIN-SANG [kim.jeehee@joongang.co.kr]

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