Quality Korean dosirak become convenience store staples

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Quality Korean dosirak become convenience store staples

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Oh Jin-seok, 41, works near Gwanghwamun in central Seoul and at least twice week for dinner he buys a dosirak, or single-portion boxed lunches, from a nearby convenience store.

“I just wanted to grab a quick bite,” he says. “But when I started eating, I noticed there was little difference between my dosirak and what I get from the company cafeteria.”

Dosirak, a type of packed meal that originated in Japan as bento, have become immensely popular at convenience stores as producers focus more on premium quality and variety in order to address consumers’ health concerns. These meals have evolved from fast food snacks to nutritious samplings of Korean cuisine. Originally meant to be cheap take-outs for younger consumers, dosirak today ambitiously target the general population. Prices have also increased from an average of 3,000-won ($2.57) to as high as 10,000-won, but demand is relatively inelastic as dosirak have advanced to compete with the quality of food offered in some restaurants.

Convenience store chains such as CU, GS25 and 7-Eleven have been battling each other with celebrity-endorsed dosirak since last year. Initially, they sought to differentiate their products simply by offering more side dishes, but the recent lunchbox trend is to offer a proper serving of some Korean meal such as jjigae, a dish akin to hot pot stew, or braised short ribs.

Reflecting this, GS25 said that it will sell dosirak of minmul-jangeo deopbab, or freshwater eel with rice, starting today. The product is also branded with the name of Kim Hye-ja, an actress who is often cast as the archetypal mother figure and is considered one of the best on-screen performers in Korean history. This particular dosirak is also the first such product to be sold in convenience stores for 10,000-won.

Also, 7-Eleven added ssambap (veggies and rice wraps), nakji-bokkeum (stir-fried octopus) and oi-naengguk (chilled cucumber soup) to its selection on Tuesday. This is the first time that a convenience store has offered ssambap, since Koreans pay particular attention to the freshness of the vegetables when eating this item. Oi-naengguk is a popular summertime dish, as the ice-cold soup’s sweet and sour taste is considered to be an effective means of countering the heat.

The Japanese retailer also launched its jjigae-line of dosirak earlier in January, and plans to sell its own 10,000-won lunchboxes in the second half of this year. It was the first convenience store to use Korean red ginseng in its boxed lunches when it launched its ginseng bulgogi menu in May. It will launch its jangeo deopbab sometime next week.

On the other hand, CU is known for its jjigae dosirak, popular among older corporate employees as a hangover remedy.

“We’ve focused on our jjigae menu because soup is an irreplaceable element in the eating habits of older Korean people,” says CU’s Lee Na-ra. “The fact that more people live alone nowadays has helped to develop these products.”

According to Statistics Korea, single-person households only accounted for 5 percent of total population in 1980. But that figure rose to 30 percent last year, and as more people are dining solo, there is more demand for premium, healthy dosirak. Market research by CU last year showed that 58.6 percent of all dosirak consumers were in the 20-30s bracket, but older consumers in their 40s and 50s also accounted for a whopping 31.1 percent.

“Consumers from single-person households have no one to prepare their meals,” said one 7-Eleven employee, “so their primary concern is health. Corporate workers leading hectic lives also look for easier ways to stay healthy. So it comes down to the same thing. We admit it’s too early for overly pricey dosirak, but the demand for high-quality boxed lunches will only continue to swell.”

In fact, dosirak are fast becoming convenience stores’ flagship product. Up until Monday, CU’s dosirak sales in 2016 were 202.2 percent higher compared to the same time last year. GS25 and 7-Eleven’s lunchbox sales also increased by more than double. According to an industry insider, the total size of the convenience store dosirak market will rise to 500 billion won this year from the 200 billion won in 2014.

Daishin Economic Research Institute’s Yoo Jeong-hyeon said, “It’s only been two years since dosirak made a full-scale debut in the domestic market, so it only occupies five to seven percent of average total sales, lower than Japan’s 25 percent. But as product quality and single-person households increase, sales will also rise.”


BY LEE SO-AH [lee.dongeun@joongang.co.kr]

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