Buffets face bust as food prices surge
"When the owner of a restaurant that I had been going to since 2020 stopped me at the door, I was baffled," a customer of an all-you-can-eat barbeque chain in Daejeon said last week during a phone call with the JoongAng Ilbo, an affiliate of the Korea JoongAng Daily.
"When I asked him why I couldn't enter the restaurant, he said it was because I eat too much."
The customer and the owner quarreled over the issue which led to a physical fight that was reported to the police on March 14.
"I respectfully told the customer that he eats too much every time he comes to our restaurant and that it has become burdensome for me to welcome him as a customer," said the owner of the barbeque restaurant adding, "I have seen him ordering up to 10 barbeque refills without ordering any other items such as alcohol or rice."
The owner added that he had grown sensitive to customers like him since "sales have been slashed 80 percent and my debt has only grown" in the last couple of years.
Whether or not it was fair for the owner to deny the customer entry, there is no question that restaurant owners, especially those operating all-you-can-eat restaurants and buffets have been under significant pressure in recent times.
In August 2020, buffets were classified as high-risk facilities for Covid-19 infection and were prohibited from doing business for three months. In addition, the new minimum wage for this year increased 5.1 percent from the previous year, the highest on-year minimum wage percentage increase in Korea since 2019.
But above all else, food prices are seeing record spikes.
In 2021, costs of food and non-alcoholic beverages rose 5.9 percent, according to a Statistics Korea report in January. This is the largest annual price hike of such food products in the past decade.
A study by the JoongAng Ilbo showed that as of March 15, the retail prices of 24 of 30 different food products that are often used in Korean buffets had risen. The prices of these products climbed 12 percent compared to their average prices from 2016 to 2021.
This is nearly double the average 6.7 percent inflation rate over the same five-year period.
Spinach saw the biggest price hike of 69 percent, followed by green peppers with 54 percent and perilla leaf with 49 percent, according to the Korea Agro-Fisheries & Food Trade Corporation.
Consequently, common banchan (side dishes) like spinach namul, or seasoned spinach, are now rarely served in buffets or at other restaurants.
Even kimchi has been replaced with kkakdugi (diced radish kimchi) in some eateries because of the increased price of cabbage. One cabbage head costs 12 percent more now than its average price over the last five years while radish costs 12 percent less.
Buffets are especially sensitive to rising prices because they use large quantities of food. So even if prices only rise slightly, it significantly impacts their profits.
As a result, many Korean buffets, including chain restaurants backed by large corporations, have been forced to close shop.
Owners of smaller Korean buffets that remain open try to keep their stores competitive with low prices. Korean buffets usually charge between 5,500 won ($4.50) and 8,000 won per person.
But many Korean buffet owners are at a crossroads between maintaining the satisfaction level of their customers and raising prices.
"I am afraid to make kimchi," said Park Gye-sook, 60, owner of a Bokcheong Korean Buffet in Paju, Gyeonggi. "Prices of cabbage as well as salt and anchovy sauce have risen steeply."
Every day, Park makes a total of 15 banchan by herself and charges customers 6,500 won. "I heard other Korean buffets near sites have all raised the prices of their meals so I don't know what to do."
Park is referring to construction sites which are where many Korean buffets are located. Korean buffets also tend to be clustered around goshiwon (one-room apartment complex for students), industrial parks and logistics hubs where workers and students can enjoy a cheap yet hearty meal that they can quickly eat alone before going to study or work.
Korean buffet restaurant The Delicious Homemade Meal (translated) is located near the construction site of an apartment complex in Seodaemun District, central Seoul. Its 54-year-old owner surnamed Lee said that it has become impossible to decide which dishes to serve because everything is so much more expensive.
"Most of our customers come to eat here regularly so we have to change the menu often. But because prices have jumped so much, I have to think three times harder about the menu than last year."
Lee begins her day at 3:30 a.m. She opens the shop for customers at 7 a.m. and closes it at 9 p.m.
The long working hours are physically taxing but the rising prices are much more stressful for Lee.
"Even though the factory price of makgeolli [fermented rice wine] went up, we kept selling it for 3,000 won, but we had to raise it to 4,000 won this year," said Lee.
Since January, many Korean buffets that had originally stuck to their original prices gave in and raised them by some 1,000 won.
"I used to receive 7,000 won from customers but raised the price [to 8,000 won] after much contemplation," said a Korean buffet restaurant owner in Goyang, Gyeonggi. "[The decision] took a whole month because I felt so sorry for our regular customers."
Some Korean buffets try to attract customers with marketing strategies like all-you-can-eat samgyeopsal (pork belly) for an extra fee or free desert corners. There are also Korean buffets that sell their banchan as takeout as a side business.
Park's buffet offers free ramen in addition to the 15 banchan, soup and rice.
Because these venues offer such large amounts of food at incredibly low prices, they have attracted mukbang (eating video) YouTubers who started visiting such restaurants to film themselves eating mountains of buffet food for just a few thousand won.
This content began to go viral and now, there are people who go on Korean buffet tours, filming and writing reviews of Korean buffets across the country.
These videos, reviews and low prices are drawing more individuals in their 20s and 30s to Korean buffet venues.
"The Korean buffet, which offers a wide range of dishes that change every day for 6,000 to 7,000 won is incredibly cost-effective," said Kim Kyung-mo, 27, from Seodaemun District, central Seoul.
Other Korean buffet owners have resorted to creative solutions amid the surging food prices.
A popular Korean buffet on Jeju Island called Jamae Jungsik serves its banchan with produce that it has grown itself. "The prices [of produce] are so high that it is more profitable to grow our own," said the owner Kim Jeong-im, 59.
BY LEE JIAN [email@example.com]