Ramyeon takes on the world, some boomeranging back to Korea
Ramyeon is a Korean staple that's becoming an international hit, and the makers of the product are leaning into the trend by increasing exports and overseas manufacturing capacity.
According to Korea Customs Service, $607.9 million of ramyeon was exported between January and November last year, a record and up 10.6 percent on year.
Nongshim sold 370 billion won ($301.7 million) of its iconic Shin Ramyun overseas in the third quarter last year, more than local sales of 320 billion. It was the first time overseas sales beat sales in Korea.
Most Nongshim products sold overseas are manufactured outside of Korea.
For Samyang Foods, overseas sales in the third quarter were 61 percent of its 158.2 billion won revenue.
Buldak Ramen and Shin Ramyun are some of the obvious choices for export, but export-only products are also big sellers overseas.
Catering to foreign tastes
Selling the exact same ramyeon abroad as in Korea is one way to expand overseas business. But food companies have been releasing export-only products that meet local preferences.
Shin Ramyun is one of Nongshim's classic best sellers. The company also sells an even spicier version of the product called Shin Red Super Spicy Ramyun exclusively in Southeast Asia. The ramyeon is advertised to have double the spice of the original Shin Ramyun.
The company chose to release it in Southeast Asia because people in countries such as Vietnam and Thailand are accustomed to spicy food.
According to a report released by Korea Foundation for International Cultural Exchange last year, "consumers in Vietnam prefer spicy foods and spicy ramyeon is very popular" and "Nongshim's Shin Red Super Spicy Ramyun, a product that's only sold abroad, is very popular among Vietnamese locals."
Nongshim didn't disclose annual sales of Shin Red Super Spicy Ramyun, but the company said sales of the product grew 50 percent on year in 2021. Its overall sales abroad rose 18 percent on year to 736.3 billion won.
The company also sells the Soon Veggie Noodle Soup as an export-only product, coming in various flavors including the original flavor, kimchi and chili tomato.
All are vegan certified and are advertised to be milder compared to the Shin Ramyun, targeting the big vegan market abroad and foreigners who might find Korean food to be too spicy.
Its vegan ramyeon series logged sales of $12.6 million in the United States in 2021, up 33 percent on year.
Samyang Foods has been focusing on providing variety in its popular Buldak Ramen series.
Buldak Ramen Mala, referring to Chinese pepper that numbs the mouth, hit the market as a China-exclusive product in 2016. Buldak Ramen Curry was released as an export-only product to Southeast Asia the same year. Buldak Ramen Corn, a mildly spicy ramyeon with a cheesy corn flavor, is also only sold outside of Korea.
Although the company did not disclose sales data for each flavor, most of its global ramyeon sales comes from the Buldak Ramen brand. Samyang Foods reported overseas ramyeon sales of 96.5 billion won in third quarter last year, with Buldak Ramen series sales accounting 85 percent, or 82.7 billion won.
The companies also change the shape and form of products to make the Korean ramyeon more familiar to foreigners.
Samyang Foods has its 80g Samyang Ramen, exclusively sold in Southeast Asia. The product is packaged 80-gram packages, which are smaller than the normal 110 to 120 grams. The small-portion products are available in those countries because instant noodles in Southeast Asian countries tend to be around 70 grams.
The noodle length of Nongshim's ramyeon exported to western countries is shorter than those found in Korea. The company purposely did this because western people are used to eating their noodles, or spaghetti, by wrapping them around a fork and are used to shorter lengths.
From export-only to local dinner tables
Many Koreans don't want to miss out on the mysterious flavors that are only available abroad and some export-only products are imported back into local markets. Ramyeon companies don't formally market them in Korea, but the products are sold on e-commerce websites that sell imported food, such as Coupang or Gmarket, by individual sellers overseas.
A 20-pack Nongshim's Soon Veggie Noodle Soup sells for over 64,000 won on Gmarket. They are shipped from the United States. One packet of Shin Red Super Spicy Ramyun sells for 3,200 won on e-commerce website Croket, with international shipping costing 11,000 won because the product is directly shipped from Taiwan.
Sometimes demand for the export-only products convinces the manufacturers to sell the products in Korea.
Daebak Ghost Pepper Spicy Chicken Noodles from Shinsegae Foods are an export-only product that hit Malaysian discount stores in 2018. The product became popular on social media abroad and inspired a ghost pepper noodle challenge — similar to Buldak Ramen's fire noodle challenge in which people will try to finish one bowl without giving up.
After many local customers said they would like to try the ramyeon, it started selling at Emart's No Brand in June last year.
An Emart spokesperson said the company "decided to release the ramyeon in Korea for customers that enjoy spice."
In 2020, Buldak Ramen Corn was offered in Korea in limited quantities only on the company's online shopping mall.
A Samyang Foods spokesperson said they decided to temporarily sell the product because "customers showed high demand for export-only Buldak Ramen products that weren't available in Korea."
Ramping up production
With ramyeon popular overseas, companies had trouble keeping up with demand for the last few years. Both Nongshim and Samyang Foods are adding new manufacturing facilities that make products specifically for overseas markets.
Samyang Foods is building a manufacturing plant in Milyang, South Gyeongsang, which will open in the first half. The company said it struggled to meet overseas demand last year due to the surging popularity of Buldak Ramen, and the new plant will only make products that will be exported.
The facility can produce 500 to 600 million packs of ramyeon per year, increasing the company's production capacity by 50 percent to 1.8 billion packs a year.
"One of the reasons why we expect global sales of ramyeon to grow even more this year is because of rising demand in United States, Southeast Asia and Europe and companies being able to respond to the high demand by starting production in plants such as Nongshim's second U.S. plant and Samyang Food's Milyang plant," said Jang Ji-hye, analyst at DS Investment & Securities.
Nongshim's second U.S. plant will open in Rancho Cucamonga in April, producing ramyeon supplied to the United States, Canada and Mexico.
The plant can produce approximately 350 million packs of ramyeon per year, allowing it to annually produce 850 million packs of ramyeon in North America, up 31 percent from its initial production capacity.
"Last year, demand overwhelmed our production capacity and we even had to depend on local manufacturing plants to make products for the United States," said a spokesperson for Nongshim. "Our second plant will help us to increase supply abroad."
The company expects the new facility will help achieve annual revenue growth of 20 percent. It plans to log $800 billion in sales from North American markets in 2025, compared to the $395 billion last year.
BY LEE TAE-HEE [email@example.com]