From hole-in-the-wall to nationwide retailer

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From hole-in-the-wall to nationwide retailer


Yu Jong-seong, founder of Musmabbap, cooks food at his second store at Emart Jung-dong branch in Bucheon, Gyeonggi. His restaurant focuses on serving food cooked on fire. [LEE SOO-KI]

BUCHEON, Gyeonggi - Without having to go through the trouble of searching for a trendy food truck outdoors, one eatery has brought the hip dining experience indoors.

Musmabbap, an eatery that serves take-out grilled steak, offers truck-style treats without the hassle, as it is located inside the food court at discount retailer Emart’s Jung-dong branch in Bucheon, Gyeonggi. Even at 3 p.m., well past lunch time, the restaurant is quite crowded with people waiting to get their food. Yu Jong-seong, the 28-year-old founder, presents grilled blade steak as his main dish. All the dishes on the menu cost between 7,900 to 9,900 won, and he makes over 15 million won ($14,037) a month in sales from this particular store.

“So many people crowd [the store] during the lunch and dinner time on the weekends,” said Yu. “The fact that people can enjoy beef for a reasonable price has worked well [in opening up customers’ wallets.]”

Before opening up Musmabbap in Emart, Yu ran the eatery not in a food truck, but at a traditional market in Daejeon. After word got out about his delicious grilled steak, more and more people came to visit the market and soon enough, he had grown out of his space and he started to think about expanding.


Founder Song Jeong-su of Brother Saeujang in Gunsan, North Jeolla, prepares ingredients to make saeujang, or soy sauce-seasoned shrimp, the recipe of which he learned from his mother. [LEE SOO-KI]

Yu is an exemplary case of a merchant at a traditional market meeting a modern-style large retailer. Many regional governments have been focusing on reviving their traditional outdoor markets and one way to do so is by providing help to young merchants looking for space to launch their own businesses. So-called Cheongnyeon Malls (cheongnyeon is the Korean word for young people) have been set up in many traditional markets across the country as a space for new entrepreneurs to try out their business ideas with the support of the local government.

Some of the young merchants that have gotten popular in traditional markets are starting to join hands with large retailers like Emart to expand their sales. Most of the time, these merchants have spent months or years researching the market to open a business, and focus only on handful of dishes not to get distracted.

Grilling up success

Yu, now a prospering entrepreneur, wasn’t so different from most of his peers looking for office jobs after he graduated from a university in Daejeon. He was getting himself ready to work in the financial sector, when he suddenly decided to open up his own business and start a restaurant.

His hometown friend Kim Do-il, 23, quit school so that the two could run the business together.


Founder Im Ho-sik of I’m Fine Shrimp, cooks in the kitchen of the restaurant he started after tasting shrimp gambas, a popular Spanish dish. He updated the recipe so that Koreans of all ages could enjoy the dish. [LEE SOO-KI]

Prior to opening a business, Yu took his time to learn the ABCs of business by taking business courses offered by the Daejeon city government. He chose to open his first store in the Cheongnyeon Mall at the Daejeon Jungang Market, one of the traditional markets in town, along with many other aspiring entrepreneurs. In order to open a store about 13.2 square meters large, he spent only 10 million won out of pocket, after researching how to make the most out of the educational programs and monetary support provided by the regional government.

“I got settled in relatively fast not only because I was young and had an idea, but also thanks to getting knowhow on how to operate a business from many different groups,” said Yu.

At Musmabbap, he only sells up around seven to eight dishes, each of them grilled. He worked on the same sauce and each dish more than 50 times to perfect them so that they would be loved by local consumers. As much as he focused on getting the recipe right, he also paid a lot of attention on getting publicity. He used social media like Facebook and Instagram, and went anywhere that people were gathered to give out fliers promoting his dishes and restaurant. He held tasting events around the city, and even went to the local baseball stadium to sell his treats.

Although he did everything he could think of, Musmabbap’s sales fell within the first few months after opening. After about six months, the 20 others who had started together in the same spot of the market had decided to quit and left their stalls.

What helped Musmabbap keep its doors open was indeed the taste. Word quickly spread that the food at the restaurant was tasty yet cheap, and sales started to increase. Then he learned about a project offered by Emart known as the “Star Product Project,” that any merchant could join. If his food get good reviews through this project, he would get a chance to sell his items at Emart branches, which was tempting. About 400 groups applied to earn a chance to expand their sales channels, and 29 were selected. Fourteen were market merchants like Yu, and the 15 others were medium-sized companies making items such as drones.

Out of all the teams chosen for the project, Musmabbap was the first to sell its products at an Emart branch.

“Since a take-out dish is an item that’s easy enough to add onto the list of sale items at a larger market, this particular food made it first,” said Kim Ui-yeong, deputy manager of the Emart’s Jung-dong branch in Gyeonggi.

“The sales have continuously grown as consumers heard the news that new merchants are selling practical food.”

After entering the Emart branch, Musmabbap now has two branches. Yu takes turn with his partner at each branch to check the details at each store. He found a small place to stay in Bucheon and he is now focused on coming up with new dishes when restaurants are closed - so for him everyday is a working day.

“I felt frightened whenever I hear about young merchants who started out together deciding to fold and quit, but each time that happened, I turned my attention to improving the taste and grabbing any possible opportunity I have not to give up,” said Yu.

“Over the long term, I will harden the ground so that the restaurants can grow to be reckoned with as a food company.”

High quality treat

Food isn’t just something to fill up Song Jeong-su’s stomach - it is what led Song to become an active participant in the local economy of Gunsan, North Jeolla with his business Brother Saeujang, which sells many different seasoned foods and sauces.

Song, who came to Seoul right after he passed a test to prove he had a high school education, had to take a different route to build his career instead of just joining a company where employers require a college-level education. Instead of going to college after arriving in Seoul, he threw himself into starting a variety of businesses. He started his own agency because he dreamed of becoming a singer. He also ran a shopping mall that sold clothing. In the first few years, the business seemed to work fine.

However, the business world wasn’t an easy place for him to create momentum, a lesson he learned after he was betrayed by his business partner. He had to pause his dream of becoming a singer, and returned to Gunsan. It wasn’t easy for him to apply for starting positions at companies as he was older than the others and did not have a college degree.

After months of debating what to do, he decided to do something he knew well. With his childhood friend, comedian Seo Tae-hun, he started selling soy sauce-fermented shrimp called saeujang, as well as soy sauce-fermented abalone, called jeonbokjang, at a large public market in Gunsan. He learned how to make the dishes from his mother, who ran her own restaurant.

He was stubborn about getting the quality and taste right. He only uses locally captured or harvested abalone from areas such as Wan Island in South Jeolla, or Jeju Island to make jeonbokjang. When it comes to making saeujang, he only uses shrimp from South America as the seafood from that particular area of the world has thin skin, which is perfect for light seasoning. He makes sure that the seafood is carefully put in soy sauce and boiled only over a weak flame. Then, he stores the food in soy sauce for 60 hours.

“I don’t mind the difficulty if it ensures the best taste,” said Song. When he makes saeujang, he removes the legs, any hair on the shrimp, and anything else by hand.

“Compared to companies that make similar products, we go through four to five more steps to make the final products to sell.”

One kilogram of his saeujang costs around 24,000 won and one kilogram of his jeonbokjang costs 45,000 won. Despite the high price, customers line up to get the quality products.

Song was invited to present his products at a food festival held by Emart. He made 300 million won in sales over the two months he sold his products. Yet, he still refuses any offers to make the second branch. He thinks he is not skilled enough to run two stores at the same time and keep the quality of his products.

“Through food you can show your true heart as well as your skills,” said Song adding that one’s educational background doesn’t mean much in this industry.

“I want to continue making the business bigger and establish a [big enough] food company in order to show that high school graduates like myself can build a successful business.”

Spanish dish, Korean dream

Shrimp is also the medium entrepreneur Im Ho-sik uses to make his dream come true as a businessman in the food world. Im runs a restaurant called I’m Fine Shrimp where he sells his version of popular Spanish dish gambas. Gambas usually indicates shrimp cooked in olive oil with garlic. He first tasted it in Spain during his honeymoon and got the feeling that the dish would work well in Korea. Then he opened the restaurant with three tables in July 2016 at an outdoor space inside the Sokcho Tourist & Fishery Market, selling only one dish.

The dish made sense to him since he has lived in Sokcho, a coastal city on the East Sea in Gangwon. He thought the shrimp could be the seafood that would best represent the coastal city and he saw that shrimp is often popular among women, who are considered the demographic that most actively follows food trends and seeks out new items to try.

It wasn’t his first attempt to work in the food business. He had learned basic skills from his mother, who ran a restaurant selling ramen noodles and chicken at a resort close to Sokcho. He started out with some very basic business ideas, like delivering chicken to customers. He did that for three years to learn about the market, and then ran a cafe that sold sandwiches for about five years.

When he first tried gambas, the authentic Spanish style was too salty and oily to be widely loved by Koreans of all ages. So Im decided to update the recipe so that it would be more pleasant to local tastes. It took him one year to research and try out different recipes. He ended up using less olive oil but used a bit more butter, and added pineapple to add a fresh and sour taste to balance the saltiness. He also decided to serve the food in a cup so that a small enough quantity for one could be sold. Using the cup, he thought, would be more convenient for buyers to eat on the spot.

The sales have continued to grow. His store made 30 million won in sales during the busy summer season. The store, which was smaller than 15 square meters, has been upgraded to a space that was much bigger at 66 square meters large. He plans to open his second store in April at an Emart branch at Kintex in Ilsan on the northwestern outskirts of Seoul.

“It looks like the strategy to focus on quality, such as getting better shrimp worked, as well as decreasing the base costs by focusing on only one competitive dish,” said Im.

“Although it is said that the conditions to open a store for individual retailers are exacerbating, there are many merchants who are paving the way to create a new market with their own ideas,” said Jeong Dong-hyeok, an executive of Emart’s corporate social responsibility division.

“We will continue providing help so that these people can realize their dreams.”


‘생활 속 금메달’ 스펙 아닌 열정이죠

지난달 22일 오후 3시 경기도 부천시 이마트 중동점 지하2층 푸드홀. 1000㎡ 규모의 푸드홀 정면으로 푸드트럭을 형상화한 상점이 눈에 띄었다. 식사 시간이 이미 지났는데도 손님들이 제법 붐볐다. 푸드트럭은 청년상인인 유종성(28) 대표가 운영하는 테이크아웃 스테이크 전문점인 ‘머스마빱’이다. 가게 이름은 ‘머슴아(남자)들이 짓는 밥’이란 의미. 주 메뉴는 쇠고기 부채살을 직화 그릴에 구워 불맛을 입힌 ‘일본식 직화스테이크(스테끼 스테끼)’다. 일인당 7900원~9900원 선인 주력 제품들로 유 대표는 이곳에서 한 달 1500만원이 넘는 매출을 올린다. 그는 “주말 식사시간에는 정신이 없을 정도로 손님이 몰린다”며 “실속있는 가격에 쇠고기로 한 끼를 즐길 수 있다는 점이 통한 것 같다”고 웃었다.

그는 지난해 대전의 한 대학을 졸업했다. 금융권 입사를 준비하다가 음식점 창업을 결정했다. 동업자이자 고향 후배인 김도일(23)씨는 아예 다니던 학교를 접고 동업했다. 평소 요리에 관심이 많았던 터라 자연스레 먹거리 장사를 선택했다. 창업에 앞서 대전시가 운영하는 청년상인 교육을 받는 등 차근차근 기초를 다졌다. 첫 점포는 지난해 6월 다른 청년상인들과 함께 대전중앙시장 청년몰에 냈다. 13.2㎡(4평) 짜리 가게를 낼 때 들인 돈은 자본금을 포함해 1000만원이 전부. 지방자치단체의 교육 프로그램과 입점 지원을 적절히 활용한 덕이다. 그는 “젊음과 아이디어 못잖게 지자체 등을 통해 최대한 창업 관련 노하우를 전수 받아 비교적 빠르게 자리를 잡았다”고 말했다.

 유 대표처럼 자본도 적고 스펙도 약하지만, 실력과 비전만으로 ‘생활 속 금메달’을 따내는 청년상인이 늘고 있다. 지자체 등의 지원을 받는 전통시장 청년몰에서 경험을 쌓은 뒤 이마트 같은 대형 유통업체와 손을 잡고 판로를 개척해 나가는 식이다. 꼼꼼히 창업을 준비하고 가장 자신있는 몇 가지 메뉴에만 집중한다는 것도 공통점이다.

 ‘머스마빱’에선 직화스테이크를 비롯해 7~8가지의 메뉴만 판다. 모두 ‘직화 불맛’을 기초로 한 것들이다. 메뉴 개발에만 1년 정도가 걸렸다. 같은 메뉴와 소스를 50회 이상씩 만들어 가며 더 나은 맛을 찾아가는 것은 기본. 음식 맛 못지 않게 마케팅에도 주력했다. 페이스북이나 인스타그램 같은 소셜네트워크서비스(SNS)를 활용한 것은 물론 사람이 몰리는 곳이면 어디든 달려가 전단을 뿌리고 시식행사를 했다. 프로야구 시즌 중에는 대전 한화 이글스 구장에까지 가서 음식을 팔았다. 물론 전통시장 내에서 청년상인으로 살아남는 게 쉬운 일은 아니었다. 개점 약발이 떨어지자 매출이 줄기도 했다. 반년 쯤 지나자 함께 장사를 시작했던 20여 명의 청년 상인 중 절반가량이 장사를 접었다.

 어려움을 이겨낸 비결은 역시 음식 맛이었다. 손님들 사이에서 ‘싸고 맛있다’는 입소문이 나면서 조금씩 매출이 올랐다. 때마침 이마트가 청년상인 등을 대상으로 벌인 ‘스타상품 프로젝트’에도 도전했다. 우수한 성적을 낸 청년상인에게는 ‘이마트 입점 기회를 준다’는 점을 적극 활용하기 위해서였다. 이 프로젝트에는 400여 팀이 지원해 이중 29개 팀이 선발됐다. 유 대표를 비롯해 14개 팀은 시장 상인, 나머지 15개 팀은 드론 등을 개발해 파는 중소기업이었다.

 지난해 12월 프로젝트 선발팀 중 이마트 점포에 입점한 건 ‘머스마빱’이 최초다. 이마트 김의영 중동점 부점장은 “테이크아웃 식사의 경우 실제 마트 영업현장에서도 얼마든지 적용 가능한 아이템이기 때문에 가장 먼저 입점이 이뤄졌다”며 “젊은 상인들이 실속있는 음식을 팔고 있다는 점이 알려지면서 매출도 꾸준히 오르고 있다”고 전했다. 덕분에 머스마빱 매장은 대전 중앙시장의 본점과 이마트 중동점의 두 곳이 됐다.

 유 대표는 동업자와 2주씩 번갈아 가며 교대로 두 곳의 매장을 챙긴다. 부천엔 숙소로 쓸 원룸을 따로 구했다. 쉬는 날이면 메뉴 개발을 위해 노력한다. 사실상 1년 365일을 일하는 셈이다. 그는 “같이 창업했던 청년상인들이 하나둘씩 장사를 접을 땐 공포감을 느끼기도 했지만 그럴 수록 포기하지 않고 제품 맛을 높이고 기회를 잡으려 노력했다”며 “장기적으로는 식품기업 수준으로 성장할 수 있도록 실력을 다져갈 것”이라고 말했다.

전북 군산에서 전통식품인 새우장 등을 담가 파는 ‘브라더 새우장’의 송정수(32) 대표의 꿈은 가수가 되는 것이었다. 2005년 검정고시로 고등학교 과정을 마친 뒤 서울로 무작정 상경했다. 직접 기획사를 차리고 의류를 파는 쇼핑몰도 했다. 처음 몇 년간은 사업이 잘되는 듯 했다. 하지만, 세상은 녹록지 않았다. 함께 사업을 꾸리던 지인에게 사기를 당한 뒤 가수의 꿈을 접고 고향인 군산으로 돌아왔다. 나이도 나이지만 대졸자가 아니어서 갈 수 있는 직장 역시 한계가 있었다.

 몇 개월간 고민 끝에 어려서부터 절친했던 개그맨 서태훈(31)씨와 함께 군산공설시장 청년몰에서 새우장과 전복장 등을 만들어 팔았다. 장류를 만드는 비법은 식당을 운영하던 그의 어머니에게서 배웠다. 시장에서 하는 장사였지만, 맛과 품질에 대한 스스로의 각오는 놓지 않았다. 소라와 전복은 제주도와 전남 완도군 등에서 나온 국산만, 새우는 껍질이 얇아 장 담그기에 좋은 남미산 새우만 고집했다. 새우와 소라 등을 간장에 넣은 뒤 20시간 동안 약한 불로 끓이고 60시간 이상 숙성한다는 원칙도 고수했다.

 송 대표는 “맛을 위해서라면 수고로움도 마다하지 않는다”고 말했다. 새우장의 경우 새우 발과 뿔, 털 등을 일일이 수작업으로 제거한다. 덕분에 브라더 새우장의 제품은 ㎏당 2만4000원(새우장)~4만5000원(전복장) 선의 가격이다. 그는 “비슷한 제품을 만드는 다른 업체보다 4~5가지 공정을 더 거친다”고 말했다. 깐깐하게 품질을 고수한 덕에 자연스레 손님이 모였다.

 지난해엔 이마트 전통시장 푸드 페스티벌에 초대받아 두 달 동안 3억원의 매출을 올리기도 했다. ‘분점을 내자’는 제안이 와도 아직은 이를 거절한다. 품질을 지키며 분점까지 운영할 역량이 되지 않는다는 냉정한 자기 판단에서다. 송 대표는 “음식은 학력이 아니라 실력과 진정성을 보여줄 수 있다”며 “더 꾸준히 사업을 키워 저 같은 고졸도 성공할 수 있다는 걸 보여줄 수 있도록 식품회사를 세우고 싶다”고 말했다.
강원도 속초시 속초관광수산시장에서 ‘아임파인쉬림프’를 운영하는 임호식(37) 대표 역시 지방대를 졸업한 뒤 자신의 실력으로 꿈을 키워가고 있다. 그는 속초시 인근 콘도 지하에서 라면과 치킨 등을 파는 식당을 운영하는 어머니에게서 장사의 기본을 배웠다. 학생 때부터 꾸준히 어머님을 도우며 자연히 음식장사를 해야겠다는 마음을 품었다. 임 대표는 치킨배달 등 가장 기초적인 일부터 시작해 음식장사 준비를 했다. 치킨배달만 3년, 샌드위치 전문카페는 5년 간 운영했다.

 2016년 7월에는 속초관광수산시장 노점에 테이블 2~3개를 놓고 ‘아임파인쉬림프’를 창업했다. 아임파인쉬림프의 주력 메뉴는 스페인식 새우 요리인 새우 감바스다. 스페인어로 새우를 뜻하는 ‘감바스(gambas)’는 올리브유에 새우와 마늘을 구워낸 요리다. 신혼 여행 때 스페인에서 감바스를 맛본 뒤 한국에서도 충분히 통할 것이란 감이 왔다. 그가 감바스에 주목한 건 새우가 여성들 사이에서 인기가 많은 데다 항구가 있는 속초를 대표할 요리로 해산물이 적합할 것이란 생각에서였다.

DA 300

 하지만 현지 감바스가 우리 입맛에는 지나치게 짜고 기름지다는 점은 부담스러웠다. 이 때문에 임 대표는 감바스를 우리나라 소비자 입맛에 맞춰 바꾸는 데에만 1년가량의 시간을 들였다. 올리브유를 줄이는 대신 버터를 넣고, 파인애플을 더해 상큼한 맛을 키웠다. 또 손님들이 편하게 먹을 수 있도록 컵에 담아 소량씩 나눠 팔았다. 덕분에 매출이 꾸준히 늘어 성수기 때 그의 가게는 월 3000만원의 매출을 올린다. 15㎡가 채 안 됐던 그의 가게는 66㎡로 커졌다. 오는 4월에는 이마트 일산 킨텍스 점에 2호점을 낼 계획이다.

 임 대표는 “경쟁력 있는 감바스 메뉴 한 가지를 집중적으로 판매해 비용을 줄이고 양질의 새우를 들여와 조리하는 등 품질에 집중한 전략이 성과를 낸 것 같다”고 말했다. 정동혁 이마트 CSR담당 상무는 “소상공인 창업여건이 악화되고 있다지만, 자신의 실력만으로 새로운 시장을 개척해 가는 청년상인들도 많다”며 “이들이 꿈을 펼칠 수 있도록 가능한 지원을 계속해 갈 것”이라고 말했다.

부천=이수기 기자
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