Food truck business starts budding in S. Korea

July 24, 2015
A band performs on the "Rain Cocktail" truck at Songdo Central Park, Incheon. The truck also sells cocktails on the side. (Courtesy of Premium Weather)

A band performs on the “Rain Cocktail” truck at Songdo Central Park, Incheon. The truck also sells cocktails on the side. (Courtesy of Premium Weather)

By Kim Bo-eun

Old trucks selling “tteokbokgi(rice cakes in spicy sauce)” have always been around, but trendier-looking food trucks have popped up recently in the city’s nooks and crannies.

This follows an easing of regulations last year that allows trucks to be renovated for food business.

But the regulations state that these trucks can only operate in designated areas such as amusement parks.

While the latest developments have prompted a potential boom for food on wheels, limitations are pushing the trucks into the shadows.

The low-cost, low-risk option of starting a food business appeals to young people, but other than those who have nestled in legal areas, many move around to avoid being reported by neighboring restaurant owners.

Many have no website or telephone number; they only let customers know where they will be daily through social media.

While it seems illegal operations will always exist, businesses say there are several important factors that need to be addressed.

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Kimchi Bus

Kimchi Bus is one of the few food trucks operating with little concern. It settled in the grounds of Common Ground, the shipping container shopping complex in eastern Seoul when it opened in April.

Kimchi Bus customers eat its kimchi-infused Mexican dishes in front of the truck located insdie the Common Ground shopping complex in eastern Seoul. (Korea Times/Kim Bo-eun)

Kimchi Bus customers eat its kimchi-infused Mexican dishes in front of the truck located insdie the Common Ground shopping complex in eastern Seoul. (Korea Times/Kim Bo-eun)

The truck sells kimchi-infused Mexican food and is in the outdoor area of the complex with three other trucks.

The trucks are virtually no different from regular shops, as their owners sign a contract and pay rent – although the rates are much lower and the operators do not pay deposits and premiums.

The Kimchi Bus was also part of a government-funded project that saw it travel some 80,000 kilometers spanning 34 cities across the world.

CEO Ryu Si-hyeong was able to see how food trucks in those places operated. According to Ryu, Korea could emulate the regulations in such cities that state trucks cannot park in areas with heavy traffic, that the spot needs to be within a certain distance of restrooms and that the trucks cannot stay at one place for more than an hour. They also require the trucks to show their hygiene ratings.

This is in contrast to Korea where such guidelines are absent, causing complications.

“If they are operating illegally anyway, they would feel less obliged to adhere to hygiene standards and this could possibly lead to a deterioration of the food truck business here,” Ryu said.

He said local authorities would need to create a grid, marking places where trucks could operate and put it online so people could register daily.

Also, unlike the original purpose of giving people the opportunity to start businesses without a lot of money, Ryu said it was likely conglomerates would move in and drive out smaller players.

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The Juice Box

Near the National Assembly subway station in Yeouido stands a truck that sells cold-pressed juice to health-conscious female office workers in the morning and lunch hours.

Kim Ki-youl, one of the two owners of The Juice Box, says the business district of Yeouido has always had food trucks, most of which sell coffee. He estimates that there are now some 20 food trucks in the area.

Kim and his partner, Min Jung-ki, seized on the demand for wholesome juice amid the host of coffee shops to establish the juice truck.

Kim and Min say one of the problems is the regulation that requires the trucks to be one-ton vehicles.

“You cannot equip a one-ton truck with the facilities you need (running water, electricity, etc.),” Kim said. “This is directly related to the hygiene of the food sold.”

“I think the grounds for limiting the size of the trucks is to prevent large vehicles from blocking roads, but I honestly don’t think they would make much of a difference,” Min said

But the two agree that things are improving.

“At first, the places that local authorities designated as legal areas were really bad,” Kim said. “Now it is introducing better spots that people would actually consider going.”

However, he said more use should be made of underutilized land.

“A night market with dozens of food trucks could be created on a vacant piece of land as long as they are not too hard to get to,” Kim said. “With promotion from local governments, it would be a huge hit.”

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Rain Cocktail

A truck camps out by Sunset Cafe at Songdo Central Park, Incheon, on Friday at 5 p.m. As people unload equipment, a guard comes over and starts going on about why they should not be there – “What are you going to do about the trash?” he says.

The team assures him they will take care of things and the guard rides off on his bicycle.

“Complaints file in all the time,” said Choi Yu-jung, the truck’s marketing manager.

The team of three represents Premium Weather, which brings the Rain Cocktail truck to the park every Friday evening. The truck serves as a makeshift stage and beside it is a small bar that sells cocktails.

After the sun sets, people start flocking to the truck. Soon, a guitar starts up and music is heard throughout the area. The audience sits and enjoys the night breeze and music, sipping cocktails.

Rain Cocktail started in 2013 as a truck serving drinks, but in recent months has started inviting musicians to perform on the truck.

CEO Kim Jin-seok says many young people are now interested in starting a food truck since regulations were eased last year. The government is also taking measures to promote the business.

“The problem is that it makes things look as if they are all pink and roses but people who want to start face many real barriers,” Kim said.

Throughout the interview, Kim’s team mentioned the lack of appropriate places for trucks to operate.

Most trucks go out to make money at events, but they are required to pay big fees in exchange for a spot.

Rain Cocktail recently paid 300,000 won to take part in a festival at Yangyang, but returned without recouping the fee.

“It is frustrating when you are blocked from doing something when there is an actual demand for and people like what you offer,” Kim said.

“It’s not just about food trucks, young people in Korea face enormous barriers when they try to do something new.”

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