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Last Updated: Wednesday, 30 May 2007, 23:07 GMT 00:07 UK
Bringing Korean food to Europe
By Jorn Madslien
Business reporter, BBC News, Bratislava, Slovakia

Yooni Suh
This is not an oriental thing, it's a health thing
Yooni Suh, Korean Foods

"Koreans," sighs Yooni Suh, as he absent-mindedly caresses a juicy, golden pear. "Wherever they go in the world, they've got to have Korean food."

Lately, many of them have been going to Slovakia, where a string of leading Korean firms such as Samsung, LG and Kia have built their European factories.

The way Mr Suh sees it, their arrival provided an irresistible "retail opportunity that goes against the Tescos and the Wal-Marts of this world".

So last September, he too landed in Bratislava, where he hit the ground running.

"I wanted to go on a road trip and become an ambassador for Korean food," Mr Suh says, as if explaining his calling.

"For me, it's just a new world of opportunity."

Retail theatre

Half a year after leaving London, where his family has been running a Korean food business for years, Mr Suh is already distributing all things Korean, from red pepper paste to mackerel and prawns, to customers across the region.

Yooni Suh in his supermarket
It's about finding these communities and supply them with food that they were never able to buy at reasonable prices
Yooni Suh, Korean Foods

But Mr Suh soon discovered that there is more to this market than the expatriate South Korean community.

"Since arriving here, I've realised that Korean food can have a much wider audience," he says. "This is not an oriental thing, it's a health thing."

So in January, Mr Suh opened a Western-style supermarket in Bratislava, selling South East Asian food to expats and locals alike.

"It is about providing choice. If you don't have a choice, you don't have the freedom to eat what you want," he declares.

His business plan is simple. He wants to "take a street market and repackage it for Westerners", an approach that has involved a string of cooking demonstrations in-store, as well as having both cooking instructions and product labels translated into Slovak.

"I really love that kind of theatre that retail can sometimes be," Mr Suh declares. "I want to take that experience and explain it."

And he is using every channel to spread the word.

Mr Suh is negotiating a Korean food supply deal with the Co-op, which has shops "in every village in Slovakia".

He is preparing to open a restaurant in Bratislava and a string of sushi-style Oriental fast-food outlets in shopping centres, to "showcase Korean food".

And he has appointed a local butcher to "cut meat the way Koreans do it".

In addition, he is in the process of starting a local manufacturing plant to make tofu and rice cakes and to process bean sprouts.

And he has even linked up with a TV chef who tries out Korean recipes every Saturday, in a broadcast linked to a regular radio programme about Korean food.


Mr Suh's passion for food -"we're interested in people's health; it's moving, it's energy" - is matched by an almost Napoleonic approach to business.

Worker in Yooni Suh's supermarket
I really love that kind of theatre that retail can sometimes be
Yooni Suh, Korean Foods

"Our main enemy is in Vienna," he almost whispers, conspiratorially, while marching between isles stacked high with Chamisul Sojo rice wine and pots of noodles in his huge out-of-town warehouse.

"It's about squeezing, about suffocating, their main castle - which is Vienna - by conquering the main centres around it," he says. "It's a siege."

Mr Suh has already ventured into markets beyond his Bratislava base, appointing local agents to supply Korean communities in Prague and Chinese communities in Budapest.

"We are starting to go to Italy and we're hoping to go to Romania soon," he says.

"It's about finding these communities and supply them with food that they were never able to buy at reasonable prices," he says, all the while - like the diehard retailer he clearly is - busily talking up his own virtues while rubbishing his rivals.

"When I came, I was surprised at the prices they were selling at," he says. "And the service they were giving, and the quality."

And he is convinced his arrival is creating waves. "The effect of us coming into a region makes our rival offer their customers a 10% discount to prevent them from deserting".

Achievable aims?

It is clear that Mr Suh would never be satisfied by merely conquering Slovakia: "We want to develop a retail chain across Europe."

But that is a pretty big goal for a man whose business headquarters, in a small office on an industrial site near the airport, consists of a few computers balanced on cheap desks.

Watching a hungry entrepreneur in action is always startling, not least since it is hard to distinguish those with nothing but a big vision from the ones who get things done.

The only difference is, Mr Suh has played the game before.

"We have a restaurant in St James's, near Mayfair," he says casually, deliberately understating the importance of having made it in the swishest part of London.

Mr Suh's family also has a distribution warehouse in London that delivers to cash-and-carry outlets across the UK, as well as to a string of specialist stores on university campuses.

Overall, the business turns over 10m a year, and Mr Suh is not shy about talking about his vision of turnover rising to 100m in a decade.

"It's a blank sheet of paper we're having here," he declares. "We're expanding very rapidly.

"The final chapter will be when we conquer the world."

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