When we used to live in Korea, we were regulars at a mom & pop bakery called Ewhadang (이화당). It was located near my brother’s primary school, and my bro, being the manipulative little imp that he was, would stop by after school on hot summer days and stand there, fanning himself, saying, “Ohmy, it’s so hot out, isn’t it? Wow. So hot!” And then the kind bakery owners would, without fail, give him free ice cream.
Nearly 30 years later, my family still has a soft spot for this bakery and its owners, so we try to go back whenever we’re in Seoul. But when I visited a couple months ago, I was appalled to find that the massive Korean bakery chain, Paris Baguette, had just opened a store a couple doors down from Ewhadang. WTF? It was the saddest sight — Paris Baguette with all its grand opening fanfare, long line of customers coming out the door, and Ewhadang next door, so empty and lonely, like a bowl of cold rice (it’s a Korean expression).
I was so outraged on behalf of Ewhadang that I started googling a whole bunch of stuff and talking to people about the mom & pop vs. franchise bakery situation in Korea. And I learned that there’s actually a pretty fierce bakery war going on in the country at the moment.
Mom & Pop vs. Franchise: Since 2003, the number of mom & pop bakeries have decreased from 18,000 to 4,000. That’s a decrease of a whopping 77.8% in about 8 years!! For the most part, they’ve been driven out by fancy faux-french franchises like Paris Baguette and Tous Les Jours. When I was in Korea a couple months ago, I saw that there’s a bit of public support for the mom & pop bakeries. I saw a TV program titled, “Don’t Cry, Neighborhood Bakery,” that was all about how the mom & pops are reinventing themselves and providing more innovative services (like home deliveries and custom-made breads) to stay in the competition. I was also relieved to see that there were some grumblings on-line about Paris Baguette getting all up in Ewhadang’s business.
Franchise vs. Franchise: Two main players, Tous Les Jours and Paris Baguette, make up 70% of the market, and the fierce competition and market over-saturation have led at least one branch owner to resort to desperate measures (quick summary: a TLJ owner planted a dead rat in the bread of a Paris Baguette across the street in an attempt to put the PB store out of business). The sad truth is that while the TLJ and PB brands — and the companies that own these brands — keep getting richer, many folks that own these franchise branches are struggling to scrape by.
Chaebol vs. The World: TLJ and PB are both part of bigger companies (CJ Group and SPC Group, respectively). But there have also been numerous other high end bakery chains popping up, and many are associated with Chaebols, or the family-run conglomerates that basically run Korea. Apparently the trend is that many of the daughters and granddaughters of Korean Chaebols (Lotte, Samsung, Shinsegae, etc.) are opening bakery chains, and for obvious reasons, they’re able to control/ enter some of the most coveted channels. Unfair advantage: they haz it. These Chaebols are pretty controversial in Korea, and I hear many complaints about how evil they are, and how you can’t step out of the house without helping them get richer. But I’ll save that messy story for another day.
So there you have it. Now you know everything that I know about the bakery wars in Korea. Next time you’re in Korea, please pay a visit to my favorite bakery, Ewhadang. It’s located near the back entrance of Ewha Woman’s University… right near a big fancy Paris Baguette. Grrr…