The first step to balancing these ostensibly opposing elements is to understand fully the target audience’s current palate and preconceptions about the food, said Suji Park, the CEO of Suji’s Korean Cuisine, which recently launched in the US a line of “true-to-the-culture” Korean meals and sauces.
She explained this means hosting “a lot of focus studies” to introduce foods, words, flavors and concepts and drilling down each time a consumer responds negatively to identify if there is a fundamental disconnect that cannot be overcome or if a slightly different “translation” can better present the product’s original intent.
For example, when Park first began formulating the brand’s ready to eat Savory Beef, which is marinated in a traditional blend of soy, fruit puree, vinegar and sesame oil, the company called it by its traditional Korean name – bulgogi.
“We quickly learned this would not work because people don’t buy products they can’t pronounce,” and because the name didn’t mean anything to English speaking Americans, so they didn’t understand how to use the product, Park said.
Next the company tried calling it Korean Barbeque, but again Americans were turned-off because they associate Korean Barbeque with inexpensive cuts of meat and cheap sauces, which is not the same as the premium ingredients Suji’s Korean Cuisine uses.
“So, that is how we came up with Savory Beef,” which clearly communicates what the product is, does not have negative associations and does not undercut the final product’s authenticity, Park said.
The company also learned that while Americans might like the flavors of Korean foods, they did not trust products made in Korea, where different cuts of meat, preservatives and MSG are used.
The solution was to work with experts at Nebraska Innovation Center to identify all-natural, gluten-free ingredients free from MSG and preservatives that captured the taste and flavor of food made in Korea, but with clean ingredients that meet American consumers’ demands today.
To make the products as clean as possible, the company primarily uses sous-vide and high pressure pasteurization to prepare ingredients so that they will have a refrigerated shelf life of 45 to 60 days without preservatives. Many of the company’s products also are sold frozen for even longer shelf lives, Park said.
The company also clearly indicates on its logo that the products are made in the USA – a call-out that assuages food safety fears and meets desires to “buy local” food.
These strategies allowed the company to preserve the dishes' authenticity, but also present them in a more familiar way that Americans could easily embrace.
After identifying the best “translation” for the original line up of ready-to-eat meat and rice bowls launched in mid-2014, Park is ready to extend the line and reach of the products.
At Natural Products Expo West, Suji’s Korean Cuisine introduced eight new SKUs, including refrigerated Spicy and Savory Chicken Bulgogi, frozen Spicy and Savory Kalbi – Korean-style short ribs – and frozen and refrigerated Spicy Chicken Rice Bowls and Beef Bibimbap Rice Bowls.
The upcoming opening of Suji’s Korean Grill – a national fast casual Korean restaurant chain – should help place the retail items on consumers’ radars.
The company also aims to launch by the end of the year, a line of alternative products made with 30% less sodium, Park said.