Korea’s summertime treat, an icy bowl of red bean-heaped bingsu, is aiming to become Southeast Asia’s all-time favorite as a growing number of dessert shops tap deeper into the market.
|Thai customers enjoy dessert at Sulbing’s first Thai location in Siam square, Bangkok. (Sulbing)|
The bingsu craze has swept across Seoul in recent years. Shops offering the shaved ice dessert, from bingsu specialty stores to coffee chains and even fast-food chains, have mushroomed on seemingly every street corner.
The increasingly saturated domestic market and fierce competition have driven companies to seek international expansion in countries like Thailand and Indonesia where the weather is warm and humid all year round ― perfect conditions for selling the shaved ice concoction to beat the heat.
“Because bingsu is a weather-related menu item, Okbingsul has been preparing to enter Southeast Asian nations since we started business here,” said Chun Hee-jung, an official of bingsu specialty shop Okbingsul.
Okbingsul, which was founded in 2014, has launched four stores in Thailand, including three in Bangkok, as well as one location in Vietnam.
Shaved ice dishes are nothing new to the Southeast Asian region, but the majority of Korean bingsu dishes have an updated twist ― finely ground shavings taken from flavored milk that have a softer texture and richer flavor than conventional ones.
To differentiate itself even further, Okbingsul uses coconut-based flakes instead of milk, while also offering toppings that suit local consumers’ tastes.
“From trial and error, we found that localization is critical for growth. For example, Thai consumers prefer fruit toppings like strawberry rather than red beans,” she said.
For Caffe Bene, Korea’s second-largest coffee chain which has already made inroads into six Southeast Asian countries, bingsu makes up a rapidly growing part of their revenue.
According to a Caffe Bene official, over 30 percent of its annual sales are generated by its shaved ice snack items in Vietnam and Malaysia. To fuel the popularity, the franchise introduced two further varieties of bingsu specially for Eid al-Fitr, the religious holiday that marks the end of the Islamic fasting period Ramadan this year.
Korea’s entertainment industry, which has attracted fanatical popularity in other Asian countries, has also helped bingsu cafes increase brand awareness as some dessert chains such as Sulbing have promoted themselves with product placement in hit Korean television series.
“Thai consumers have tremendous interest in Korean franchises under the influence of hallyu,” Lee Yong-jin, Sulbing’s copresident said.
Sulbing, opened its first cafe in 2013 and has expanded exponentially to the point where it now has 490 outlets nationwide.
In November, it launched two branches in Bangkok and plans to have 50 branches across the country by the end of 2016.
“Sulbing will kick off aggressive marketing to attract office workers and students who rely more on brand names and images to quickly settle into the Thai market,” he said.
Okbingsul agrees with its rival on the impact of Korean wave. “It’s something that can’t be ignored, especially for Korean small and medium-sized firms,” Chun said.