The 80s and 90s were a turning point in Korean food trend, with CJ CheilJedang playing an important role across numerous food business areas
In the mid-1980s, South Korea’s food culture began to undergo huge changes. It was a time of rapid economic growth that led to an explosion in the consumption of convenience foods and dining out.
During this transformative period, numerous CJ food brands that continue to be loved by customers today – including Hetbahn, VIPS and TOUS les JOURS – were born. Today, CJ Newsroom explores the story of how these iconic Korean brands started out during this exciting, propulsive chapter for Korean food.
Hetbahn: A Korean Classic Made Convenient
As the demand for convenience foods grew in the 1990s, CJ CheilJedang was quick to seek out new opportunities in the emerging instant rice market.
In March 1996, CheilJedang invested 10 billion KRW in constructing a facility for aseptic packaging, making it possible for the company to package cooked rice completely protected from bacteria. With the help of its new, dedicated clean room, the company recreated a national staple in ready-made form. This instant Korean-style steamed rice – named “Hetbahn” meaning “delicious, freshly-cooked rice” in Korean and backed by a successful run of nostalgic TV commercials – quickly became a hit CheilJedang product.
Since its launch, Hetbahn has achieved total sales of 5 trillion KRW (3.9 billion USD), a figure that continues to rise thanks to growing international popularity. Today, Hetbahn has become an integral part of Korean food culture, with 44.3% of Koreans consuming instant rice at least once a year.
Meanwhile, as Hetbahn was gaining popularity, global fast-food franchises were starting to gain a foothold in the Korean market with burgers, pizzas, fried chicken and more. Franchise restaurants, including family restaurants, began establishing themselves in Korea and dramatically reshaped the dining culture, especially among younger generations. Thanks in large part to this trend, Korea’s restaurant industry in the 1990s grew at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 10%. It was at this time that CheilJedang, which had until then been focusing on food manufacturing, started diversifying its portfolio and expanding into food services.
VIPS: The First Family Restaurant Brand by Koreans, for Koreans
CheilJedang, after spinning off from Samsung Group in 1993, grew to establish itself as Korea’s leading food company, producing everything from sugar, flour, seasonings and cooking oil to frozen foods and processed meat. The food service industry in Korea was full of promise, nearly tripling in size from 6.5 trillion KRW in 1988 to 18 trillion KRW in 1994. For CheilJedang, food services presented a great opportunity and a stimulating challenge.
In 1997, the company decided to launch a new family restaurant brand with a menu specially designed to suit Korean tastes. The brand was named “VIPS” – reflecting a service approach that treats every customer like a VIP – and it marked the beginning of a new era in Korean family dining.
“VIPS is a high-end Korean family restaurant developed through CheilJedang’s 40 years of expertise,” CJ Group chairman Lee Jae-hyun said upon the brand’s launch. “We have been working hard to develop a menu that suits Korea’s distinct tastes, and we expect VIPS will introduce Koreans to a whole new dining culture.”
Lee’s predictions became a reality as soon as the restaurant opened. Within four months of opening, VIPS was visited by more than 100,000 customers, proving its popularity with high customer turnover on both weekdays and weekends. In particular, the salad bar, which was then a new concept in Korea, was a big success with diners. Then and since, diverse flavors tailored to Korean tastes have made VIPS a leader in the Korean family restaurant space.
TOUS les JOURS, CJ Freshways and Breaking Records With Two Trillion KRW in Sales
In 1992, before becoming an independent company, CheilJedang’s sales were 1.26 trillion KRW. In 1996, CheilJedang became the first company in the Korean food industry to exceed two trillion KRW in sales, at 2.366 trillion KRW. This represented nearly a doubling of sales in just four years.
All this was achieved during a turbulent time in the Korean economy, with analysts warning of red flags ahead of the foreign exchange crisis and the food sector being classified as a declining industry. The cornerstone of the company’s stability and growth was its determination to develop quality products and pursue high customer satisfaction, based on its “ONLYONE” corporate philosophy. Successful expansion into new business areas, such as food services, also made large contributions to sales performance.
On May 3, 1994, CheilJedang established a food service division and announced its full-scale participation in the business. This move marked the beginning of CJ Freshway, a company specializing in food distribution and food services. As of 2023, CJ Freshway has evolved into a food service company that not only provides specialized group food services, but also distributes food ingredients and provides food service consulting. In the first quarter of 2023, the number of food service franchisees to whom CJ Freshway supplied food ingredients exceeded 10,000.
Beyond food services and distribution, CheilJedang also had ambitions to enter the Korean bakery business. In 1997, CheilJedang opened the first store of its franchise bakery brand, TOUS les JOURS. The company focused on differentiating the brand’s products from existing bakeries, leveraging superior baking supplies, frozen food transport technologies and distribution networks. By utilizing the finest ingredients and offering fresh products baked in store three times a day, TOUS les JOURS made a big splash in the Korean bakery market.
TOUS les JOURS opened its first store in the U.S. in 2004 and has since established locations in 26 states, including California, New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts, recently opening its 100th store in Bronxville, New York.