A Bizarre Underground Industry, or, When Good Restaurants Go Bad

So, I’ve long wondered why, outside of Seoul, so many good restaurants were able to stay running for so long while in the big city, it seems like good places almost always either shut down or drop precipitously in quality within a year or two.

Now I think I know why. Now, I’m not a food blogger, and I don’t know if they’ve discussed this publicly. If they have, I’d be curious to see a link. One of the reasons I don’t really read food blogs is because they mostly just review restaurants, or talk about the politics of marketing Korean food to the West.

Also, I’m sad to say that sometimes it feels a little like reading a Lonely Planet-type guide to food in Seoul: stuff often gets praised that, when I bother to go and try it, turns out to be mediocre or just passable… in part, I think, because many of these food-bloggers seem pretty intent on monetizing their status as food critics or building a (side-) career in the niche of Korean-food punditry (and the kinds of observations I’ve noted don’t help with this), but also because seem often to be using a Seoul standard for food, and in all honesty, compared to the nation in general, Seoul broadly speaking has a pretty low standard when it comes to food quality.

Which is weird: you’d think, in a society so hung up on food, that Seoul city full of people from other areas, full of most of the country’s creatives and most of the moneyed types, would be a kind of Mecca for Korean cuisine (if not the foreign stuff). But that’s not the case. I haven’t had a single Korean meal in Seoul that held a candle to my favorite restaurants in Jeonju. Not once. Sad, but true, and I’ve always wondered why that is.

Well, I’m not a reporter, so I’m not claiming all of this is factual. It’s a blog, and I’m busy, and I’m not going to go and research it in detail. I’m relaying what a friend in the food industry said. But I have a feeling it explains the situation, in terms of the bizarre economics that determines the quality of restaurants in Seoul and the Kyeonggi area… but mostly in and around Seoul. 

When I moved to Yeokgok in 2006, it was a rougher place than it is now (not that’s it’s hospitable or anything) but there was at least a small selection of good places to eat in the area. In the last five or six years, that has shifted radically: of all the restaurants in the area that I considered good in 2006, every place except one has either closed down or dropped so much in quality that the thought of eating there makes me feel ill.

  • The Italian restaurant I used to love, one neighborhood over? Turned to crap.
  • The dumpling place on the corner that was a lifesaver for years? Gone, replaced by a cheap, crappy-soup place.
  • The pretty-good buckwheat-focused restaurant just outside campus? Turned mediocre-to-poor.
  • The Indian restaurant not far from my place? Ugh. I know of a good one, but it’s about half an hour away by bus.

Expats in Seoul often used to (and sometimes still do) complain that Western food is done wrong more often than right in Seoul. What they don’t realize is that this is also true of Korean food. I always tell my exchange students that if they want to know what Korean food tastes like when it’s done right, they need to make a trip out to the countryside, and especially to someplace like Jeonju.

There are restaurants (and tea shops) in Jeonju that I’ve been going to, occasionally, for more than a decade. They’ve managed to maintain quality, to keep to an incredibly high standard, and to serve food that people there love. People always ask how a foreigner knows where all the good places are in that city, and the answer is simple: they don’t move around, shut down, or go bad with the astonishing regularity one finds in Seoul.

I used to suspect that it was about rents. Seoul is so crammed that rent must be higher than out in the countryside… meaning the operating expenses of restaurants are higher in Seoul, which means lower quality ingredients, cheaper (less-skilled) cooking and wait staff, and so on.

Turns out I wasn’t totally off the mark, but I may have been wrong in imagining the rent issue being a passive factor, when it actually may be an active, consciously-enforced one. I say this because of something I learned when Miss Jiwaku told me about some shenanigans going on with a friend of ours. This friend of ours runs one of only two decent (as in, not-gag-inducing) eateries within a five-minute walk of  campus. It’s a very busy, and pretty successful little place… and people notice that.

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Landlords notice, and what the stupid ones like to do in cases like these is to increase the rent. After all, if the restaurant is busy, it must be making a lot of money… in which case the property is valuable, and the owner can charge more rent. Now, that might make sense if you possess almost no ability to think into the future. (You’d be surprised just how accommodating Korean society is to people lacking this basic skill.)

After all, the person running the restaurant is effectively increasing your property values. If you absolutely must increase the rent, the wisest thing to do would be to increase the rent higher for places that aren’t performing well, or aren’t increasing your property values, and increase only modestly for those places that aren’t increasing your property value. I mean, if you’re going to raise rents at different rates, which people do seem to do here.

The one thing you shouldn’t do is raise the rent on the place so much that the person who is increasing your property values gets driven out of business. That’s just stupid. And yet, that’s a distinct possibility for our friend and her business: the landlord seems interested in increasing the rent, making a short term gain, and then letting the space slump back down to the level of the spaces around it —  a closed tonkatsu & spaghetti restaurant (which was anyway atrocious); an almost-abandoned stationery shop; a perpetually-empty fair-trade coffee shop run by a sullen jerk. There are a few basement restaurants in the building that do well–economically, not culinarily: their cooking resembles hell–but most of the building cannot be making much money, or paying much rent.

And if my friend’s restaurant goes, I seriously doubt anyone will come to fill the space with the same passion, the same drive for consistency, the same knowledge of food, as to turn the place into a mini success like the one she’s currently running. More likely, it’ll be what I originally assumed it was when I first saw the place: yet another extraneous little coffee shop. And yet, if the landlord does increase the rent, it could well be that it’d be in my friend’s best interests to close up shop, leave, and let some irrelevant business take the spot.

So, I figured: That explains it. There’s essentially a quality-of-life tax levied against the populace by morons, for no actual benefit beyond extremely short-term (if even that).

My friend, though, said: Not so fast.

Not every landlord is stupid enough to screw a successful customer out of business for very short-term gain; doubtless it happens sometimes, but it’s not the dominant reason why this cycle of restaurant apocalypse happens.

What is the dominant reason?

Well, there’s another pattern you need to know about, if you want to understand this phenomenon, because it’s a big part of the process of a good restaurant going out of business, and that process involves the excellent or wonderful restaurant suddenly dropping in quality from one month to the next. This seems much more common to me, and our friend explained that dynamic too. She told us that there are people — people with outstanding food preparation skills, who know what they’re doing with food — who have a kind of career in a shadowy, basically underground industry wherein they wander around from neighborhood to neighborhood, starting up wonderful restaurants — the kinds of places that, if allowed to flower, could become mainstays of their neighborhoods. Once there’s a whole bunch of regulars, and the place has a good reputation, they sell it off… like a product. They sell it to the highest bidder, and they make a lot of money.

They make a lot of money in part because there are rules about how much it costs to transfer your business to someone, and for a successful business, there are pretty considerably high prices for the transfer. A lot more than the income one makes running even the best eatery in a lot of neighborhoods.  So the person who built up the place, who built its reputation for wonderful food, sells the place, leaves with a great wad of money…

… and then the best little restaurant in the neighborhood… tanks. And, seriously, the laws are kind of set up to incentivize this kind of thing… which is why it happens with such great regularity.

The quality of the food drops off, the service falters, the in-house staff changes (often to involve family members of the new owner) and the things that made the place a success all disappear: that person who started the place brought passion, skill, know-how, and experience to the table. When they’re gone, the new owners bring… a desire to make money. They stop using high-quality ingredients; they stop paying a proper wage to someone who knows how to cook the food on the menu at an outstanding level; they basically turn the focus of the place from the strategic goal of building up a reputation on high quality of food, to focusing on making as much money as they can before the place collapses.

Meanwhile, the person who started the restaurant is off somewhere else, starting some other place. Because guess what? In the long term, it’s basically the only way to make decent money serving really good food.

I know, I know: a lot of people are going to protest that their favorite restaurant in Seoul has been around 35 years. Here’s the thing: I’ve lived in a couple of places in Korea where the concentration of great-to-outstanding restaurants was about a hundred times what I’ve experienced in Seoul and Bucheon. I’ve lived in places where people hated to travel to Seoul because the food there was almost uniformly mediocre-to-bad by comparison.

I don’t know how big this mini-industry of restaurant startups is… it might be a few people, it might be a lot–though my friend claimed it was a lot; it might be they’re not having anywhere near as big an impact as I’ve suggested. It’s quite possible that people in Seoul simply don’t value good food the way people in other provinces do. (Why this would be, I’m not sure, but probably every urbanized society has experienced a shift in expectations regarding food: the milk consumed by most of us in the modern, urban, “first” world (whatever that means) would horrify people who grew up drinking truly fresh milk, for example.) But there has to be a reason for this difference, and this discussion I had, it seems to me, suggests one very logical and sensible piece of the puzzle.

It also suggests one thing that’s wrong with the idea that the market can and will solve all problems. When money becomes the most fundamental value in any market–especially a mass market–then suddenly money becomes the only thing to motivate a lot of people… and suddenly a lot of the things that make life worth living (like wonderful food, like great art, like good wine or beer) get so bastardized it’s difficult to even get people to realize what they’re missing out on.

It’s going to be a long process, rebuilding all that we’ve tossed from our civilization, once we realize this. I get the sense we’re at the beginning of that, back home in the West. I get the sense Korea is still pretty much in the thick of the jettisoning process. Too bad: they could halt that before it goes too far… but we didn’t, and it seems likely they won’t either.

8 Comments

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  1. @JamesTurnbull
    @JamesTurnbull November 14, 2012 at 4:30 pm .

    Compelling explanation(s) for why good Kor. restaurants close so often: http://t.co/2qoBdMvn

  2. @Freeirony
    @Freeirony November 14, 2012 at 5:48 pm .

    RT @JamesTurnbull Compelling explanation(s) for why good Kor. restaurants close so often: http://t.co/BMOPjp71

  3. @iampaulkerry
    @iampaulkerry November 14, 2012 at 6:57 pm .

    RT @JamesTurnbull: Compelling explanation(s) for why good Kor. restaurants close so often: http://t.co/2qoBdMvn

  4. @devinrupster
    @devinrupster November 14, 2012 at 8:13 pm .

    RT @JamesTurnbull: Compelling explanation(s) for why good Kor. restaurants close so often: http://t.co/2qoBdMvn

  5. @StevenWard
    @StevenWard November 19, 2012 at 1:25 pm .

    RT @ZenKimchi: Today’s must read–A Bizarre Underground Industry, or, When Good Restaurants Go Bad http://t.co/bUHI0XV0

  6. @chadwalker
    @chadwalker November 19, 2012 at 2:38 pm .

    RT @ZenKimchi: A Bizarre Underground Industry, or, When Good Restaurants Go Bad http://t.co/M4sww9ls #korea #food

  7. Anne
    Anne March 15, 2013 at 1:41 pm . Reply

    Most Koreans are in agreement that Jeonju is the unofficial food Mecca of Korea: love of good food (and a corresponding refusal to settle for anything mediocre quality) permeates the local culture, from restaurants to domestic households. My boyfriend is from there, and his mother used to tell him that she would like for his wife to be from Jeonju, because only a Jeonju woman could likely cook to his satisfaction.

    I used to think it was because Seoullites (??) preferred style over substance, and the “cargo cult” approach that marks the Korean approach to adopting foreign culture. But this theory explains a whole lot more about crappy Seoul food than any other I’ve come across.

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