Red brick wall, warm lighting, spacious wooden table, spinning ceiling fan… . When I entered ‘Carols’ at Lotte World Mall in Jamsil, Seoul, I felt like I had time traveled to Boston, USA in the 1990s. It was also a typical example of a domestic family restaurant in its heyday. On the 27th of last month, office worker Kim Seong-il (47), who was waiting for a table with his 10-year-old son at the store entrance, said, “It was touching to bring my son and my wife to a family restaurant that was a popular place for birthday parties and blind dates during college in the late 1990s. “It’s infinite,” he said.

The best ‘hot product’ of the late 1990s
The family restaurant is back. Family restaurants, which led the restaurant industry for 20 years starting in the 1990s, have been in decline since the mid-2010s. However, brands that have survived through difficult times are generating sales comparable to those in their heyday. Newly opened brands also appeared. Carol’s, which opened last month, is a brand developed in-house by the restaurant company Sun at Food, and the new family restaurant is 14 years since Longgo’s, launched in 2009 (closed in 2015).

The history of Korean family restaurants is now 38 years old. The first branch of the first family restaurant brand, ‘Tomorrow Tiger’, opened in 1985. Afterwards, foreign brands such as Cocos (1993) and LA Farms (1994) entered the market one after another. The era of full-fledged family restaurants began in the late 1990s. The opening of Sizzler, Bennigan’s, Tony Roma’s, and Planet Hollywood in 1995, Carne Station and Marche in 1996, and Outback Steakhouse and VIPS in 1997 continued. The market also expanded rapidly. Sales more than doubled from 80 billion won in the 1990s to 170 billion won in 2000, exceeding 300 billion won in 2002 when the World Cup was held, and 600 billion won in 2005.

In the 1990s, family restaurants came as a cultural shock and innovation to the domestic restaurant industry, which had been limited to garden-style meat restaurants, Chinese restaurants, and Western restaurants. In particular, it was attractive to be able to enjoy authentic Western food, which can only be tasted at high-end restaurants, in an exotic atmosphere, rather than Japanese or Koreanized food such as pork cutlet and hamburg steak. It was chosen as the number one place for family dining and couples’ dates, and on weekends, if you didn’t make a reservation, you had to wait in line for an hour.

In the late 1990s, the foreign exchange crisis broke out and consumption fell sharply, sending the entire restaurant industry into a recession. As the economy recovered in the 2000s, the second heyday of family restaurants began. Telecommunications companies competed for unprecedented partnership discounts, such as offering discounts of up to 50% on order amounts on certain days each month. The family restaurant has become very popular as a venue for college students’ parties and office workers’ company dinners. Bennigan’s once achieved annual sales of 100 billion won, and Outback opened its 100th store, the first in the industry.

Successful resurgence through premiumization
The decline of family restaurants came in the 2010s. At one time토토사이트, there were about 20 brands, but only four, Outback, VIPS , TGIF, and Ashley, disappeared. There are many reasons for the decline. First of all, changing social structures. As the name suggests, a family restaurant is a type of dining business suitable for families to eat together. Korea is a society where families are disappearing. The birth rate fell from 1.24 in 2015 to 0.81 as a decimal last year. On the other hand, the proportion of single-person households is increasing from 15.5% in 2000 to 33.4% last year. As the economic recession has prolonged since the mid-2000s , the cost of meals at family restaurants, which used to range from 30,000 to 40,000 won per person, has become burdensome.

Food was also a problem. The fact that there were many menu items filled with cheese and cream or fried in oil was out of sync with the trend of pursuing health. The use of semi-cooked food mass-produced in factories to reduce costs failed to satisfy the demanding tastes of consumers. As the number of restaurants serving food that was not easily accessible in the United States and Europe, as well as in West Asia and South America, increased, and overseas travel increased rapidly, the exotic appeal of family restaurants was halved.

Companies’ responses were largely divided into ‘popularization’ and ‘high end’. Companies that chose to popularize failed. Marche and Bennigan’s closed in 2013 and 2016, respectively, and TGIF is barely surviving by maintaining about 10 stores nationwide. The luxury strategy was effective. It is reported that Outback’s sales in 2021 increased by more than 30% compared to the previous year to 400 billion won, and also increased by 10% to 410 billion won in 2022.

Under the strategy of ‘if the food is good, even if it’s expensive, customers will come’, Outback replaced frozen meat with refrigerated meat, which is more expensive and difficult to manage, and introduced signature menu items such as ‘Tomahawk Steak’ and ‘Black Label Series’. Even the knives and other tools used in stores and kitchens have been changed. VIPS implemented a selection and focus strategy to close low-profit stores and renew them as premium stores. The number of VIPS stores decreased from 61 to 28 at the end of 2018, but recorded a surplus due to improved performance. The ‘Wine & Pairing Zone’, where you can enjoy wine, beer, cheese, and finger foods according to your taste, also received a positive response. CEO Nam Soo-jeong, who runs Carols, said, “At Carols, all food is made directly in the store,” adding, “The only menu item that uses semi-cooked food is ‘cheese sticks.’”

The restaurant industry, which is recovering after COVID-19, is looking positively at the future of family restaurants. CEO Nam said, “Family restaurants are the only Western food industry in Korea that can operate stores nationwide for people from 3 to 90 years old,” and added, “The heyday of family restaurants will come again.”

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