N. Koreans flipping over first taste of hamburgers
SINGAPORE – One bargaining chip Kim Jong Un may bring to the negotiating table for his summit meeting with President Donald Trump on Tuesday is an offer to open a Western hamburger franchise in Pyongyang.
But that franchise wouldn’t be the isolated nation’s first fast-food joint.
The man who introduced the hamburger to North Korea is actually right here in Singapore: 63year-old Patrick Soh, who opened his first restaurant in Pyongyang in 2009.
Soh operates a local franchise of tiny Virginia Beach, Virginiabased restaurant Waffletown USA. In 2008, he was connected by a pair of Singaporean businessmen to a North Korean state-owned company looking to start a franchise. Soh said he immediately jumped at the offer.
“I thought, ‘Why not give it a try?’ ” he said. “In business, if you don’t try, you don’t know. I thought it would be a good challenge for me.”
Soh quickly discovered just how much of a challenge the project would be, starting at the most fundamental level: The overwhelming majority of
North Koreans had absolutely no idea what a hamburger was.
In fact, they didn’t even have a word for the all-American food because the English language is banned in North Korea. They settled on a literal description, calling it minced beef and bread. The name of the restaurant also had to be changed and became Samtaesong (“three big stars”).
Despite the hurdles, Soh said he was impressed at how quickly his staff picked up the foreign concepts.
“Their working attitude was very good,” he said. “They were eager to learn. Within a few weeks, they understood everything they needed to start the business.”
The food turned out to be an immediate hit in a nation where exposure to the outside world has been severely limited. In addition to burgers, Samtaesong sells waffles and fried chicken, side dishes such as French fries and even cola imported from a Singaporean distributor.
“(Customers) found it very interesting, different,” Soh said. “They had never seen burgers and French fries before, never had cola. Even paper cups with plastic lids were new. It was a totally different experience for them.”
The franchise tweaked its menu slightly, making the dishes less salty to suit local tastes. The one concession to the local cuisine was replacing coleslaw on the menu with kimchi.
Staff at Samtaesong, the first fast-food franchise in North Korea. SAMTAESONG