"We got there around 10, and were told that we needed to wait for about three hours. So we went shopping and went back three hours later. Then we still had to wait another hour before we got our table,"says Tina Yao, recalling the first time she went to Huluhuo, a Korean barbecue and fondue restaurant in Beijing, with friends when she was in college a couple of years ago.
The restaurant is located in Wudaokou. An area close to a large number of universities, it is always full of students who know the trendiest places to go.
Yet, when they revisited Huluhuo years later, many of Yao's peers were a bit surprised to find that it had decreased in popularity.
"I came here several times back in college. The spot is full of memories for me. It was always beyond packed. Despite the unthinkable long wait, I was still very happy [to eat here]. However, when I visited today during lunch, the place was even not fully seated," reads a post on Dazhong Dianping, a widely used crowd-sourced review platform for local businesses in China.
Several posts on the forum have noted the fading popularity of the restaurant, a situation many Korean restaurants in China are facing.
Explaining the current situation requires that we take a look at what contributed to the craze in the first place.
Similar but different
"I really enjoy eating Korean cuisine. It's similar to Chinese food, which I have been eating my whole life, so at least it won't upset my stomach like that time I had Japanese sashimi for the first time. At the same time, it's also different from Chinese food. I find trying new things interesting," He Shuyun, a young professional working in Beijing, told the Global Times.
Like many of her peers, He is a big fan of South Korean TV dramas.
"When I think about Korean food, those scenes in shows where a couple has an intimate dinner together or a family gathers around the table comes to mind. For me, Korean food is associated with warmth and happiness. It comforts me,"she said.
Like He, Zhang Siyu, a college student, South Korean culture is also what drew her to the food.
"I like the ambience of dining at a Korean restaurant. The way the waiters greet me in Korean, the interior design featuring distinct Korean characters, music from South Korean bands playing in the background, it fascinates me," she explained.
Aside from dinning out at Korean restaurants, she also frequently visits chain stores that sell fried chicken.
Enjoying a meal of beer and chicken was a major fad in China in 2014 after South Korean TV series My Love from the Star became a huge hit. The combo was a favorite of the show's heroine.
However, as the fever for K-Pop culture and South Korean TV dramas has cooled off in China, the popularity of Korean food also dropped off as well.
The decline in popularity of Korean restaurants has created opportunities for other restaurants, especially those serving healthier foods such as salads, sandwiches or vegetarian dishes.
"I indulged myself with sizzling fried chicken and potato chips more often than I should have. Yet now, I have started eating salads or vegetarian dishes as much as possible since my gym membership is just too expensive for me to be binging on heavy food," said Zhang.
Looking at online data, it looks like Zhang is not the only one leaving beer and fried chicken behind to commit to a healthy lifestyle.
Take the Wudaokou area for instance. Data from the Meituan App, a popular food delivery app in China, shows that salad has gained a leg up on Korean fried chicken, outpacing the latter in sales.
More competition is also a problem.
As the market in China continues to open, different foods from around the world continue being introduced to Chinese consumers.
"The competition from other type of cuisines and restaurants is fierce. Take barbecue for example; Brazilian, Japanese, Turkish, so many types come to mind. It's not just Korean-style barbecue. Some restaurants are working hard on branding and some are doing a good job in providing stellar service. Say, if you eat at Haidilao (a hot pot chain in China) you can get a quick hand massage and staff members will keep your children entertained while you wait for a table. It's pretty hard to stand out,"commented Zhao Dizhuo, a freelance food blogger.
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