Singaporeans Start Fast-Food Chain In North Korea
The North Korean regime had banned fast food for the longest time, labelling it as evil Western “imperialist influences”.
But things changed in 2009 when 3 Singaporeans decided to open the first fast food restaurant in the isolated country.
The seed for this unusual business relationship was planted over 33 years ago, when Mr Quek Chek Lan first started doing business with the hermit kingdom. His company, Aetna Group, was trading steel and minerals with the North Koreans, and they eventually invited him to invest in their country.
Mr Quek agreed and roped in Mr Timothy Tan, a businessman whom he met 8 years ago in Shanghai. The duo established a new company, Simpyong International, and started going through a list of possible developments. They initially wanted to open a supermarket, but later settled on a fast-food restaurant due to a complete lack of competition.
However, with zero experience in the fast food industry, they enlisted the help of Mr Patrick Soh, who was then operating two Waffletown USA franchises in Singapore, located at Balmoral Plaza and Ngee Ann Polytechnic.
The North Koreans actually sent four delegates to test the food at the former before approving the project.
In November 2008, the three Singaporean partners began making trips to North Korea to set up their flagship store and train the local staff. One year and US$200,000 later, Samtaesong, or Three Big Stars, was born.
What’s The Food Like?
Located at the Kumsong Intersection in Pyongyang, it mainly serves burgers, which the North Korean government refers to as “minced beef with bread” to mask their American origins.
Samtaesong also sells fried chicken, french fries, hotdogs, Belgian waffles and even draught beer.
Its cheapest burger starts at €1.20 (S$1.90), while the fried chicken is the most expensive item on the menu at €3 (S$4.70).
Oh, gloves are also kindly provided so you don’t dirty your hands, by the way. Perhaps our local KFCs could look into adopting such a practice?
While the kitchen equipment, waffle mix and seasoning for the chicken were imported from Singapore, Samtaesong’s recipes are adapted to suit the locals’ tastebuds. The coleslaw has been substituted with kimchi (Korean pickled cabbage), and every burger comes with more vegetables as the government “hates the idea of junk food”, according to Mr Quek.
Take a look at the menu:
Raw ingredients like chicken and beef are sourced locally, but staff have to visit supermarkets reserved for foreign diplomats to purchase soft drinks and resell them in paper cups later on.
The initial design of the 246 sq m restaurant was inspired by Singapore’s own fast-food joints, and furniture was specially imported from China to achieve the desired look.
But given the outdated retro aesthetic, epitomised by display panels consisting of stock images, the restaurant was renovated to look “more like a café” in 2014.
Judging from video footage, the burgers seem more “artisanal” as well.
Samtaesong, being walking distance of several universities, foreign embassies and subway stations, became an immediate hit with both the locals and diplomats.
The 24-hour fast-food restaurant has since expanded rapidly, with at least two new branches opened following the success of the first. Up to 300 burgers are reportedly sold daily at each of its outlets.
After witnessing the immense success of Samtaesong, the North Korea government urged the Singaporean partners to invest more in the country, and they duly complied. The trio now owns six convenience kiosks, a cold room for food storage, and an entire food processing plant to cope with the business demands.
Its popularity has also inspired the North Korean government to set up a few other restaurants selling Western cuisine, such as pasta and pizza.
Singaporeans Making History Again
While Singaporeans are known to make history — Olympic gold medalist Joseph Schooling, triple Eisner award winner Sonny Liew, and even Justin Phua, the winner of the 2016 Star Wars World Championships, are just some of those who did us proud — it’s not everyday you hear about our countrymen accomplishments in one of the most isolated countries in the world.
We can only imagine the amount of red tape and administrative trouble they went through to set up Samtaesong, and for that, we salute them for their bravery and entrepreneurial spirit.
Check out our video of the restaurant here: