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[K-Food] Sempio spicing up global dishes with K-sauces

Backed by umami-flavored Yondu and creative gochujang products, overseas sales make up more than 10% of total for Korea’s No. 1 sauce maker

By Lee Yoon-seo

Published : April 13, 2023 - 16:01

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Jaume Biarnes, director of the Yondu Culinary Studio, introduces recipes that utilized Sempio's Yondu Vegetable Umami to people in the Yondu Culinary Studio located in Manhattan, New York City. (Sempio) Jaume Biarnes, director of the Yondu Culinary Studio, introduces recipes that utilized Sempio's Yondu Vegetable Umami to people in the Yondu Culinary Studio located in Manhattan, New York City. (Sempio)

This is the sixth installment of a series of interviews with global business chiefs of South Korean food companies that are expanding aggressively in overseas markets. -- Ed.

 

Sauces embody a tradition -- they are a compilation of decades of locals’ know-how for spicing up native cuisine. As such, matching traditional sauces with foreign dishes is rare.

However, Korea's largest sauce maker Sempio said it is currently at the vanguard of savory Korean sauces imbuing diverse menu items around the world.

Headed by sales of its bestselling gochujang (hot pepper paste) products and Sempio's modified version of soy sauce, Yondu, overseas sales make up 11.5 percent of the total as of 2022.

Sempio’s secret to success is focusing on products that add “umami” to global dishes.

"Sempio's Yondu, which primarily outsells other single category products abroad, is seeing some 50 percent increase in global sales annually," said Lee Jae-kyu, a team leader of overseas sales at Sempio during an interview at the company's headquarters in Jung-gu, Seoul with The Korea Herald.

"We attribute Yondu's success to its capability to instill a sense of 'umami' to global cuisines, no matter what it is," he said.

Umami refers to one of the five basic tastes, along with sweet, sour, salty and bitter. Also known as the taste of glutamate -- an amino acid that is one of the main constituents of protein -- "umami" connotes “savoriness,” and can be best described as the meaty, brothy taste that deepens the flavor of food.

Although the taste is widely recognized in Korean as "gamchilmat," and utilized in various dishes here, the concept is still foreign in the global market. Sempio says its tactics to target the “blue ocean” taste have contributed to Yondu's global success.

"It's not that there are no ingredients to maximize the taste of umami overseas. Few examples (that are used to increase savoriness) include chicken stock, tomatoes and olive oil, but these can only be used in very limited dishes," Lee said, adding that Yondu's competitive edge is its diverse usability, with its liquid form and characteristically weak potency.

In addition to large markets such as the US and Europe, the company aggressively targeted markets where its products could stand out against relatively lower levels of competition, such as Russia or the Middle East.

 

Gochujang hails success

 

Another product that revved up Sempio's performance abroad was gochujang.

According to Lee, the company is currently seeing annual sales growth rate of 25 percent for its gochujang products in the global market.

Lee added that its gochujang products are bestsellers not only in its most quickly growing markets such as Switzerland, France, Germany and the Netherlands, but also in Sempio's biggest market -- the US.

"We attribute the popularity surrounding our gochujang products to our research. We found that some consumers find the taste and aroma of gochujang a bit too heavy. In order to make it easier for foreigners who are trying Korean 'jang' (Korean traditional fermented paste) for the first time, we reduced the spicy and salty taste in gochujang, and diversified our lineup to include gluten-free and organic versions," said Lee.

Lee added that the company's efforts to introduce a slew of recipes that can be made with gochujang, along with other Korean sauces, helped ramp up sales in the overseas market significantly.

For example, in contrast to when the company first exported its products to Europe, currently some 60 percent of consumers that buy its products are locals, instead of Korean residents living abroad.

Its strategy to analyze foreign retail chains have further proved fruitful.

Lee explained that overseas consumers have a tendency to visit different retail outlets for specific types of groceries, in contrast to Korean consumers -- who tend to get all their groceries in one go at large supermarket chain stores such as Homeplus and E-mart.

Lee said that Sempio has plans to aggressively foray into major North American retail chains which specialize in sales of premium health foods such as Whole Foods, Metro, Sprouts Farmers Market and Publix Super Markets, to target a specific consumer demographic.

For its plans going forward, Sempio said it is set on foraying into Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Israel -- countries where few Korean competitors have forayed so far, and whose markets bear potential for sales of savory sauces and condiments.

"We are no longer living in a time where we eat because we are hungry. Eating itself has become a cultural activity," said Lee.

“Consumers are also no longer averse to trying out new types of foods. In fact, they enjoy the adventure,” said Lee, adding that with its Korean sauce products, Sempio is ready to further spice up global consumers’ dishes.

Lee Jae-kyu, a team leader of overseas sales at Sempio, poses for a photo at Sempio's headquarters in Jung-gu, central Seoul, on March 10. (Im Se-jun/The Korea Herald) Lee Jae-kyu, a team leader of overseas sales at Sempio, poses for a photo at Sempio's headquarters in Jung-gu, central Seoul, on March 10. (Im Se-jun/The Korea Herald)