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Korean department stores trigger restaurant battle

Korean department stores have become the new battleground for Korean restaurant chains.

Restaurants have long been a lucrative business for department store operators – accommodating hundreds of weary shoppers every day, they have sometimes been referred to as a ‘goose that lays a golden egg’.

However, until now, opening such a restaurant had been a near-impossible task without deep connections to the store’s higher-ups.

According to retail industry sources, several new restaurants are set to open next month in the food court section of Lotte’s flagship department store in Myeongdong, which is currently being renovated. Of note, the new owners didn’t have to lobby Lotte management or be a member of a Lotte family to open their establishments.

Lotte faced significant criticism in June when the media spotlighted Seo Mi-kyung, Lotte founder Shin Kyuk Ho’s third wife, and her company Yuki Co, which operates a bibimbap restaurant (Yukyung),  naengmyeon restaurant (Yuwonjeong) and coffeehouse (Margaret) at the Lotte’s Myeongdong store.

“We’re in the middle of clearing up our business with Seo’s company,” said the department store official. “We plan to operate our food court based on the popularity of restaurants and their competitive advantage.”

A high-end sushi restaurant, Sushi Chohi, Chinese restaurant Luii, and European casual restaurant Elbon Grand Cafe operated by chef Choi Hyun-seok are among the new eateries that will open in mid-September.

Hyundai Department Store, once criticised for giving favors to its subsidiary Hyundai Green Food, is also rearranging the food courts at its stores to accommodate popular restaurants from across Korea. And although it still operates Hyundai Green Food-owned restaurants like Bonga Sushi and Hansol Naengmyeon at its branches, it’s now focusing its efforts on attracting other popular restaurants.

“Bonga Sushi and Hansol Naengmyeon have made a name for themselves, and their inclusion is not necessarily due to the Hyundai family relationship,” said a Hyundai Department Store official. “We’re concentrating more on attracting well-known restaurants to our food courts, because restaurants with no competitive edge aren’t likely to survive.”

Italian restaurants Le Jiu and Signature Lab opened their latest locations at the Samseong-dong branch, while Amorino, an Italian gelato franchise, opened a new eatery at Hyundai’s Apgujeong branch.

Shinsegae Department Store also introduced new restaurants this year. Youth-driven restaurants from Gangnam and Hongdae, including Chinese cuisine franchise Choma, steakhouse restaurant Fukuoka Hambageu, and premium tteokbokki restaurant Villa de Spicy, according to Shinsegae, were met with high acclaim.

Shinsegae also said that new restaurants tend to attract more customers to its stores.

“Department stores are no longer solely a place for shopping. They’re transforming into one integrated living space for consumers to spend their free time,” said a retail industry official. “Given the circumstances, the stores will continue with their efforts to accommodate more popular and competitive restaurants.”

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