Amid a cluster of offices on Third Avenue sits a Japanese restaurant whose signboard greets diners with the words "Gyu-Kaku, Japanese BBQ Dining." As you enter, waiters and waitresses of various ethnic backgrounds African-Americans, Indonesians, Thais and Tibetans shout "Iratshaimase!" ("welcome" in Japan). By 12:30 p.m. all 100 seats are filled. "It's not easy to find empty seats during lunchtime or evening peak time,” says a Tibetan employee.
Gyu-Kaku is a world-renowned Japanese roast-beef restaurant chain with some 900 branches throughout Japan. It has many overseas branches, including two in New York, eight in Los Angeles, two in Hawaii, two in Jakarta, two in Singapore, and four in Taiwan. Its interior is reminiscent of a traditional Japanese "Izakaya" or pub. Only the menu gives pause: 50 to 80 percent is Korean, be it galbi (roast beef ribs), bibimbap (boiled rice with assorted mixtures), kimchi, japchae (traditional Korean chop suey) namul (seasoned greens) or kupbap (rice served in soup) -- though the names are changed to "karubi," "bibimba", "kimuchi", "chapu che", "namuru" and "kuppa."
With Korean foods offered in Japanese-style transliteration, most customers mistake them for Japanese, and so do the waiters. David Kirk (32), a customer who arrived to have lunch with three friends of his, said, "I didn't know that kalbi and bibimbap are Korean foods. I thought they are Japanese because this is a Japanese restaurant."
At the same hour, a Korean restaurant run by Koreans on 32nd Avenue in Manhattan is full of only Korean customers -- Korean-Americans, representatives of Korean companies and tourists. Worldwide, the popularity of Korean food is growing due to people's perception that it is healthy and to the spread of the Korean Wave. But it is Japanese restaurants that reap the profits.
Experts say Gyu-Kaku has succeeded in marketing Korean foods worldwide thanks to packaging. Korea lags behind Japan in marketing, including how to serve food, create a customer-friendly atmosphere and serve seasonings and condiments palatable to local customers.
Japan is not the only country that is "stealing" Korean traditions. Singapore is a city state where all kinds of foods from around the world are fiercely competing with each other. A total of 212 restaurants were last year rated Singapore's Top Restaurants. Only one Korean was on the list -- Crystal Jade Korean Ginseng Chicken & BBQ" Unfortunately, it is run not by a Korean but by a large Singaporean restaurant chain.
Here, it is the same story: Crystal Jade is crowded with Singaporeans at lunchtime on weekdays, but the other Korean restaurants run by Koreans are crowded mostly with Koreans.
Park Kun-ho (35), who moved to Singapore three months ago, said, "Crystal Jade serves Korean foods whose taste is no different from those served by other Korean restaurants operated by real Koreans. But it has a much better atmosphere. It doesn't smell bad. And you don't eat food just because of the taste, do you? If I were to introduce my foreign friends to Korean cuisine, I wouldn't take them to restaurants operated by Koreans."
The number of restaurants selling "Korean" food is growing. But it is foreigners who make the money.