Bonchon’s signature Korean fried chicken.
This has been a gloomy time for restaurants all over the country. Well-known names and hometown favorites are shutting their doors, while other chefs try to figure out how long they can hang on.
But Bonchon, the quick service chain best known for Korean fried chicken and other Korean dishes, expects to keep growing, even if the pace isn’t as fast as it once hoped for 2020.
Bonchon expects to add 15 new U.S. outlets during the rest of 2020, says CEO Flynn Dekker, a restaurant industry veteran who was named to his position last year.
That’s fewer than the 20 it hoped to open this year, but Dekker says the rest will open in 2021, and potentially more.
Bonchon plans to launch the new outlets in California, Maryland, Oregon, Colorado and Illinois, joining 100 Bonchon restaurants in the United States. Worldwide, Bonchon has about 350 restaurants in nine countries.
“By 2026, we’d like to have 500 restaurants in the U.S. and 500 internationally, for 1,000 total,” Dekker says.
Bonchon’s original U.S. restaurants were on the east and west coasts, but Dekker says it’s now open to nearly any location.
“We’re spreading out far and wide in the U.S.,” Dekker says.
Originally, Bonchon awarded franchises to operators who liked Korean food, and “came knocking on our door.”
But with its new restaurants, Dekker says Boncon is giving preference to established franchise owners, who already have an operating structure in place and experience with one or more types of restaurant concepts.
“This isn’t a hobby, and a lot of people have this romantic vision of operating a restaurant,” Dekker says. “They think. ‘It’s going to be great, I’m going to sit at a corner table and customers will come in and kiss my ring.’”
Bonchon’s Flynn Dekker
Instead, he says owners of Bonchon franchises “have to have a roll up the sleeve attitude.” The company wants owners who can put in the work required to launch a new name in their market and help diners become familiar with the food.
Dekker understands that challenge. “If you had asked me what Korean cuisine was like growing up in Indiana, I couldn’t have told you,” he says.
But virtually every big American city now has a Korean restaurant, if not many, and well-known chefs like Hooni Kim have introduced top-flight places.
Americans have proved they appreciate Korean culture, through movies such as Parasite, which won the 2020 Academy Award as best picture, and music from K-Pop artists like Psy, BTS and Blackpink.
“The two worlds are starting to meet,” he says.
Dekker himself reflects that trend. Most recently at Wingstop WING , he replaced Bonchon founder Jinduk Seo, who remains a shareholder and board member. VIG Partners, a private-equity firm based in Seoul, acquired majority control in December, 2018.
Bonchon’s biggest advantage, he says, is that it offers something different in one of the fastest growing parts of quick service and fast food. “There’s no one in our lane at the moment,” he says. “It’s high quality, a unique cooking style, with unique flavors.”
Plus, “I don’t know too many people who don’t like fried chicken. It’s like pizza.”
Bonchon’s network has rebounded from the depth of the COVID-19 pandemic, although the company was caught short without drive-thru restaurants when shutdown orders took effect across the country.
Bonchon experienced its worst month of 2020 in March, he says, but its outlets pivoted quickly to carry out and delivery through online orders. Previously, online orders comprised 49 percent of its business; by summer, 94 percent of orders were placed online.
Its sit down diners had made up 51 percent of its business. By summer, in-person visits comprised just six percent of orders, Dekker says. The tagline on its website now reads, “Deep fried. Delivered.”
Bonchon isn’t cheap. Its prices are more in the range of quick service restaurants than those of fast food chicken outlets like KFC and Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen.
A 10-piece order of wings costs $13.45, according to the menu for one of its Chicago stores. An eight-piece order of potstickers is $11.45. A main dish of fried rice also costs $11.45, while bibimbap, a Korean favorite, is $13.45.
Bonchon charges $3.25 for kimchi, irking some Korean food fans who say the condiment should be offered at no charge, while pickled radish is $2.
More recently, Bonchon has enjoyed “weeks of positive sales.” Before the pandemic, the typical ticket was about $31. Now, diners are order $5 to $10 more food, which Dekker suspects is because many people are getting extra to eat as leftovers.
Dekker says Bonchon is developing a style of restaurant that will only do carryout and delivery, and hopes to roll out in the concept within 12 months.
He’s spending plenty of time looking at technology that will allow Bonchon better control over food preparation and delivery costs.
In the meantime, Dekker says he’s pleased with how Bonchon has come through the COVID spring and summer.
“Your bruises become a lot more visible in times like this, and I think you’re seeing that in the restaurant space,” he says. “It’s a big of survival of the fittest. Those who adapt the quickest will survive and thrive.”