Monday, October 06, 2008

Competition in Business.

Friends of mine have a restaurant in my little town. It's good to have friends with a restaurant, bee lee you me!

Anyhow, for three years their restaurant was seriously old skool. The tables were oil drums with a hole in the middle where you put the coals to grill the meat. The floor was comprised of little rocks and it was best if you dug your plastic stool into them before you sat down or you were liable to tip over. Those rocks, my friends told me, were hell to clean after a patron would barf over them after too much soju. The toilet out back was a squatter with no flush. After visiting the facilities you'd have to draw from a bucket of rainwater and head back into the loo to splash your "stuff" down the drain. The restaurant was small, only eight tables - and it was poorly ventilated. Boiling hot in the summer and freezing in the winter, it was pretty humble.

When I went on vacation in July, though, renovations were already happening just up the street on a building which was going to house their new restaurant. The place was gutted when I left and I had no idea what it would look like when I returned. Their grand opening was on the 1st of August and so they had already been open almost three weeks when I came back and saw the results. I was SO surprised! Their new place in gorgeous and it's so big! They've got those silver smoke suckers over every table and the stools are plush and comfortable and they've got a great patio with an awning that unfurls with the push of a button. There are two giant air-conditioning/heating units. Stalls! Sit down toilets! That flush! And sinks! With Soap! So posh!

I was really awed by the colours and decor my friends picked out. Very nice. I told them they should hire a manager to run their place and go into the restaurant design business.

And now they've got franchises! There are two other restaurants bearing the same name and menus, and tonight the husband portion of my friend-couple was away in Gyeongju helping another fellow scout out a location for a third franchise.

My friends are "moving on up" Jefferson style!

Last Wednesday I stopped by after work just to say hello and I found the staff (which has tripled in the new digs) absolutely in the weeds. One of the regular girls had a day off, and two other employees hadn't bothered to show up. Bigger place, bigger headaches sort of deal. I asked my friend (really half-jokingly) if I could help out, and she said "oh no, we're okay," but with a look on her face indicating they really weren't. The wait staff were running full speed around the restaurant. I dropped my bags and said, "Naw, I'm going to help."

And so I bussed and cleaned tables non-stop for two and a half hours. And then I did grunt work like polishing and sorting three huge bowls of chopsticks, spoons, tongs, and scissors, (essentials for a "galbi-jip") stacked glasses, and refilled water jugs.

And I liked it.
It's very "Diner Dash" and I sort of pretended I was playing a computer game while I was working. A long time ago I used to work in a huge restaurant in Toronto and it was one of my favourite jobs ever. I liked the camaraderie and the busyness and trying to ensure that customers were enjoying themselves.

When I returned from Canada in August I asked my friends what was going to happen to their old restaurant and they told me it had already been rented out. Their small place was sandwiched between a "Family Mart" convenience store and a chicken restaurant. The guy who owned the chicken joint is an asshole. His chicken sucks and his restaurant was always pretty empty. He didn't make any friends in the neighbourhood; everyone knew he was a jerk. Turns out he rented out my friends' old space and was planning to knock the wall down and expand his restaurant. Which he did.

Thing is, he didn't re-open as a sucky chicken restaurant. He opened as a clone of my friends' new restaurant! It had a similar design and exactly the same menu! I was so surprised. He's just so shameless and brazen. Sure, imitation is the best form of flattery blah blah, but that's not the case when you've got two restaurants serving the same dishes on the same block.

Let me say, though, that I'm sure this industry theft imitation isn't entirely unusual in Korea. If you've been here you'll notice that there are blocks of similar businesses. You want a puppy? Go to the area where there's ten pet shops in a row. Feel like eating some sashimi? Head on over the the Street of Raw Fish Restos. I think if one business has some success, other people will come along and open the exact same shop virtually next door in the hopes of leeching off your good fortune. It seems so slimy and underhanded to me, but such is Korean commerce.

So Chicken Asshole opened his new barbecue restaurant a few weeks ago with all the flourish a new business venture here comes with: dancing girls, blaring music, free T-shirts, balloons, and seven solid days of free soju! The place was packed and my friends were worried. I tried to soothe them into not sweating it, telling them Chicken Asshole had surely invited in some bad juju through his actions.

Sure enough, his business seems to be going down the toilet. Try as he might, he just doesn't seem to know how to make his food delicious. Ha! Customers would come into my friends' restaurant and confide that they'd been to the other restaurant and the grub was jinja mashiopda. So they returned to my friends' eatery where they know how to make pork rectum up good and yummy. My inner Hero for Justice has been smug and pointing fingers with a big "HA!" and "serves you right" to Chicken Asshole, who even contacted a former employee of my friends with an offer to buy the recipes for their marinades in the hopes of yummying up his meat. So sneaky.

Tonight I feel bad, though. As I walked by on my way home I noticed the copycat restaurant was closed and Chicken Man was taping a sign to the door. I wondered what happened. Turns out there was a pretty horrible car accident right in front of the restaurant just a couple hours before and one of their waitresses was killed.

I had wished bad luck in business to this man out of loyalty to my friends, but certainly not THAT bad. Jeeze.

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