Baek Jong-won - the Most Famous Entrepreneur in Korea
If I had to guess the most famous entrepreneur in Korea, I would say it’s Baek Jong-won.
If you’ve never heard of him; Baek Jong-won is the founder of an international restaurant company called The Born. The Born is a major player in the South Korean dining market with over 20 brands and 1,500 restaurants.1
There’s no doubt that Baek is an outstanding businessperson. Fast-casual Korean, BBQ, Korean Chinese, bibimbap, Udon, etc. You name a popular cuisine in Korea and the guy has created a successful brand already.
However, Baek’s restaurants are only a fraction of his far-reaching influence in Korea. To really understand him, we need to talk about his recipes, TV show appearances, and even philosophy.
If chefs’ recipes are for professional cyclists, my recipes are like a bicycle with training wheels. - Baek Jong-won
Lots of Koreans, including myself, follow these steps when cooking a meal:
Choose what I want to eat.
Search for Baek’s recipe online.
‘백종원 레시피’ (Baek Jong-won recipe) has become a genre itself. Why? Some notable characteristics, besides his likable personality, have contributed to the unprecedented success of his recipes.
No need for special ingredients and techniques. Baek’s recipes are meant to serve those who are unfamiliar with cooking. In other words, Baek doesn’t give a shit about “a proper way to cut an onion” or “the healthiest meal for you.” His goal is to teach you the easiest way to cook up some tasty food. For example, he never asks you to use “5 grams of minced garlic.” Baek just tells you to use “a spoon of minced garlic.” Is it the most precise method? No. But everyone can easily understand the recipes.
Just like The Born’s restaurants that serve comfort food at cheap prices, Baek’s recipes never use a “gourmet” ingredient. You can follow most of his recipes with the ingredients available in convenient stores. He even releases a new recipe when a certain ingredient like green onions (대파) becomes extremely cheap due to the oversupply. That's why students follow his recipes religiously.
Baek is not a chef but an incredible food researcher. The man has studied so much about food that he is known as a “walking food dictionary.” His vast knowledge about food history and restaurant business has enabled shows like Alley Restaurant and Street Food Fighter.
Baek’s recipes from his books, tv-shows, and YouTube have inspired millions of people to stop ordering and start cooking. I would argue that his recipes are the biggest force that shapes Koreans’ eating habits.
I’m not a celebrity. I’m a food entrepreneur. I appear on these TV shows because I want people to know more about the food they eat. When people understand how the food is made, they begin to appreciate what they order at restaurants. - Baek Jong-won
Baek doesn’t enjoy being a mega-famous celebrity in Korea, but he has never stopped appearing on TV since The Real Taste of Korea first aired in 2010.
The media is Baek’s powerful leverage
Baek’s influence on Korean media began to skyrocket when he appeared on My Little Television on MBC in 2015.2 There were so many guests on the program, but Baek’s cooking show was the primary reason behind MLT’s success.
Just a few examples of Baek’s huge impact in 2015: Supermarkets ran out of minced pork when he came up with “multi-purpose soy sauce (만능간장),” the sales of canned fish increased by 14 times when Baek introduced “canned fish recipes,” and The Born reported its 34% revenue growth.
After My Little Television’s enormous success, Baek continued to host shows such as The Homemade Food Master from 2015 to 2017, Alley Restaurant from 2018, and Street Food Fighter from 2018.3 No need to know what these shows are about. The argument here is that Baek is, in Korea, Gordon Ramsay in Hell’s Kitchen plus Anthony Bourdain in Part Unknown.
It’s now difficult to name one successful cooking show in Korea without the presence of Baek. In these shows, Baek is the one that helps restaurant owners to revitalize their business, promotes the consumption of overproduced farm products, and introduces unfamiliar cuisines around the world. He does it all and no one dares to replace him.
Not just the TV shows though. When Baek started his YouTube Channel in 2019, he only needed 3 days to reach a million subscribers (now at around 5 million). Baek’s YouTube videos mainly showcase his signature recipes (usually have subtitles in 5 different languages) and Baek’s advice for fellow restaurant owners.
He constantly says he is neither a chef nor a celebrity, and this belief has prevented him from appearing on shows that have nothing to do with food and restaurants. However, Baek understands the power of media as a leverage. Through the shows, books, and even cartoons, he’s become a man that cannot be introduced by a single title. He’s now simply known as Baek Jong-won.
You need direct experience to be really curious about the problem. Start small now and you’ll be able to find your uniqueness. - Baek Jong-won
When Baek was only [9 years old] (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-IV35uxHaUc), his dream was to become a wealthy mushroom farmer. When he was 12, he collected glasses with a handcart to sell them to a junk shop. Before starting college, he worked as a used car dealer. Before graduating college, he was already the owner of 3 different pubs.
Despite all the success, when Baek graduated from college, his family got so worried about his plan to take over a nightclub and eventually forced him to join the army to serve as an officer for 4 years.
Anyways, Baek’s career as a restauranteur finally began with a ssambap (Korean rice wraps) restaurant in 1993.4 At that time, Baek was not too serious about the restaurant business. Instead, he was more interested in becoming a world-class timber trader. Baek says, “I only wanted to make a lot of money.”
After Baek had invested so much into the timber business, IMF financial crisis took place in 1997 to make Baek 1.5 million dollars in debt. This failure made him feel so hopeless about the future that he decided to kill himself in Hong Kong.5
When arrived in Hong Kong, Baek realized drowning himself in the river is not a good idea since he’s a decent swimmer. Also, jumping from the buildings is impossible because he could not even access the rooftops. So, in Hong Kong, Baek failed to commit suicide but ended up eating tons of great food before “dying.”
Eventually, the food he ate in Hong Kong inspired Baek to realize the fact that he still owns a restaurant to pay back the debt. Baek found his passion for food when he failed to end his life.
Back in Korea, Baek began to convince the creditors to wait until his restaurant becomes successful. And, as we all know, he only needed a few years to keep his promise. His company The Born began to launch successful brands such as Hanshin Pocha in 1998, Bornga in 2002, Paik’s BBQ in 2005, and Paik’s Coffee in 2006.
Do what you like. My work doesn’t feel like work. I don’t care how much time I spend thinking about food. I just feel so happy. - Baek Jong-won
Baek has shared his insight through several essays and videos. These are some of his ideas that have resonated with me:
Be genuine — “You don’t have to force yourself to be kind to the customers. Be kind when your heart tells you to.”
Don’t overthink — “Don’t drown yourself with the numbers and market analysis. When testing a new brand, I ask my employees to raise hands if they think the price and quality are satisfactory. I never think too much.”
Customer experience is multifaceted — “When someone likes your restaurant. The taste of your food can only be 30% of the reason. 70% of the reason is the restaurant’s ambiance.”
Think big — “I have so many brands that have never been shown to the public. Before launching a restaurant, we aim to have 2-300 restaurants all over the country … Don’t ask your friends before making a decision. Think about what the majority of people actually want.”
Conviction matters — “Don’t invite your family when you open a restaurant. They’ll try to contribute by saying something like ‘too salty’ or ‘too sweet.’ You must be aware that every individual tastes food differently. Just believe in yourself.”
Have skin in the game — “Successful restaurant owners I know have never received help from the business consultants. The consultants will tell you that they worked for these great brands, but they’ve never built anything on their own.”
Baek’s legacy does not end here
I never knew I would think like this today. I originally started my business to make money. When people started to give compliments, I began to care about what others think about me. I suddenly wanted to become a role model. - Baek Jong-won
Once thought of killing himself, Baek continues to launch new restaurant brands, host successful tv shows, and donate hundreds and thousands of dollars for people like low-income households and flood victims.6
Baek’s unflinching passion for food inspires me because he has created a new market that suits his passion. Will Baek be successful forever? Nobody knows. But, Baek sure will be one the happiest Koreans as long as he can make build out of his passion.
Although The Born is based in Korea, its restaurants have reached other countries like Japan, China, Vietnam, Singapore, Australia, and the United States.↩
My Little Television featured several guests who had to stream original content like the creators on Twitch.↩
Baek will also be hosting Baek’s Spirit in collaboration with Netflix.↩
The restaurant is famous for “the first restaurant to serve 대패 삼겹살 (thin-sliced pork belly).”↩
Baek had never been to Hong Kong but thought it would be the ideal place to die. Probably influenced by some movies of Hong Kong.↩
Also, Baek’s face can be found on products like a lunch box, multi-purpose sauce, and canned pork.↩