When the team behind Restaurant Gangnam opened the doors in Karawara just before Christmas, it expected a few quiet months before word spread about the new Korean venue.
The founders also thought that, once trade picked up, Koreans and South-East Asians were likely to be the restaurant’s principal customers.
To their delight, both of those assumptions have been proven wrong – with bustling lunchtime trade illustrating the venue’s quickly established appeal, which has increased since the return of students at neighbouring Curtin University.
Even more pleasing to the owner, however, is that non-Asian customers are making up about one third of the customer base, with Koreans accounting for less than 10 per cent.
It could be that the name resonates with Westerners – Gangnam is an affluent suburb in Seoul that featured in the ubiquitous Korean Pop (K-Pop) song by Psy in 2012.
But even with the universally recognised name, head chef and co-founder Chang Woo Park told Business News he was expecting to have to modify the menu so it appealed to Australian tastes.
“But we didn’t change anything, they liked our style already,” he said.
Restaurant Gangnam’s popularity with Westerners was even more suprising, Mr Park said, due to the location of the popular Hippo Creek restaurant just a few doors away.
The early success has prompted Lease Equity, which operates Waterford Plaza, to lobby the founders for a second Restaurant Gangnam in another of its shopping centres.
Fellow founder Suk Jong Han said Trinity Arcade was a possibility, but Lease Equity had also suggested 140william as a location for a second restaurant.
The team is enthusiastic about expanding the business to three or more restaurants despite the challenges it faced with red tape and delays in approvals for the Waterford venue.
A third co-founder, Raymond Loh, said he expected a second restaurant to open before the year’s end, but drew the line at Mr Han’s suggestions of two new restaurants in 2014.
“There’s stull a lot of red tape. You hear a lot about cutting red tape but the cost of doing business, but we were still delayed considerably,” Mr Loh said.
Mr Han was prompted to open a Korean restaurant after the failure of his first foray into hospitality, a Thai restaurant in Melbourne, which he said proved he should stick to his Korean roots.
The Perth market provided a good opportunity given the lack of what Mr Han considers authentic Korean restaurants.
“If you go to Melbourne there are more than 35 Korean restaurants in the CBD; in Perth there are about five or six and usually they sell Japanese food together,” Mr Han said.
But a change was needed in the way Korean food was being presented in Perth, he said, which led to the inclusion of Mr Park as head chef.
Mr Park has worked in numerous restaurants in Perth, including The Lucky Shag at Barrack Square, which gave him an understanding of hot to modify traditional dishes to suit the market.
Mr Loh, who is Chinese Malaysian, has also been able to add his perspective on what may appeal to the South-East Asian diners.
Consequently, the team has moved away from the traditional Korean custom of only serving mains to now also include entrees and shared platters.
Mr Park has also reworked some of the traditional Korean flavours.
“It doesn’t taste the same (as in Korea) but it’s not that much different either, we make it a little bit less spicy, and we know that Westerners and South-East Asians like the sweet taste so we make it sweeter,” Mr Park said.
“We try to use the same ingredients as what we would use in Korea. I don’t want to mix in a very specific Western ingredient with Korean food.”
Koreans also have a tradition of sharing large bowls of casserole-style food, which Mr Park said was a practice Restaurant Gangnam had abandoned because it didn’t suit the Australian market.
Mr Loh said Karawara was an attractive location for the first restaurant because they wanted to grow the presence of Korean restaurants in the suburbs.
“A lot of the Korean restaurants that you see in WA are concentrated in the CBD area but once you go out into the suburbs they’re very hard to find,” he said.
“It’s probably similar to what you saw with Japanese restaurants about 20 years ago; all of the restaurants were in the CBD, but now you go out into the suburbs and you can see four or five.”