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July 16, 2024

[Herald Interview] Korean sauce maker Woomtree seeks global expansion with healthy, long-lasting ‘K-jang’

PUBLISHED : July 07, 2024 - 16:40

UPDATED : July 07, 2024 - 16:40

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Kim Woo-taek, founder and CEO of Woomtree, poses during an interview with The Korea Herald at Woomtree's headquarters in Pocheon, Gyeonggi Province, on Thursday. (Im Se-jun/ The Korea Herald)

Woomtree, a Korean company specializing in manufacturing gochujang (red chili paste) and other sauces, bets big on the global expansion of long-lasting and healthy "K-sauces," unlike instant foods with fleeting popularity.

"People's interest in fermented food and well-being is growing around the world, and I think Korean fermented sauces are at the center of it," said Kim Woo-taek, founder and CEO of Woomtree, during an interview with The Korea Herald at the company's headquarters in Pocheon, Gyeonggi Province, on Thursday.

"There is no easy path to producing healthy food. Since I entered this industry 30 years ago, I have committed to sourcing the best high-quality ingredients, even at a higher cost compared to other competing brands," Kim said.

Since its establishment in 1978, Woomtree has developed over 130 products, starting with wasabi and gochujang at the center.

With its 140 employees, Woomtree's main offerings include various sauces and premixes, prominently featuring gochujang.

The company's overseas business portfolio has grown annually for four years, accounting for 11.6 percent of total sales in the first half of this year. North America represents about 35 percent of overseas sales, followed by Latin America with 25 percent.

Woomtree's export footprint expanded from 34 countries in 2021 to 38 in 2022 and 41 by June this year. Overseas sales have risen each year, from 4.5 billion won ($3.2 million) in 2021 to 6.9 billion won in 2023. The number of exported items also increased from 75 in 2021 to over 100 this year.

Woomtree's founder Kim Woo-taek explains the gochujang fermentation process at Woomtree's smart factory in Pocheon, Gyeonggi Province, on Thursday. (Im Se-jun/ The Korea Herald)

Kim adheres to two key principles in his sauce business: prioritizing the quality of raw materials and consistently managing the factory environment.

Woomtree ensures quality by personally inspecting ingredients from the cultivation stage through to harvest and management, making business trips to different parts of the globe each year. Mustard is imported from the US and Canada, wasabi from China, and pepper from Vietnam, all of which are top-grade certified.

The Pocheon plant has implemented smart factory facilities to maintain sanitary conditions by restricting access if standards are not met. Machines automatically halt if raw material errors or mixing mistakes occur.

The growing global interest in K-culture and K-pop has boosted overseas consumption of these products, according to Kim. With this phenomenon, Woomtree held a successful roadshow at the Sunnyvale Costco store in California and is trading steadily with Amazon's Whole Foods, with plans to enter Walmart Online soon.

Woomtree prioritizes the word "K-jang" itself in its export strategy.

Jang refers to any type of fermented bean-based paste, including gochujang, "doenjang" (soybean paste), and "ssamjang" (doenjang-based spicy paste). "People simply call it K-sauce, but we also label it in Hangeul as well in our export products with the word 'jang,' for consumers to be able to feel the healthiness of jang's making process when they see the word," Kim explained. "On the other hand, labeling our products in Hangeul has become a selling point also, as Korean content and products are now highly popular, especially among younger generations."

Part of Woomtree's Pocheon factory in Gyeonggi Province (Kim Hae-yeon/ The Korea Herald)

Woomtree's founder and CEO Kim Woo-taek examines the fermenting process of gochujang sauce at the firm's factory in Pocheon, Gyeonggi Province, on Thursday. (Kim Hae-yeon/ The Korea Herald)

Regarding the popularity of spicy foods like the Buldak series, Kim noted that the demand for spiciness extends beyond mere trends.

"For instance, Indonesians have long preferred much spicier food and ingredients than Koreans," he said. "We have about 20 products exported to Indonesia and are preparing to commercialize Halal-certified gochujang products that will be launched soon. We also plan to sell other spicy-type jang sauces there after the United States."

To familiarize foreign consumers with K-food, Woomtree is introducing recipes through various social media channels.

"Although we have guided videos and other materials to help assist in cooking K-food with our sauce, we encourage the creative use of our sauces," Kim said, adding how he saw unique applications of jang abroad that Koreans never imagined, such as kneading bread dough with gochujang in Europe.

The CEO is also in the process of developing a gochujang burger sauce for the US market. Kim came up with this idea after seeing how gochujang was cooked and enjoyed in various ways by foreigners and restaurants overseas.

With this in mind, Woomtree can flexibly adjust ingredients to match local tastes and the specific requirements of local sales channels. "In Korea, popular products often contain some 30 percent maltose for a glossy appearance, but this dulls the actual taste so we replaced it with sugar or oligosaccharide for a cleaner aftertaste. For international markets, we consult with our clients and buyers to match their specific preferences that consumers in the region would prefer."

Looking ahead, Kim expressed his ambition to attract more dedicated overseas consumers to Woomtree products by improving quality and creating healthy, safe food.

"While the initial overseas export of K-food decades ago was mainly to be consumed by Koreans and Asian residents living abroad, Woomtree aims to thoroughly target and be recognized by local consumers in each country, and that is our goal for the next 10 years to come."

By Kim Hae-yeon (hykim@heraldcorp.com)

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