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Bibigo aims to be McDonald’s of bibimbap

CJ’s strategy chief stresses ‘motherly leadership’ at creative company

CJ Group, a local food giant, launched the bibimbap restaurant chain Bibigo in May 2010, targeting global customers from the beginning.

Noh Hee-young, a celebrated tastemaker and the strategist behind the brand, believes this will be different from other numerous failed attempts to globalize Korean cuisine.

“I have no doubt that Bibigo will become a global brand like McDonald’s within a few years,” the executive director of CJ’s brand communication told The Korea Herald.

Noh, 47, nicknamed the “Midas of the food industry,” has never hesitated to make dramatic career shifts. 
Noh Hee-young, executive director of CJ’s brand communication. (Kim Myung-sub/The Korea Herald)
Noh Hee-young, executive director of CJ’s brand communication. (Kim Myung-sub/The Korea Herald)

The former medical student at the University of Southern California quit the school to enter Parsons School of Design in New York.

After 10 years as a successful accessory designer, she became a marketing consultant for famous restaurants and cafes, introducing a new dining culture to Korea.

In 2007, she joined Orion, a leading snack maker, and led the global success of premium snack brand “The Market O.”

Another turnaround came last year when she heard CJ Group was preparing to start a bibimbap chain. At the time, she was vice president at Orion.

“I thought ‘I’m the person who should do that project.’ I asked my boss to understand my participation in the rival company’s project,” Noh said.

Remaining an Orion employee, she led the Bibigo project for months leading up to the global launch in May. Then she moved to CJ in July as it was expanding into franchise restaurants.

“I am confident about the popular dish bibimbap. The after-sauce concept, in particular, allows foreigners who are not familiar with Korean food to check the ingredients,” she said.

“Globalization of Korean food cannot be achieved without making them pay to eat. Rather than insisting on Korean style, we have sought how to serve them best.”

Noh adopted the quick dining trend, which is spreading quickly throughout the world, to Bibigo restaurants.

Customers can select their favorite ingredients, including the choice of rice and sauce, and their customized bibimbap is served in less than one minute.

Unlike other franchise chains first targeting overseas Koreans, Bibigo decided to mingle with local customers with its stores in major cities.

CJ Foodville, the operator, currently runs seven outlets in Korea and three overseas stores in Beijing, Los Angeles and Singapore, and plans to open in new locations, including London, early next year.

“I wouldn’t say the first reaction is exploding. But their awareness toward the brand is steadily growing,” she said.

Driven by growing popularity, CJ CheilJedang, the group’s grocery unit, recently decided to sell products in overseas markets under the brand name “Bibigo.”

Noh, who has insisted on being involved in the entire decision-making process, describes her role at the company as “mother.”

“I’m not talking about gender. Steve Jobs, who took care about every detail of a product, also played the role of mother rather than that of father,” she said.

“There are too many fathers in Korean companies.”

Such attention to detail has transformed her abstract position title of strategic advisor into an actual job producing tangible results over the past year.

She has refurbished the group’s more than 20 food brands ranging from the retro-style marketing for grocery brand Beksul, to the rebranding of the steakhouse VIPS and bakery chain Tous les Jours.

She is briefed every day on the daily sales of each brand because brand renewal is ultimately aimed at making more profits, she said.

CJ Foodworld, which opened in July, is the culmination of Noh’s presence at CJ.

The food hall, consisting of 19 restaurants, cafes and shops, was started to feed the company’s 4,000 employees by using its own products.

But now the two-story space at the company’s headquarters in northern Seoul has become a popular dining and shopping spot.

Noh says her next goal is making “clones” among the younger generation.

“I want to show young people by myself that if they are multi-talented, and creative enough, they are offered opportunities to exert their talent,” she said.

By Lee Ji-yoon (
catch table
Korea Herald daum