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[K-Food] Pulmuone targets health-conscious Americans with tofu lineup

Korean food giant has become unrivaled leader in US with Korean-style tofu with flavorful twists

By Lee Yoon-seo

Published : March 9, 2023 - 16:05

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Cho Kil-su, head of Pulmuone USA (Pulmuone) Cho Kil-su, head of Pulmuone USA (Pulmuone)

This is the second installment of a series of interviews with global business chiefs of South Korean food companies that are expanding aggressively in overseas markets. -- Ed.

About 7 out of 10 tofu products sold in the US are made by South Korean food giant Pulmuone.

Cho Kil-su, head of Pulmuone USA, said its unrivaled market position is an outcome of years of efforts to creatively localize one of the most highly regarded alternative sources for protein -- Korean tofu -- along with a slew of Korean vegan products that resonated strongly with a traditionally meat-dominant market that is beginning to incorporate more plant-based foods.

"The US market saw significant growth in consumption of plant-based food after the pandemic years, as consumers' interest in health grew," said Cho during a recent interview with The Korea Herald.

"Concern for the environment also grew after the pandemic, and demand for plant-based products soared even higher as they produce less carbon dioxide throughout the production process.”

Set to strategically target the still niche market in the US, where vegan trends such as “Meatless Monday” and “Plant Forward” are gaining traction, Cho said Pulmuone aims to inundate the US market with healthy, low-fat Korean food that the company has sold at home for some 40 years.

Pulmuone USA's efforts to localize Korean tofu was one of the most fruitful strategies.

"As tofu further gained the spotlight as a protein source to replace meat, demand for tofu in the US increased steeply. By 2021, Pulmuone’s tofu exports to the US reached 1 million units a month,” Cho said.

"Through constant research and development, we released an imaginative variety of tofu that aimed to suit every possible consumer demand.”

Pulmuone USA's list of tofu products sold there ranges from High Protein Tofu, which has 1.8 times higher protein content than regular tofu, Super Firm Tofu, which is two to four times harder than domestic tofu, and a number of bite-sized tofu products flavored with different sauces such as BBQ sauce and Teriyaki sauce. This is in addition to seasoned tofu with the minimized "bean smell" that Americans particularly dislike, he said.

"Thanks to our strategy, our US tofu market share has never dropped below 60 percent since 2016," Cho said.

The company's success in the tofu market served as an impetus for the company's launch of a series of "healthy" instant noodles.

Back in 2015 when Pulmuone was preparing for its entry into the Asian noodle market in the US, it was already a crowded market with a variety of noodle products, but most of them had been low-priced "yutang noodles," or cheap fried noodles garnished with powder-based soup.

So the company set up a different strategy to pioneer the market with “premium Asian noodles,” which consisted of precooked, dry noodles packed with flavored powder and/or seasoning oil.

With such products positively received, noodle sales played a key role in driving up the company’s overall sales in recent years. Last year, the US unit posted a record $209 million in sales.

"Our current bestseller is Japanese-style Teriyaki Stir-fry Udon, but after witnessing the market potential for health-conscious food here, we are planning to expand our product lineup to include more traditional Korean foods,” Cho said.

In particular, he touted the recent launch of japchae, a traditional Korean stir-fried glass noodle dish with meat and vegetables, as a huge success, saying, “The consumer reaction was explosive.”

Targeting the US market with traditional kimchi also proved effective.

Cho said while their strategy to localize tofu proucts to suit the US consumers' tastebuds received positive feedback, they also found a demand for traditional Korean kimchi.

Therefore, Cho said Pulmuone USA applied its own kimchi fermentation process to all its kimchi exports to the US, and ensured that the products maintained a constant temperature and humidity, to maximize the taste of traditional Korean kimchi.

Currently, some 14,000 outlets of major US retail channels such as Walmart and Costco, along with hundreds of restaurant chains, sell and use Pulmuone's products.

For its plans going forward, Cho said Pulmuone USA will be centering more on targeting B2B chains.

"This year, we plan to further expand our production infrastructure and expand our B2B business. We will mainly center on supplying universities with our products, as we have analyzed that young adults are most sensitive about health issues and receptive to new types of food," said Cho.

"We have partnered with leading local universities such as Yale University and Virginia Tech to provide sustainable food, and contribute to having students establish healthy diets."

"We also aim to foray into Canada and Europe by expanding our tofu production line at the Ayer tofu plant (in Massachusetts) at the end of 2023."