Menu Innovations | March 2008 | By Marilyn Odesser-Torpey

The Sweet Side of Asian

A South Korean treat is ready to become an American favorite.

With its golden sponge cake outside and creamy custard inside, Delimanjoo could be the love child of the all-American Twinkie and a French cream puff. The tiny (about 0.4 ounces each) snack cakes molded in the shape of miniature ears of corn are standard street and subway station fare in South Korea where they were created in the late 1990s. And now this petite pastry has American food bloggers buzzing and has even inspired a batter-to-first-bite video on MySpace.

According to Delice Co. Ltd., the Korean firm that developed the cake and the small-space-friendly patented technology to produce it, the name Delimanjoo is derived from “delicious” and “manjoo” the Korean word for the traditional Chinese snack dim sum. Referring to a sampling of the sweets at a small, independent stand in New York City, a reporter for the Village Voice newspaper observed that these creamy-centered cakes “seem poised to become a local addiction.”

And one growing San Jose-based quick-service chain is hoping to create cravings for the cakes from coast to coast. After seeing how popular the cakes were during a trip to Korea, Chieu Le, a Vietnamese-born entrepreneur who immigrated to the U.S., decided to showcase Delimanjoo at his family’s 34-unit Lee’s Sandwiches chain.

Each Lee’s Sandwich unit dedicates somewhere around 100 square feet to making and merchandising Delimanjoo either in a freestanding kiosk or a in-line counter exhibition set-up. (Delice Co. Ltd. says that the footprint for a Delimanjoo kiosk can be as small as 35 square feet.)

Under brightly colored point-of-sale signage, an operator feeds a thin batter made from a base mix into an automated system that molds the cakes into their signature corn shape (Delice also makes molds in flower, star, and other shapes), bakes them, and pumps them full of custard filling, also made from a base mix.

Lee’s currently sticks with the vanilla custard filling, but will probably test other flavors in the future, says company Executive Vice President Ryan Hubris. The Delimanjoo machine is capable of producing as many as 600 cakes per hour.

Aficionados point out that the out-in-full-view technology is part of the snack’s appeal.

“Watching [the cakes] emerge from a miniature factory is the kind of thing that would stick in a kid’s mind as magic, like watching cotton candy being spun at a fair,” reported the Village Voice.

Lee’s sells them in bags of four pieces for $1 for popping on the go, handle boxes of 12 for $3 for heartier appetites, and boxes of 24 for $6 for sharing.

Many aficionados prefer to eat their Delimanjoo while they are still warm.

“Imagine a miniature Twinkie hot out of the oven, and you’ve got the flavor profile,” wrote a Houston Press reporter.

So far Lee’s has introduced Delimanjoo to its customers in California, Texas, Arizona, and Oklahoma. Although the company had expected to do well in Houston, where the first Lee’s opened in 2006, the enthusiasm for the concept’s reception there surpassed all expectations.

Within a year, the originally 11,000-square-foot store had to be expanded to 16,000 square feet, making it Lee’s largest location. And, after only one year, a second unit was opened in the city. The company also has a five-store franchise deal to develop the Dallas market.

Within the next few months, the company plans to bring its concept to Nevada, Oregon, and Washington. Lee’s also has an eye on expanding into Washington D.C./Virginia/ Maryland market areas within the next two or three years and doubling its number of locations each year as it continues its national growth.

Lee’s is now the exclusive North American distributor of the Delimanjoo technology and products. In addition to making and selling the cakes in its own stores, the company also offers separate Delimanjoo kiosk franchises.

The Asian influence is obvious throughout the Lee’s Sandwiches snack menu. House-made ice cream flavors include jackfruit, lychee, soursop, durian, and taro along with the more familiar vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry. Smoothie selections include green bean, sapodilla, and Thai tea. Customers can also add tapioca pearls or sippable bits of the Southeast Asian herbal gelatin called grass jelly.

No. 1 among the iced drink offerings is Lee’s signature café sua da, French drip coffee lightened and sweetened with condensed milk Vietnamese style. The coffee is roasted at the company’s central foodservice facility. Lee’s also offers pre-made café sua da in grab-and-go 16-ounce bottles and 64-ounce containers.

Other Eastern-inspired cooling concoctions are made from honey chrysanthemum tea, pennyworth (an herbal tea-like brew), and mint milk with or without grass jelly. Even the Italian soda selections include tropical flavors such as banana, coconut, mango, and passion fruit.

From the opening of their first brick-and-mortar restaurant in downtown San Jose in 1983, the Le family (they added an extra “e” to the name for the business as a nod to their adopted American home) in partnership with their relatives, the Quachs, have sought locations in areas with high Asian populations “to make sure that they attract a sufficient customer base to break even,” says COO Tom Quach. With a population of nearly 15 million, Asians are the third largest and second fastest-growing minority group in America, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Their numbers are projected to increase to more than 33 million by 2050.

The owners of Lee’s soon discovered that their flavor profiles were similar to those favored by Hispanics, the nation’s largest minority group, accounting for close to 15 percent of the U.S. population. Currently there are more than 44 million Hispanics in this country. That number is expected to increase to almost 103 million by 2050 and will make up 24 percent of the population.

College students, “who tend to be open to trying new flavors,” according to Hubris, and who are always looking for the biggest bang for their usually limited food bucks, have been so responsive to the concept that many of Lee’s locations are close to college campuses. And, Hubris says, that trend will continue as the company grows.

That strategy is in keeping with a recent National Association of College and University Food Services reported that, “Asian flavors and foods have exploded and are popular among many palates.” In its “2007 Culinary and Restaurant Trends report,” the Institute of Food Technologists predicted the “mainstreaming of ‘familiar’ ethnic street foods” from other cultures including Southeast Asian.

To wit: At some of the Lee’s restaurants in California, as many as 80 percent of the customers are non-Asian. In Houston the number is around 20 percent. Multilingual POS signage in the stores makes it easy for international customers to order. Free wireless Internet accessibility attracts students.

“We’re competing not just for the 15 million Asian Americans, but for the entire population of more than 300 million Americans,” Hubris says. 

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