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(Yonhap Feature) Garak Market welcomes shoppers with modernized face

All Headlines 09:00 September 02, 2016

By Kim Eun-jung

SEOUL, Sept. 2 (Yonhap) -- If you are bored with the franchise supermarkets in your neighborhood and want a more lively shopping experience and variety for your dinner table, drop by Garak Market.

Located in the southeastern district of Songpa-gu in Seoul, the agriculture and fisheries wholesale market trades virtually everything we eat, including vegetables, fruits, seafood and meat, directly delivered from local farms and fisheries.

First opened in 1985, Garak Market handles one-third of the total volume of the nation's agro-fishery trade and provides half of the products for the Seoul metropolitan area.

The wholesale section is mostly crowded after dark through dawn for auctioneers. About 130,000 vendors, employees and customers use the market, with the number of trucks and cars in and out of the area numbering around 42,000 a day.

While the traditional market reminds people of the hustle and bustle of trucks and noisy auction scenes in the early morning, it has more to offer than bulky packages for ordinary shoppers with the opening of a new food market complex called "Garak Mall" in July.

Garak Mall, which can be easily reached from Garak Market Station on both subway lines 3 and 8, is a three-story building with three underground floors, spanning a total of 210,000 square meters. It has air conditioners and parking on each floor, equipped with a cooling tower and low temperature warehouses in the basement to store products fresh at all time. It is also close to major bus stations.

"As Songpa district has transformed into an affluent residential area, the market has faced growing calls to keep in pace with the recent development to meet the upgraded living standards," said Sohn Bong-hee, a public relations manager at Seoul Agro-Fisheries & Food Corporation (SAFFC), which manages the market. "The efficient logistics system, spacious parking lots and other amenities are no longer optional. They have become essential requirements to become a modern food market."

On the first floor, small seafood stores are lined up along the narrow alley to woo customers with king crab, shrimp, flatfish and octopus swimming in aquariums, which are delivered from the nearby fish market.

Shoppers can either bring the fish home or eat them at restaurants on the third floor, which will fix a table and offer side dishes with additional fees.

In the livestock section on the first floor, over 100 butcher shops sell all types of beef, pork, chicken and other poultry under red lights.

Customers can choose from different grades and cuts of meat, and also go upstairs to eat it in restaurants that offer grill fans, side dishes and drinks.

"Come early in the morning, then you can see butchers cutting meat off the bones. You can select anything you want on the spot, which are undoubtedly fresh," the owner of Haenam Livestock said, without giving his name.

With many shop owners having been in the business for as long as three decades, they have regular patrons both from the wholesale and retail side. Unlike small-scale markets that are easily overwhelmed by franchise chains, Garak merchants say Lotte Mart, a discount chain operated by retail giant Lotte, across the street isn't a big threat to them.

"I once had a customer who was wondering how we could sell this cheap compared to Lotte Mart," said Kang Jung-moon, the owner of Pyunghwa Food, which sells salted seafood. "It's simple. Stores in large discount chains operated by conglomerates have to pay high rental fees, but we pay less and offer cheaper prices for our customers. With a big warehouse on the outskirts of the city, we also have economies of scale."

On the second floor, you can find all kinds of ingredients in a supermarket and shop for organic food at Saenong, which sells anti-biotic free eggs, organic tomatoes and bananas.

For those who need kitchenware, Hanju on the second floor is a good place to go. It is the nation's largest kitchenware store by space and number with 150,000 items, and deals with both wholesale and retail customers.

"As the shopping space has air conditioners and easy access to parking lots after the renovation, customers stay here longer. Everything has a price tag with a barcode, so they don't have to hassle," Yoon Jong-jin, CEO of Hanju Kitchen, said.

Although the market went through a major facelift, regular customers say they still feel cozy and more of a connection with sellers, a differentiated atmosphere from the centralized-marketing driven franchise stores.

"Large discount stores have all in one place in glitzy buildings, but they lack in human relations between buyers and sellers. Sometimes, it's very convenient, but I want more bargains and real talk with veteran sellers who know better than sales clerks at franchise stores," Park Bok-suk, a 63-year-old housewife from Jamsil, said.

Besides the retail shopping space, Garak Mall has a cooking studio and libraries open to the public.

The open studio teaches how to cook various kinds of seasonal Korean dishes, also accepting groups who make reservations in advance.

"It's better to teach people how to cook with locally grown ingredients than just telling them home-grown products are better than imported goods," said Han Hye-young, a culinary and hotel management professor at Andong Science College. "We have various programs for kids, men and groups, and also plan to open classes for foreigners in the future."

While opening Garak Mall was the first big step of the four-stage modernization project, the market is expected to change more as SAFFC plans to improve logistics efficiency and food safety of the wholesale section by 2025.

"Once you come here, you will be able to find things to eat, see and do in one place," Shin said. "Our ultimate goal is to make Garak the world's largest food market and the center of K-food."

ejkim@yna.co.kr
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