Brown, twisted and pudgy, Korean entrepreneur Kim Dae Young’s self-created ‘ugly pretzels’ — a fried dough snack that’s a cross between a churro and a doughnut — would hardly qualify for a spot on any millennial’s Instagram feed.
Yet, his four-year-old F&B company Monnani reaped in an estimated $6.7 million last year — all thanks to his monnani kwabaeggi (the Korean name for the ugly pretzels), and the sudden foodie trend of indulging in unattractive food. Dirty buns, anyone?
To think Kim, 58, leaped into the F&B industry with zero experience. The former managing director of a fashion company was laid off from his high-flying job in 2015, and decided to venture into selling food after being inspired by the Spanish churros he tried on his business trips.
He started out small, hawking his churro-like wares at an outdoor market in Cheonan, South Korea, where he endured the harsh Korean winters, which caused him to get frostbitten toes.
He would have made his pretzels prettier, but as he had no culinary background, Kim couldn’t control the shape of the fried dough, which twisted itself into the ugly pretzel’s now signature knotted shape when dropped into hot oil. He decided to go with the flow and self-deprecatingly market them as unattractive pretzels.
Okay, the pretzels may be ugly by the Koreans’ notoriously high standards of beauty and admittedly not Insta-worthy, but we think they kinda look like cute local butterfly fritters rather than pretzels. Made with house-made sticky rice and seven-grain dough, they are fried in canola and sunflower oils so it’s crispy on the outside, with a chewy bite.
By word of mouth, Kim’s homely market pretzels took off, and he has since expanded to over 100 franchised outlets in South Korea in just three years. Half a million ugly pretzels are said to be sold daily across the Korean branches. Not bad for someone who started a second career from scratch in his 50s. Can someone make a K-drama with this dude's story already?
So what’s next? International expansion, of course. In April this year, Kim opened his first overseas outlet in Singapore at the basement of Hong Leong Building at Raffles Place. The local franchised branch is brought in by the folks behind cream puff specialist Chewy Junior. Five of Monnani’s best-selling flavours are offered here; scroll through the photo gallery above to find out what’s good from our taste test.
Monnani, #B1-48 Hong Leong Building, 16 Raffles Quay, S048581. Open daily except Sun. Mon-Fri 8.30am - 6pm; Sat 8.30am-2pm. www.facebook.com/monnanisg.