Talking about Korean-Bahrain relations and the expat presence on the island is impossible without mentioning the Korean Bakery and its illustrious owner Jongtae Woo.
Jongtae, known more popularly as Mr. Woo, has had a history with the Middle East region since the 1970s. After graduating with a degree in architecture, he arrived in Bahrain in 1978 starting off at the Hyundai Construction Company, when Bahrain was the literal gateway to the rest of the Middle East.
He left the island three years later, returning to Korea. This is around when his son Chorok was born.
He returned to Middle East, specifically Dubai soon and started working in the packaged foods industry, working with a company that imported Korean food for the expats in UAE
“There were 20,000 Korean expats in UAE at the time,” he said. “And there was a huge demand for kimchi, soy bean and other Korean products. And as we supplied the Korean restaurants and other companies, I learned and came to love the food business.”
He then points to my shirt and says with a sly smile on his face: “You know, garments, you buy maybe once every two or three months. Houseware, you buy once. But food, everyone eats food thrice a day every day.”
Putting his architectural paradigm of understanding systems to good use as he learned the ropes of the business within two years, he moved to Qatar to start his first business.
This however proved to be unsuccessful and in 1987, almost 10 years after he first landed amongst the friendly faces of Bahrain, he circled back to the kingdom.
He added: “I came back to Bahrain because I had very fond memories of it. People here are very kind, and I thought, and still think of them like brothers. I partnered with a local Bahraini businessman and opened the first Korean Bakery in 1988.”
The original Korean Bakery, which opened in Budaiya in 1988, still serves Bahrain today. In its 30 plus years, it has supplied almost every major establishment across Bahrain. From the United States Navy base to schools and of course, supermarkets like Alosra and Al Jazira, Mr. Woo’s baked goods found a place in everyone’s hearts and bellies.
He lived close to the bakery and his work ethic pushed him to grow the business extensively. Today, the bakery runs all day, almost every day of the year. While his business grew, major political events in the region like the Gulf War and the sourcing of labour from South Asia brought winds of change and the Korean expats across the region started moving back.
Bahrain, where more than 3,000 Korean expats worked and lived, got cheaper unskilled labour from South Asia, making the price tag on the savvy of Korean skilled labour workers untenable. The Korean population dropped dramatically, especially before the Gulf War, but Mr. Woo held true.
He reminisces: “During the Gulf War, we got a call from the Ministry of Commerce, asking if we were still in business. When we assured them, they said, “Keep baking your bread. Even if a missile strikes and takes down the power grid, we will provide you with generators.”
The government had begun stockpiling bread in case of a calamity and trade breakdown, finding a reliable and stalwart supplier in Mr. Woo’s Korean Bakery. As things calmed down in 1991, the Woo family found itself settling in much more, both professionally and personally.
Chorok, by this time, was nine years old and was studying at the Bahrain School in Juffair and came to be known as the baker’s son, since his dad supplied the baked goods at his school.
While perhaps exasperated at times by the jokes made in good fun and the occasional fielding of complaints, Chorok grew up with a diverse group of friends from all walks of life. However, at the time, he definitely wasn’t interested in the business.
He said: “I wanted to go into the foreign department and went to University in Ohio, United States for International Relations. But when I came back and my dad invited me to give the business a shot, I slowly got into it.”
In 2004, when Chorok got back from the US, it was a difficult time for the Korean state which was still recovering from the effects of the Asian financial crisis of 1999. The embassy in Bahrain remained closed and perhaps this was the stroke of luck that nudged Chorok back to the business. By this time, Mr. Woo had expanded and diversified into real estate and more importantly, donuts.
Chorok took a few years to understand the business and after he met his wife, Jinok, an oncology nurse, he started to cup coffee and developed a fondness for it, pitching it as a business idea to his father.
While there is some disagreement between the two as to whose idea it originally was, the father-son brought together their relentless work ethic and hunger for knowledge as they learned everything possible about the coffee bean.
They then opened the Crust & Crema in 2015, with much fanfare as Hyunmo Koo, the ambassador of the Republic of Korea, inaugurated one of the first microroasteries on the island. The location, which moved to Karbabad after a few years, and the Galleria location sell high grade coffee and just as importantly, educate Bahraini residents about the journey of the coffee bean, which the GulfWeekly has previously covered.
They are expanding their offering to include Acai berries, Korean-infused products like Kimchi pizza and more as they look to the future.
Mr Woo said: “Bahrain is our home. We still have an active connection to Korea, we speak Korean at home and I visit my family there three times a year. But our future and our roots are now here.”
Chorok’s daughters, Erin and Gina, study at a local school and are well on their way to becoming trilingual, as they pick up Arabic.
When asked about legacy and what the future might hold for the Woo clan, Mr. Woo looked pointedly at his son, as Chorok answered: “Of course, we want our daughters to do what they love, but it’d be great to keep the legacy going, especially here, in our adopted home.”