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Meeting Kim Yong-seok, CEO of Geumnamaks

Dreaming of a Timeless Establishment Rather Than a Fleeting ‘Hotspot’

Behind the alleys of Sinyongsan Station, there is a place where office workers, satiated from their evening meals, naturally find themselves drawn. It’s Geumnamaks, heralded for serving the best draft beer and dried pollack in Sinyongsan. Since its opening in 2014, Kim Yong-seok has been a reliable source for a post-work drink for the office workers in Sinyongsan.


In front of Geumnamaks’ second branch, CEO Kim Yong-seok



The Wanderings of My Twenties Became the Foundation for My Thirties

What were you doing before opening Geumnamaks?

I’ve always wanted to be in business from a young age. At the time, China was considered promising, so I even majored in Chinese Language and Literature, intending to start a business there. As graduation approached, I was at a crossroads: to study in China or to start a business in Korea. Due to family circumstances, I gave up on studying in China and decided to start a business here. I was anxious to gather capital for the business quickly. A friend of mine was working as a waiter in a nightlife establishment and mentioned he could make about 150,000 won a day. At a time when a starter salary was less than 2 million won a month, the prospect of earning 5-6 million won a month was astonishing. Following my friend, I took a job as a waiter and worked for about two years. The night-day reversal was physically and mentally exhausting, but I persevered and focused solely on gathering the capital.

After securing the capital, I opened a bar. Initially, I made quite a bit of money. However, as the business became more challenging and conflicts arose with business partners, I had to shut down after six years. By the end, I was left with almost no money. Suddenly, I was in my thirties, feeling utterly disillusioned, as if I had squandered my twenties. But now, I don’t view those times as meaningless. They were full of valuable lessons and ultimately led me to operate Geumnamaks. They also gave me the resilience to overcome just about anything.


How did you start Geumnamaks?

I was marking time even into my thirties, so I gave business one last shot. ‘If this doesn’t work out, I’ll quit the business for good,’ I thought. But there wasn’t much I felt I could do. I didn’t know much, either. I seriously pondered, ‘What do I love the most?’ ‘What do I know best?’ It was ‘alcohol.’ I was confident that I understood the heart of someone who loves alcohol more than anyone. Among the options, a beer pub was something I could start with a small capital.


Why did you choose Sinyongsan?

I used to visit a friend who lived in this area often. Back then, it wasn’t the bustling neighborhood it is now. Amorepacific was just starting to build its new headquarters. There weren’t as many restaurants or bars as now, but I was surprised to see people lining up for a franchise beer pub called ‘Fish & Grill.’ Looking around, I noticed a few options for a second round of drinks. I thought opening a beer pub here for a second round had potential.


Your establishment’s name is quite unique. What does ‘Geumnamaks’ mean?

Namaks refers to a dried food made from a type of fish called “red catfish.” Namaks was a premium side dish sold in entertainment venues back in the day. I learned about it while working as a waiter. Although it wasn’t expensive to produce, it was hard to come by and thus sold at a high price. I thought, ‘Wouldn’t customers appreciate this delicious snack if it were sold at a reasonable price without the markup?’ I also wanted to popularize this relatively unknown food. I named it ‘Kimnamaks’ after my surname, which naturally reads as ‘Geum’ in Chinese characters; hence, it became ‘Geumnamaks.’ I intended to popularize namaks, but now dried pollack is what most customers seek (laughs).



The Alley of Geumnamaks Main Branch



Capturing the Hearts of Sinyongsan Office Workers with Dried Pollack and Namaks

The main menu items at Geumnamaks are dried pollack and namaks.
Is there a reason for that?

From the beginning, targeting those who come for a second round of drinks, we aimed to keep the menu as light as possible. I could not also prepare food. We decided to sell simple, low-effort side dishes cheaply. After having a full meal, people often feel that ordering a main dish is too much, but a simple snack would be perfect. For those customers, we included many inexpensive snack options on the menu. Many places don’t offer side menus because they don’t yield much profit. We tried to satisfy what customers really wanted.


How was the reaction after opening?

It was not explosive but somewhat subdued. At that time, this alley was filled with metal workshops, and the atmosphere was quite dark. Located at the very end of a dark alley, many people didn’t even know a beer pub was there. The customer base grew one by one, and as word of mouth spread, sales gradually increased. Three years after opening, our sales increased even more when the new Amorepacific headquarters was completed.



At the time of the Geumnamaks Main Branch opening



There are also a second and third branches right next to it.
That must mean business is doing well, right?

A year after opening, the place was always packed with people. Typically, people come after having dinner elsewhere, so our peak hours are from 8 pm to 11 pm. That’s when we get the most customers. While the duration of a meal can be somewhat predicted, it’s not the same with drinks. We couldn’t keep our customers waiting indefinitely, and as more people had to turn away, we expanded by adding two more branches nearby.



Geumnamaks Second Branch and ‘Yongsan Sanghoe,’ the Third One



What are Geumnamaks’ bestsellers?

Dried pollack and chicken.
We don’t use pre-made products for dried pollack but separate the skin and flesh by hand every day. Because dried pollack loses its crispiness when it absorbs moisture, we store it sealed to maintain its crunchiness while ensuring it’s tender. Some customers say the dried pollack “melts away in their mouth.” Initially, it wasn’t this delicious, but it has significantly improved by incorporating customer feedback. We also developed a soy sauce to accompany the dried pollack. This sauce, made by boiling dried pollack heads and vegetables with various fruits and soy sauce, is less salty yet delicious. It cuts through the mayonnaise’s richness, making the dried pollack even more enjoyable. The meticulous preparation of this soy sauce is as crucial to us as preserving the dried pollack.

Chicken is a menu item for those who come early in the evening for a meal. We sell only ten chickens daily and fry fresh, never-frozen chickens right in the store. Because we fry only ten chickens daily, the oil remains clean, making it truly delicious.



Geumnamaks’ Bestsellers: Dried Pollack and Chicken



Surprisingly, it’s not the Namaks.

Namaks appeals to specific tastes. Some do not favor its unique scent or the rigid texture of its bones, while others enjoy the crunchy bite and nutty flavor. Dipped in mayonnaise, they offer an ultimate richness. It’s recommended for those seeking a delicacy or willing to try new foods.



Geumnamaks’ Specialty: Fried Namaks



You have the reputation of serving the best draft beer in Yongsan.
Is there a secret to your delicious beer?

The most critical aspect of draft beer is its management. Draft beer is akin to a living organism. Its taste changes if it’s been open too long, so it’s best consumed quickly. That’s why pubs where beer sells well typically have the best-tasting beer due to constant turnover. Additionally, daily cleaning of the machinery is vital. If not cleaned regularly, contaminants can alter the beer’s taste. Cleaning involves draining the beer, which many are reluctant to waste. Fortunately, our beer sells quickly, and we commit to daily cleaning, ensuring the freshness of our draft beer.



Becoming ‘Family’ Over Shared Meals

How do you spend your day?

Given the late hours of work, I usually wake up around noon. After some personal time, I arrive at the store by 4 p.m. to start preparing, beginning with the dried pollack. After an hour of preparation and at 5 p.m., we all have dinner together. Then, the business day starts in earnest. We operate until 1 a.m. and then close for the night.


Only about 3-4 hours of personal time a day, isn’t that hard?

Though managing three branches and the staff always seems like long hours, I always want more time. I schedule meetings for the weekends, dedicating weekdays solely to work. While the workload might seem daunting to some, I find joy in my daily routine. Being extroverted and enjoying social interactions, meeting customers fills me with energy, making it all manageable.


When was the moment of greatest crisis?

Undoubtedly, it was during the COVID-19 pandemic. Our peak hours are between 9 and 10 p.m., precisely when gathering restrictions were in place. Our revenues plummeted by more than 70%, a direct hit. Unable to maintain all three locations, we temporarily closed the two branches. We incurred debts, minimized expenses, and had our staff work every other day. The uncertainty of when it would end was utterly despairing. We gritted our teeth and endured for two years, which was made possible by the perseverance of our team. Alone, I might not have managed.


How did you manage your mindset during this period?

During that time, I hardly went to the store, believing it right to pay the staff as much as possible instead. Hence, I took to hiking like a man possessed. It was a time when I wanted to avoid people, and hiking required nothing but a roll of kimbap, making it a minimal-expense activity. I think I climbed almost every mountain within reach during those two years. Returning from the mountains, my anxiety eased, and my spirits lifted. Whenever my mind is troubled or cluttered with thoughts, I turn to the mountains.



CEO Kim Yong-seok Finding Refuge in the Mountains During Tough Times



How long did it take for sales to return to normal after the pandemic?

It didn’t take long to return to normalcy. During the pandemic, there were many suggestions to close down the second and third locations to reduce rent. However, I was confident that “this shall end.” I believed having only one store when the situation improved would delay recovery. Keeping the other locations despite the difficulties, I think, contributed to our rapid recovery.


Was there a belief you couldn’t give up on, even when business was going through difficult times?

It was my sense of responsibility towards my employees. Among them are those older than me, and most are heads of their households. Thinking of them, I resolved never to give up. Thanks to my staff, I’ve continued this work for ten years. They say if you share a meal, you become family. We always eat together, spending most of our day with each other. They are like family to me. Family doesn’t always have to give something to be supportive; their presence can be empowering. That’s what my employees are to me.



Finding Strength in the Presence of Geumnamaks’ Employees



The “Taste” of Business Only Known to Those Who Experience It

What has been the driving force behind running your store for ten years?

Speaking of money might sound materialistic, but it is indeed money. And then, it’s the customers. Seeing them come in, laughing and chatting, fills me with inexplicable warmth. They feel like guests in my own home. There’s a sense of fulfillment in knowing that I’m maintaining a space where customers can have a good time and a pride that perhaps I’m doing something right. Many in the business say, “Running a store is tough but addictive,” and it’s true. Even when I feel down and exhausted, hearing a customer say, “This is so delicious!” suddenly reinvigorates me. That feedback is both the taste and the driving force of my business.


Geumnamaks is known for its exceptionally loyal customer base.
What’s the secret to attracting and retaining regulars?

At Geumnamaks, regulars account for 70-80% of our clientele. We have our strategies for customer retention; we make it a point to greet those who frequent our establishment and offer them small tokens of our appreciation. These gestures, though minor, make our customers feel cared for, encouraging them to return. “We'll give you anything!” (laughs)
When customers bring friends and introduce us as their favorite spot, we go the extra mile to acknowledge and celebrate their patronage, adding additional items to the house. This certainly makes them happy.



The Customers: The Driving Force Behind the Business



What advice would you give to those dreaming of starting their own business?

I can confidently say, find what you love. Not what others love or what seems impressive to others, but what you truly enjoy and know well. Plenty of videos say, “This is the trend right now” or “You can make ten million won a month doing this business.” I hope people don’t just follow trends. Instead of trying to follow the crowd, let the crowd follow you. It might take time, but that waiting period will be more bearable if you’re doing what you love.



Geumnamaks X Amorepacific

Amorepacific employees also comprise a significant portion of your regulars.
Do you have any memorable customer stories?

A group of married women love to drink and meet up once a month because their family commitments don’t allow them to meet up more frequently. They look forward to this day all month. Spending four to five hours at Geumnamaks, from the first to the last round, they have a great time and leave stress-free. Watching them enjoy themselves lifts my spirits, too.


What does Amorepacific mean to you?

I’d describe it as a “dream-like neighbor.” Watching the Amorepacific building go up in the early days filled me with hope. “Business is going to improve!” (laughs) Now, they’ve become more like neighbors than just customers. It’s fascinating how a once-distant dream has become so familiar.


How do you wish to develop Geumnamaks further?

I have no plans for expansion or scaling. I don’t dream of globalization or franchising. I’m pretty old-fashioned and not very sensitive to trends. Not everyone can be BTS, right? I’m satisfied with the present. However, I hope Geumnamaks can operate long enough to be called an “old shop” someday. That means maintaining a consistent presence. Once, while visiting a small town in Japan, I was struck by the sight of elderly people pulling up to a small, old beer pub with their walkers. It was incredibly endearing. I hope Geumnamaks can be a place where people can comfortably stop by for a beer even as they grow old.


Finally, what does ‘happiness’ mean to you?

My current state represents what I consider ‘happiness.’ After navigating through the wandering phase of my twenties, I’m doing what I genuinely love. My happiness is earning a meaningful living from my passion and being content with the present.



Interview with Kim Yong-seok at the Geumnamaks Main Branch



As Kim Yong-seok hopes for Geumnamaks to remain a steadfast landmark of Sinyongsan, we learn that amidst the fleeting and the flamboyant, the most luminous things ‘remain unchanged.’



‘100 Hangang-daero’ brings you interviews with business owners around Amorepacific, exploring the value and meaning of work through stories of passion, perseverance, and overcoming adversity.


Interview Shin Hye-won

Photos Design Mong

Planning Amorepacific Communications Team


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