Bangers and Gav
How does a medium-sized family business get into the pages of the New York Times, the UK’s Daily Telegraph and various Korean newspapers? As if that wasn’t enough, garnering TV time aplenty has even made its owner a mini-celebrity. Meet Scotsman Gavin Mackay, who runs Gavin’s Sausages just north of the Han in Pyeongchangdong, Jongro-gu, offering gourmet sausages and pies (and haggis) to expats and curious Koreans alike.
When he started Gavin’s Sausages in 2000, foreign businesses were entering the Korean market with a vengeance, but mostly in the form of identikit franchises or generic multinationals. Gavin, who has been living in Korea since 1984, hit the sweet spot of bringing some much-needed cosmopolitanism to the peninsula, while staying very true to his Scottish culinary roots. The trick, as Gavin tells it, has been to keep it modest, personal, and real.
Since the company’s inception it has become a growing, successful sausage business. There was no plan for world domination, just Gavin’s realization that there was something culinary missing in his life. “In the early 90s I was making regular trips to Japan, Hong Kong and Taiwan for my work, so I was used to Asian food. I probably missed sausages even then but I didn’t realize it. I went to the Rugby Sevens in Hong Kong every year, and one year the hotel served great sausages for breakfast. I’d been five years without one, and it was wonderful. I went to Marks & Spencers in Hong Kong and filled my suitcase with them, and had to work hard with the customs guy when I was returning to Korea.”
There was no going back for the ravenous Gavin and when M&S discontinued their sausages, he started making them for himself. A few years later, he upgraded to a bigger sausage gun, and at the turn of the century, he took the brave leap to become a fully commercial operation by opening a factory.
On first glance, this seems like a real departure for a career military man who then started working in the corporate world, with no history of entrepreneurship or experience in the food industry. But Gavin saw it as a natural evolution.
“I’d been making more and more sausages throughout the 90s for friends and family. I’d also been experimenting with seasonings, and had found the perfect one. We went with the one Simon Howie Butchers uses in Scotland, the Asohar supreme white seasoning for pork, which we get from Glasgow”. He says becoming a bona fide business “didn’t feel so bold” at the time; “I had to invest a lot in property and machinery, but I had a reasonable military pension as a fallback.”
Personal doubts aside, there were a lot of hurdles to overcome, including the language barrier of course. “I have a broad vocabulary, so people would think I could speak the language. But I was going in to meetings with broken Korean and I’d get lost.”
Sourcing suitable meat produce was another problem. “Korean black pigs are delicious and taste very similar to British pork, but they cost twice as much, so we import. Over time we’ve sourced meat from other countries”. There were a lot of hoops to go through, since the country didn’t make it easy at that time for a new foreign startup. “Korea was over-bureaucratic, and there were a hair-pulling couple of years of box-ticking, getting the labeling right, sell-by dates, you name it. There was suspicion about foreign businesses, and you had to tread carefully. My late father-in-law was named the original chairman of company, so theoretically, we were Korean-owned. And we also knew that Lotte or Samsung could have chopped us off at the knees if they’d seen me as a threat, so over the years we kept ourselves small. It’s all much better now.”
So what made him take on all these hurdles? Ironically, it was a sausage neophyte, Gavin’s Korean wife Maria, who saw the potential and urged him on. Her hunch about the new openness to experiment in Korea was borne out when the business quickly gained newspaper coverage, and Shinsegae came calling. “Sausages in Korea grew out of the war. They’re essentially hot dog sausages, which are seen as a low form of food. But a young guy in Shinsegae saw the article and wanted to spice up their offering.” As a result, he still has a high-profile store in Shinsegae, and as well as stocking gourmet shelves, there’s a brisk online trade and Gavin also supplies several hotels and restaurants, including a couple of eateries on the south coast where a lot of British workers are involved in the ship-building industry.
What all of these Korean and foreign customers get is something quintessentially British, a result not just of the seasoning. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that his immersion in the world of bangers isn’t part of his abiding love of home, which also shines through in his connection with the British community in Seoul. His website says that “We proudly represent the United Kingdom with our tasty bangers”, and he puts his sausages where his mouth is, as he’s involved with the British Chamber of Commerce in a range of events like food fairs. Gavin also puts together an annual daytime ‘mini-ball’ at the Seoul British Foreign School, consisting of lunch and dancing. He’s a Scot first and foremost though, so working with the St. Andrew’s Society, a Scottish expat club, he helps promotes Scottish dancing through the ‘Muckleshunter’ event, held every May 1.
Obviously the upcoming Rugby World Cup in late September and October is in his thoughts, when Scotland will be competing in a tough first-round group with South Africa, Samoa, Japan and the US. “We failed at the last World Cup, but I’m an ever-hopeful Scot. We beat each of those teams the last time we played them, including South Africa who had an off day. Anything’s possible.” Gavin wouldn’t be Gavin if he was content to just quietly watch the games without involving the expat community, so although there are no firm plans yet, he thinks he’ll work with the British Chamber to organize an informal event, probably for the first game.
As for the future, at some point he’ll hand the business off to his son Ranald, who will have plans of his own, but in the meantime he’s wary of becoming too big or going the franchise route. He knows he’s carved out a niche, and what better way to continue expanding Korea’s appetites than by going with his gut.
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org (for enquiries, orders and deliveries)
Address: 64-3 Pyeongchangdong, Jongno-Gu, Seoul 110-846.
Located near Bugak tunnel. There is a Woori Bank 800m before the tunnel, where you should take a right turn towards Kumgang heights, where you will see Gavin’s factory and store.
How to order: Bank transfer to
Woori bank 1005-001-187959
Kookmin bank 490701-01-155367