The Korean chain Mr. Pizza first opened its doors in 1990 with a restaurant nearby Seoul’s Ewha Womans University. Today, there are 435 domestic outlets, 60 in China, three restaurants in the US in Los Angeles and branches in the Philippines. The chain’s first Indian branch is slated to open in the first quarter of this year. Mr. Pizza CEO Jung Woo-hyun has aspirations to make his particular brand of Korean pizza globally dominant and is expanding by focusing primarily on the Chinese market.
On a lunchtime visit to the original branch, tables and booths are filled with Ewha students and employees from a local bank branch. Behind a glass window, a female pizza-maker tosses dough, and a pizza and salad bar occupies the center of the restaurant. A large group of women with two foreign men are giggling and passing around selfie sticks.
Commenting on why they like Mr. Pizza, the bank employees say the recipes tend to be more toned down than at other chains. A table of business students say they like the promotions. Lunch at the all-you-can-eat salad and pizza bar costs 9,900 Korean won (about $9). À la carte customers can choose crust fillings such as egg tart custard, cream cheese, mocha-flavored cream cheese, or the bright yellow sweet potato—a common feature at different franchises—which has a tasty, light, whipped texture. Other discernible Korean “classics,” like the potato wedge, bacon, and mayonnaise pizza, are available at Mr. Pizza, as are dishes called “Seafood Island 2,” which has coconut and a border of crumbed, deep-fried prawns, or “OmyRib,” featuring ribs and barbeque sauce.
Did Marco Polo steal pizza from Korea?
Mr. Pizza is known for its cheeky, playful image, and, in 2011, it released a viral video that parodies Korean culture through pizza. The short mockumentary, titled “The True Origins of Pizza,” investigates whether Marco Polo stole pizza from Korea. At one point, the narrator stumbles on an “undeniable” piece of supporting evidence—a Buddhist statue from the Goryeo dynasty. The statue’s rectangular hat, he says, could only be a pizza box. And the smaller box above it? “I think this the first buy one, get one free garlic bread promotions of the time,” the narrator goes on to say.
The ad was praised as a clever send-up of Korean nationalism that also poked fun at the odd habit that Koreans sometimes have of professing something foreign as their own. For instance, in 2009, a government body claimed that the most globally-recognizable Christmas tree originated in Korea, but wasn’t being properly attributed as such. As a meta-reading, the spoof documentary also arguably alludes to the idea that, as Tudor believes, “there’s not a historic conception of the pizza”—it’s like a blank canvas.
And seeing pizza as something malleable, according Jennifer Flinn, a Seoul-based Korean food expert who ran a bilingual food blog, has in turn nurtured a culture of experimentation. Koreans have a “less fixed image of what a pizza is,” Flinn says. Pizza is “just a strange foreign food that somebody brought over.”