Melona became the first Korean ice cream bars exported to the United States thanks to Danny Kim and his father Paul Kim of Koha Foods (then called Koha Oriental Foods) in Hawaii. Danny first tried a Melona bar on a trip back to Korea in the mid ‘90s. “I remember being totally shocked by the flavor. It was so refreshing and unique,” he says.
According to Danny, his father had a contact at Binggrae and played a large role in the bar’s global success -- convincing them to create English-language packaging for the bar and encouraging them to try the bar in different flavors. “I would do food shows all over the country and pass out samples. People would take a sample, walk away, then immediately stop and turn back,” Danny remembers. “I always knew it would do well.”
Binggrae, which also produces coffee-flavored ice bar Summer Crush and red bean bar B.B.BIG, now accounts for 70% of South Korean’s ice cream exports to the United States. A few years ago Binggrae partnered up with Lucerne Foods, becoming the first Korean ice cream to be produced in the United States and is now available at Safeways and Costcos across North America. The company says Melona bars are now distributed to over thirty countries in the world including Brazil, Argentina, Canada, Paraguay, New Zealand, Russia, Malaysia, Vietnam, Singapore, Cambodia, Thailand, Philippines, China, Taiwan, and various parts of Europe -- mostly in Korean supermarkets and retailers.
Binggrae says there hasn’t been any research done on who actually consumes Melona bars, so it’s hard to know how far the ice cream reaches beyond the Korean community. Could most of Melona’s sales be from nostalgic Koreans overseas? It certainly seems like it.
Yohan Yun, who lives in the Philippines, says he can’t say if they were popular among his neighbors, but it was special to him because he’s Korean. “Growing up, my grandma would always send me on an errand to buy her Melona because it was her favorite ice cream,” Yun says. “I did that for years until I moved at age 7 and at the time, the only way we’d have any Korean snacks was whenever my dad would bring them back from business trips. And he could never bring us back Melonas, obviously. Eventually, when Korean groceries started coming in and importing them, I was extremely happy.”
Yondje Choi, who now lives in New York, says she goes wild for the Melona soju cocktail at K-Town’s Pocha 32. She thinks about family summer vacations in Seoul and her father’s coworkers in Paris who stock up on Melonas when he would be in the office. Suki Son says, to him, they’re still “just a nice treat after a nice meal.”
As Koreans snacks have become increasingly popular overseas, Melonas are gaining visibility in stores and restaurants around the world -- and on the almighty Internet, where you can learn to make your own Melona bar if you can’t find one in real life.