By Dana Austin and Simon Ahn
In a room of dark brown brick walls and wooden floors, two raccoons frolic within their miniature houses atop two platforms, waiting for visitors who eagerly interact with them. A Korean customer approaches the raccoons and says, “Son juseyo,” which means, “Please give me your hand.” The raccoons place a paw in the visitor’s palm.
Welcome to a coffee shop, Korean style.
These raccoons live in Blind Alley, a coffee shop in central Seoul. Themed coffee shops are popular, especially amongst foreigners.
“It’s not comparable,” said Beth Holan who is visiting from the United Kingdom, musing on the deviations from British coffee houses. Her boyfriend Mat Coyle agreed.
Holan explained that, in the UK, there are only four chain coffee shops. Small, independent coffee shops are only located in cities. For that reason, Holan appreciates the large number of unique coffee shops in Seoul.
South Koreans do love their coffee, drinking an average 500 cups of coffee a year, according to some sources. Coffee is a relatively new addition to Korea, which is historically a tea drinking culture such as China and Japan. It was first introduced 122 years ago but took off during the Japanese occupation between 1910-1945.
Though Koreans love their coffee, where they go differs from foreigners. Many Koreans prefer big chain coffee shops like Starbucks to the small independent coffee shops scattered throughout Seoul.
Jae Wook Kim, a Korean news producer , explained that there is a saturation of coffee shops in South Korea. For Kim, Starbucks is his favorite coffee shop because of the reputation and status it holds.
“I like Starbucks because of its image and the aesthetic associated with it,” said Kim.
Political reform is also driving the popularity of coffee shops. In a crackdown on influence buying, the Korean National assembly recently toughened restrictions on what government officials and politicians could accept as gifts in terms of meals and alcohol. No longer can lobbyists and big business bribe politicians and government officials with expensive meals, followed by a night of heavy drinking. That has driven everyone to the coffee shops. The change has begun to show up in the numbers. The sale of alcohol has hit the lowest level in nearly 20 years. Meanwhile, sales of nonalcoholic beverages such as coffee have boomed, hitting a level not seen since 2008.
Dr. Young-Dali Lee, principal/CEO of Korea Institute of Entrepreneurship and Technology, elaborated on Korea’s coffee shop phenomenon.
“South Korea is a very connected community,” Lee said “It means that heterogeneous and diversity are not significant here. Rather, people enjoy the Starbucks, a typical branded coffee, a lot in the day.”
In a place where trends come and go, the coffee shop trend is here to stay in South Korea. Why? Because Korean culture lends to the popularity of the coffee shop. In Korea, people are constantly on the move either working, studying, or taking a break. And coffee shops are where Koreans can do all those things simultaneously. It is for that reason coffee shop culture thrive so well in Korea.
D “Normally, cafés are for meeting people and drinking coffee,” said Kim Seung Hyun, a part-time worker at chain Hollys Coffee.”But in Korea, people come here to meet people for business, work, and study.” Koreans, he said, need cafés.