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CafeverCoffee shops in Korea: from a tide to a nationwide flood
Cho Yun-myung  |
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승인 2015.11.05  03:39:25
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SEOUL IS literally a coffee shop heaven. Wherever you are, chances are you will encounter a coffee shop nearby with a long array of delicious beverages and desserts. Unless you have walked into a study café, you will also be met by the ceaseless buzz of people; men in suits and ties, couples on a date, teenage boys and girls, groups of young women chatting intently, and so forth. According to a report by Quartz in May, 2014, there were 284 Starbucks branches in Seoul, a number that beat every other city in the world. Domestic coffee shop brands too are expanding their realms. Ediya Coffee is the most notable, being the first brand to exceed 1,000 locations in South Korea in October, 2013. As opposed to the West, whose coffee history is comparatively long, the ongoing coffee shop craze taking place in South Korea is a distinctive phenomenon. Since when have coffee shops been such a popular place among Koreans? Are there any downsides of the growing abundance of coffee shops, which have seeped into our lives as an integral part of our culture?
 The history of coffee shops in Korea
   Throughout the past century, Korea’s coffee shops have become a vivid record of the lifestyles of each decade. There are two highly supported views regarding the origin of coffee shops in South Korea. The most widespread and also controversial one concerns the Sontag Hotel, believed to have opened officially in 1902. Antoinette Sontag, a German lady who came to Joseon in 1885 was a prominent figure during the reign of Emperor Gojong. She excelled in many languages and served western cuisine to the imperial family. As she gained the confidence of Gojong, the building that later became the famous Sontag Hotel was bestowed on her by the emperor around 1895. Foreign guests frequently used the hotel. Although documents directly stating the sales of coffee at Sontag Hotel are yet to be found, it is widely presumed that coffee, along with other western food, would have been served to its guests.
   Meanwhile, attempts have recently been made to debunk such arguments that the Sontag Hotel housed the very first coffee shop in Korea. Daibutsu, or Dae-bul, Hotel is known to be the first hotel established in Korea. Following the opening of a major port in Incheon in 1883, and the consequent flow of international visitors and residents, the hotel was established in Incheon by a Japanese man. The earliest document that supports the existence of this hotel dates back to April 5, 1885, which implies that the Dae-bul Hotel was established at least as early as 1885. American missionary Henry G. Appenzeller recorded that he himself had been served western dishes. On the other hand, documents specifying the sales of coffee at the hotel are not found, as is also the case with the Sontag Hotel. Many scholars and institutions, however, including Waltz & Dr. Mahn Museum of Coffee, conjecture that coffee would very likely have been served along with other western food. Due to the lack of explicit documentary evidence, many books and articles on the web do not agree upon this matter, but the Sontag and Dae-bul Hotels are still the most widely accepted assumptions.
Box 1: Shifting cultures inside coffee shops
- Da-bang, a distinctive form of coffee shop began to develop. The first da-bangs were Japanese-style bakeries which served coffee and tea.
- Later on, many da-bangs were established by Korean cultural figures. The customers of such da-bangs were mostly artists, intellectuals, and youngsters from affluent backgrounds, known as “modern boys” or “modern girls.”
- As the end of the Second World War drew near, most da-bangs closed down because coffee imports were hindered by the Pacific War.
- Following the armistice of the Korean War in 1953, da-bangs served as a haven for citizens who had grown weary from war, and also as a gallery and exhibition venue for many artists.
- Da-bangs were no longer an exclusive place for artists and cultural figures; they began to embrace people from every walk of life who, of course, had at least enough money to pay for their cup of coffee.
- Most meetings and dates between young men and women took place in da-bangs. This was because movie theaters, billiard rooms or bars back then were deemed places inappropriate for women to accompany men.
- Da-bangs began to be characterized by the unique presence of a “madam” and two or three attractive waitresses. A madam was in charge of the management of a da-bang.
- Da-bangs served not only as meeting places, but also as personal offices for countless “businessmen.” One would go to the same da-bang every morning, order a cup of tea or coffee, and answer calls from clients through the da-bang’s telephone.
- In order to survive the flood of da-bangs, many of them developed into music da-bangs which accompanied DJs.
- The overabundance of da-bangs persisted, eventually leading much of them to incorporate prostitution for profit – which later contributed to the virtual extinction of da-bangs.
- Instant coffee, coffee vending machines, and coffee houses which served a variety of coffee posed a threat to da-bangs.
- The first Starbucks branch in South Korea opened in 1999, signaling the start of a new era of coffee shops.
Smell of coffee everywhere
   Since 1999 when Starbucks marked the first franchise coffee shop to open in South Korea, the number of coffee shops in Korea has increased dramatically. As previously mentioned, Seoul is now home to the most Starbucks locations of all the cities in the world. Meanwhile, the total number of coffee shops in Korea jumped more than eight times from 2006 to 2011; from 1,500 to a staggering figure of more than 12,000 branches in 2011, according to a report by the Fair Trade Commission (FTC). This noticeable increase seems to be related partly to the rapid expansion of domestic coffee shop brands as well, regarding that Angel-in-us Coffee first opened in 2006 and Caffé Bene in 2008 – South Korea’s currently most popular franchise coffee shop brands.
   As the number of coffee shops continues to soar, brands are seeking distinction through a variety of new methods. For instance, some coffee shops have added spaghettis, salads and similar sophisticated food options to their menus, going further than the regular array of sandwiches, cakes and pies. Many brands have long incorporated seasonal menus as well. For instance, bing-soo is perhaps the most popular dessert Koreans crave during their sweltering summer, which is now served in most coffee shops often all year round. In addition, some brands hold annual music festivals or monthly discount events in affiliation with other corporations, while several others have opened branches with unique themes in order to attract more customers.
   Which factors could be held accountable for this rapid development of the coffee shop market in Korea? When Starbucks first opened in Seoul, the changes it brought to the average Korean’s experience of coffee shops were tremendous. Instead of having a waitress bring the ordered drink to the table, one had to wait in line and pick it up him/herself. The staff wore uniforms, and the long list of coffee on the menu consisted of bizarre names that most people were unfamiliar with then. Nonetheless, such a typically American experience of having coffee at a coffee shop was somehow very appealing to many South Koreans. As Andrew Hetzel, a coffee industry specialist stated in his interview with NBC News, South Korea has an overall favorable attitude towards American culture, which can partially be attributed to the political and economic bonds between the two nations since the Korean War.
   Moreover, franchise coffee shops introduced a new mode of drinking coffee: take-out coffee in a long cup-shaped paper container. Of course, even before franchise coffee shops, Koreans too had more readily available forms of coffee than those sold in da-bangs - but they were mostly small tin cans holding coffee inside. On the other hand, the new form of mobile coffee was not only more convenient, but fashionable. Dressed nicely from head to toe with a branded coffee cup in hand, one could identify him/herself as a New Yorker, strolling the busy streets of New York. Such a modern, perhaps chiefly American-oriented image had long been a role model for many Koreans.
   The need for new space is also a probable factor that has led many Koreans into coffee shops. Major residential areas in Seoul are literally packed with apartments more than 10 or 20 stories high. Thus, compared to the West, the home environment has become a very private and unsuitable place to invite people other than family, while making coffee shops a suitable substitute. Not only that, many students and office workers increasingly visit coffee shops alone to study or get other work done. Kim Chan-ho (Prof., Sungkonghoe Univ.), specializing in cultural anthropology stated, “We lack the adequate space which people can turn to for multiple purposes and stay comfortable. In coffee shops, people can meet friends, or spend time of their own without being completely isolated from other people. The compact apartments in Korea make home an uncomfortable place for people to do their work.” Accordingly, many franchise coffee shops are fully equipped with nicely cushioned sofas, as well as wireless internet networks and a number of power sockets. Indeed, Seoul seems almost a city tailored to be the heaven for countless coffee shop owners.
Brewed a little too dark
   While the coffee shop boom has now deeply permeated every street we stumble upon, it has brought several dark spots as well. Regardless of price, the unswerving demand for franchise coffee is notably constant. In fact, even regarding transnational franchise coffee brands, the price of coffee in Korea is considerably higher; the price of a Starbucks Americano in Korea is twice as expensive as that of the same coffee sold in the United States. Moreover, on streets near universities or famous shopping districts, it is not hard to find coffee shops two or even three stories high. According to Professor Kim, both the size of coffee shops and the price of coffee are largely related to the significantly high demand of coffee shops in Korea. As the majority of people visiting coffee shops tend to stay for hours chatting or spending time alone, the price of coffee is inevitably more expensive.
   As the ever-increasing demand for coffee shops make them capable of affording higher rental fees, major franchise coffee shops have begun to penetrate even the streets which were previously popular for smaller, more unique shops or galleries. Garosugil in Sinsa-dong is the most well-known example. Such places first received the spotlight due to their unique ambience, but as increasing popularity brought about the rise of real estate values, small shops could no longer afford to remain. Instead, major franchise coffee shops taking up whole buildings began to characterize the streets. Even regarding the few streets that are retaining their distinct aura, most consist of small, unique coffee shops. Kim commented, “When the popularity of something reaches a certain tipping point, it becomes a ‘boom’; then, people are left with no choice but to follow that trend.” As coffee shops continue to be the mainstream trend, the streets of our capital city are losing their respective distinct cultures.
   On a different note, most coffee shops are customized to meet the demand and preference of the younger generation. Although coffee shops seemingly fulfill the need for a meeting space for everyone, most senior citizens actually remain aloof from the new experience structured inside today’s coffee shops. As the majority of the population in their 50s or older are accustomed to the simplicity of the traditional da-bang menus, they are faced with considerable difficulty from the very moment they enter a modern coffee shop. Lee Jeong-hak stated in his book, From Ga-bi* to Caffe Latte, “Most middle-aged customers of coffee shops today would hardly be able to understand the phrase, ‘iced double shot caramel macchiato, Grande size.’” Sadly, while coffee shops have become a multipurpose cultural space in South Korea, they have also created a barrier against the elderly from being involved in the new cultural trend.
*                 *                 *
   Ever since coffee first began to be sold in Korea a hundred years ago, coffee shops have been at the center of active cultural transitions of our society. Today, coffee shops continue to expand their domain at a dizzying rate, becoming a distinctive trait of South Korea. As integral as it is in our daily lives, the coffee shop trend must seek a better way to mold itself down the road.


*Ga-bi: The first written version of “coffee” in Korean, which was introduced around 1884
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