There are more Starbucks within the city limits of Seoul than any other city in the entire world, according to Quartz. Now that’s a statement to start with. Yet this is only the beginning of how rampant the coffee culture has grown in Korea.
Coffee shops like Caffe Bene, Tom ‘n Toms, Edyia Cafe are now bidding up all the real estate prices of every street corner in Seoul. Even non-traditional cafe companies like Nescafe are trying to get in on the action. What is it about the coffee culture here that even with all the competition we have, we still manage to pay at least $4 a cup? It could be a cartel, but we have our theories:
1) To see or Go to be seen? That is the question – Yeah, it’s pretty much the scene to be seen or the place to go check people out. What Korea is most excellent at doing is following trends. And one of the best places to catch new fashion trends are at the cafes. In Korea, image is everything so people will get dressed up just to go to their mailbox. So just imagine what people will do when they are going out to even a cafe. Just picture a scene where people are sitting around a table at a cafe sipping on Americanos. Some people might be talking to other people and while others might be busy doing some work. But at the corner of everyone’s eyes, they are all checking out what everyone else is doing and wearing. This is unbelievably more so the case in places like Gangnam where it’s become the center stage to start and follow trends.
2) It’s your 2nd office – Korea is one of the most wired countries in the world when it comes to the internet. Having a strong wifi connection is essential and a basic civil right here. With that opens up the opportunity to set up your own pseudo-office at a cafe on the cheap. You may even be able to get away with not even buying a cup of coffee at all if you’re even cheaper. Yet you’ll find that most people here will eventually shell out that $4 because because at the end of the day, it’s still pretty good coffee. You’ll also find that it’s actually pretty cool to walk around the city with your laptop in your backpack to stop at a random coffee shop to blog about something you just witnessed in Korea. People will even come here to sign business contracts because their officetels won’t have separate conference rooms. Korea has a saving-face culture. Cafes offer face for those who may not want to admit to their clients that they actually work from home.
3) It’s a legitimate date place – In Korea, chivalry did not die. It’s just merely morphing into a systematic and sustainable methodology to meet today’s increasing tendency for gender equality. If you’ve ever been on a date in Korea, you’ll find that the man always buys dinner. But what you’ll also find is that the woman will always buy coffee at another cafe afterwards (if she likes you). If things step up to the next level, you’ll even find those budding couples spending their time, sitting side-by-side utilizing the strong wifi at a cafe to watch movies together on their Tablet-PCs.
4) It’s a rush – Let’s face it. Caffeine is kind-of-a drug because it technically alters your current state of being. And in a nation where you can face the life in prison for possession of drugs, we just don’t mess around. Instead, we just resort to drinking and smoking to extremes to escape reality. Nothing beyond that as we don’t have a huge drug problem here. So yeah, the natural benefactor as we look for ways to “getaway” – is coffee.
5) Korea is just good at it – Korea, Inc. is good at innovating. Korea is good at refining things and making it better. They are also good at commercializing it. Did you know that Korea is the largest oil refiner in the world? A lot of people have no idea. Korea doesn’t produce a single drop of oil. Yet it imports all of it, refines it and then resells it to the rest of the world. That is exactly what’s going on here with the coffee. Korea doesn’t have the environment to grow coffee beans. Yet it imports a lot of it and roasts it right here in the ROK. And pretty soon you are going to see the likes of a Caffe Bene expanding into your country at a cafe near you, making way for the 3rd wave of Hallyu – Kpop culture.