Coffee in South Korea
Coffee in South Korea has been a strong element in South Korean culture. Originating in the 19th century, it has become a prominent commodity in South Korean marketplaces. It is one of the most popular beverages in the area.
According to Junman Kang's King Gojong goes to Starbucks (한국어: 고종 스타벅스에 가다) states that King Gojong was the first person to taste coffee in Korea. Antoinette Sontag, the sister-in-law of a Russian ambassador, treated the king to a cup of coffee in 1896. Koreans were curious about foreign cultures and the new beverage. Because it came from the West and resembled Asian herbal medicine that only the rich could afford, it was consumed as a symbol of westernization and modernization. In the early days, people called coffee shop or café "dabang". The very first dabang in Korea was built by Sontag as named Sontag Hotel at Junggu Jeongdong in Seoul in 1902.
The modern type of dabangs dates from 1927 in Myeongdong and were spread to Jongno and Chungmuro. At first dabangs were open to the royal family and people in high positions and later were used as politicians’ hall, artists’ headquarters, and businessmen's meeting place. Koreans were fascinated by dabang because they enjoyed the practice of drinking coffee in dabang atmosphere; it was a great pleasure to experience using forks to have cake and drinking coffee in a teacup instead of using chopsticks and drinking Korean traditional soup out of a bowl.
In mid-1900, dabangs continued to exist as a meeting place rather than as a place where people could drink coffee; however, it was not the time for ordinary citizens to consume coffee yet due to the high price. Before the introduction of coffee shops, people in high positions often held meetings at kisaeng houses while commoners hung out at jumaks to talk about their lives and politics. Since dabangs were the center of debates about politics, economy, culture, education, art, and religion by people of different professions, the Korean government strictly restricted individuals’ visit to dabangs. In that sense, Korean cafés in 1950s were very similar to Parisian cafés in the late seventeenth century when the “police [had] closely watched cafés” due to the cafés’ function as social institutions (Haine 1992, 608).
In the 1960s, the value of coffee skyrocketed because coffee was prohibited from dabangs due to the movement of using domestic products after dictator Park Chung-hee’s 5.16 military coup d'état in 1961. However, dabangs in general became more open to middle class citizens in 1960s. Although dabangs were still for adults only, it became a popular dating place for young men and women. The first Korean theme café was probably a music dabang in the 1970s. This type of dabang had disk jockeys who received song requests from customers and played record music for them. It provided a feeling of freedom to college students who could not express their political opinions openly in 1970s.
As the competition amongst dabangs increased in the 1980s, they decorated themselves with distinctive items, such as pink lights and indoor waterfalls, to survive in the increasingly crowded marketplace. At that time, dabangs underwent huge changes in their atmosphere and menu. For example, dark dabangs with dividers to block others' views changed into the ones with bright and cozier atmospheres. This new type of coffee shop, which called themselves cafés to distinguish themselves from old style dabangs, began to focus on different kinds of coffee instead of selling traditional teas and sodas.
In the 1990s, people thought that consumption had a style and preferred cafés with a neater interior design and professionalism in coffee. There was a huge shift in Korean café culture's history in 1999 when Starbucks, the first foreign franchise coffee shop in Korea, was established in Sinchon, Seoul. Starbucks introduced Korea to a new café culture, such as take-out and self-service system without good-looking waitresses and staying at a café alone reading a book or doing homework. Since then, more foreign franchise coffee shops entered the market with a greater variety of coffee and atmosphere, and more local franchise cafés and small private-owned cafés appeared with their unique features.
As of 2015, there were an estimated 49,600 coffee shops in South Korea, and 17,000 coffee shops in Seoul, making Seoul's coffee-per-capita greater than that of Seattle or San Francisco. In 2013, it was estimated that around 657,000 tons of coffee were sold in South Korea, with a per capita coffee consumption of about 2.3 kg per person.
The sudden influx of coffee shops have replaced the once traditional "dabang" which were common meetings places serving a selection of customary teas. In addition to large US chains that have profited from the surge in demand for coffee, local businesses and entrepreneurs have also seized the opportunities. As of 2014 South Korean boasted 17,000 coffee shops and the capital, Seoul, had more outlets of Starbucks than any other city in the world, even New York.
Starbucks opened its first store in 1999 and since 2011 has been opening about 80 new premises a year. The strong association with the South Korean public and the US has helped make coffee desirable and with many Koreans associating coffee and Starbucks as a lifestyle choice, it has become a status symbol throughout Seoul. Landlords are eager to have the brand open up a store in their buildings to enhance their value, reputation and image.
Caffe Bene is a coffeehouse chain based in Seoul. It was founded in May 2008 by Sun-Kwon Kim, its chief executive officer. Caffè Bene is the largest coffeehouse in South Korea measured by number of stores. As of April 24, 2012, it had 760 outlets.
Initially Caffe Bene struggled to gain any traction in an oversaturated American market. Failing to gain brand recognition, Sun-Kwon Kim agreed a deal with a number of entertainment shows to use his coffee locations in a selection of TV shows for a 3% share in the companies profit.
A Twoesome Place
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