The café industry is seriously exploding in Korea these days. Why are cafés so popular in Korea? And how are cafés in Korea different than elsewhere such as in the USA?
The following observances and statements about Korean culture are based on 1) my living in South Korea for a good part of the last three years, 2) having spent many hours at cafés across Korea, including almost every café in Goseong, and 3) being married to a Korean wife who I can discuss with and bounce questions off of.
Why do Koreans go to cafés?
Reason #1: Socializing
People in South Korea love to talk.
Koreans really will just talk. You can find them in pairs or groups sitting in parks on a blanket or in a tent, not actually camping or doing a particular activity, but just enjoying talking and having some laughs.
Obviously Americans still socialize at cafés, but this contrasts with America where it is common for people to go to cafés alone to work on a laptop, read, study, journal, etc. Many Koreans go to a café after dinner at a restaurant.
Reason #2: Home Culture
In Korea, a café is like an extension of home.
Americans like to gather around an activity, for example, a board game night, bowling, cooking/baking together, a movie, watching a game on TV, jamming with instruments, etc.
Koreans do some of that too, but they don’t usually gather and hang out in each other’s houses like Americans often do. Koreans meet and hang out outside.
Korea is not a large country (South Korea’s land mass is smaller than the state of Ohio!) but its population density is generally higher than the typical suburban community in the much larger USA.
Therefore Korean homes are usually smaller, and it’s very common for Koreans to live in apartments with their families, even in their adult years. They often live with their aging parents and grandparents, which, by the way, are respected in more ways in Korea than in the USA. They want to respect the privacy of their family members and not provide a noisy and distracting environment.
Imagine a group of young adults wanting to do something fun together on a Friday night after a long week of work, or even high schoolers wanting to hang out. A place like a café is likely a much more comfortable place for them.
This is why a café is like an extension of home in many ways. Cafés fulfill needs that their homes struggle to fulfill: privacy, study space, dating and chatting space, interaction with pets (animal-themed cafés), etc.
Reason #3: Accessibility
Going to a café is often just a matter of walking to the street corner. Or taking an elevator down the apartment building to the plaza on the first floor. Even in a countryside town like Goseong, there are plenty within the town center or just a short drive away for villagers on the outskirts.
Some cafés are out on a mountainside or somewhere closer for villagers than going to the town center anyway (and with way better views!). Sometimes it makes me wonder how they can even sustain a business being so isolated.
In some American countryside areas, a 15-20 minute drive might be required to get to a Walmart or Giant Eagle or something. In Korea, for example Goseong, a 20 minute drive can put you in another city entirely, or 2/3 of the way, depending on your starting point and direction.
What is different about the café itself between Korea and the USA?
We’ve compared the reasons for going to a café and what people might do there. Now let’s compare the cafés themselves.
Difference #1: Opening Hours
First of all, as an American, I’m used to cafés being open around 7am, if not earlier. We Americans often pick up a coffee on our morning commute to work. Some non-franchises or specialty cafés might open around 8am or 9am, right?
Well, in Korea, it’s very normal for cafés to open around 10am or 11am. I can think of about 3 cafés for a given 20 of the cafés I have written about here in Goseong that open as early as 8am (no earlier). There will be more cafés that open early in a more urban Korean city than Goseong. Still, it’s a general trend across Korea for cafés to start business hours later than in America.
Typical closing hours for a Korean café in Goseong are 9-11pm. Some closer earlier. In more urban Korean areas, it’s not uncommon to see cafés open until midnight. I was not much of a café person before coming to Korea. But I seem to remember American cafés close not long after dinner time around 7-9pm?
Difference #2: Music
Can you guess? Korean cafes are almost always blasting upbeat, contemporary KPOP!
Here is an example of a song I hear all the time in Korean cafes.
There’s always some trending American pop music mixed in too, but much less than K-pop. However at fancier cafés, I often hear jazz or instrumental music. There are a couple cafés I go to that have different music on a given visit, either K-pop or instrumental. But mostly, I experience cafés sticking to ONLY pop or ONLY instrumental.
I don’t care for pop music at all, especially when it’s blasted in a café. But I guess owners in Korea feel it creates an energetic and fashionable atmosphere for people to gather with their friends.
One café in Goseong, Daehuijae, is unusual and often plays classic American rock from the 1970s.
As for a typical American café, I know it’s probably not loud K-pop. According to my memory, the music is usually not really loud and prominent at all for that matter. I would say we are likely to find a variety of music across American cafés, including much more Indie or soft acoustic music which goes better with quiet activities. But feel free to challenge me on that with a comment if you feel I am off.
Difference #3: Interior Design
How much this really differs is up for debate I suppose. My Korean wife explained that interior design is very important for the success of a café in Korea.
I do see this in Goseong cafés. The popular ones tend to have modern, eye-catching styles and they are so various in their decorations, colors, style, lighting. (But the music is still expected to be K-pop!).
In America, interior design seems to be less of a focus in general. Music (including open-mic or live performers) and certain menu items or the source of their products may be the intriguing and unique factors of an American café, whereas in Korea, things like menu items and music seem to be kind of the same.
Difference #4: Theme
Since cafés in Korea have become so ubiquitous, they have expanded to have themes and serve purposes other than drinks themselves.
In fact, for some, the coffee or drinks are really just an afterthought, or even a way of providing admission, while the focus is on the experience.
Themes can include animal cafés, kids cafés, flower cafés, comic book cafés, study cafés, and the imagination of the café owners are the limit. There are also fortune-teller cafes, even here in Goseong.
Another thing that is different is that it’s common in USA cafés to find bulletin boards or community announcements, etc. But that is not the case in Goseong, and for most other places in Korea that I’ve been.
How are restaurants different between South Korea and the USA?
Menu items aside, the reasons people go, and the expectations people have at restaurants, are different.
Difference #1: Purpose
Generally speaking, Koreans to go restaurants to eat and then leave right away. They might go to a café afterwards. Korean restaurants generally don’t serve desserts (unless it’s a buffet).
In America, going out to eat at a restaurant is often more of a social or even entertainment experience. Americans may go to a restaurant while celebrating a birthday, where the restaurant staff gathers for a song or does a little performance, or while dining they could watch a sports game on one of 40 TVs on the wall, or play trivia at their table, etc. Americans may also stick around for a dessert after their meal.
Many American restaurants also have a bar where they can choose to strike up conversations with people around them or the bartender. It is not normal to see any bar in a family Korean restaurant.
Let me add a disclaimer that all of the above does not necessarily apply to Western-style restaurants in Korea, which can be found in larger Korean cities. The countryside town of Goseong does not have a restaurant like this, for example Outback Steakhouse, which can be found about an hour away in Changwon.
Difference #2: Role of Staff
In Korea, it’s up to the customer to flag down restaurant staff to tell them what you will have. However they often notice when a new customer arrives and will come over to the table to ask. But they do not wait on tables. Some restaurants have a call button on each table.
This is one reason there is no tipping at Korean restaurants, unlike in America.
Difference #3: Seating
In some Korean restaurants, people sit on the floor.
Going deeper, this is not just with restaurants. Traditional heating systems in Korea involve heating the floor. Koreans often sit on the floor in houses (it’s the warmest way to sit anyway during Korean winters), including when at a desk or computer. Many also sleep on the floor, including my wife and I!
Difference #4: Silverware, glasses, etc
Of course, restaurants in Korea will have (metal) chopsticks, which can be found either in a drawer in the side of the table or on top in a box, usually next to spoons and a box of napkins.
Americans usually receive a fork, knife, and/or spoon bundled in a napkin.
It’s almost expected for Americans to order a beverage in a restaurant. In Korea, it is common to overlook beverages entirely and just eat the food.
Korean restaurants usually have a self-serve dispenser for both hot water and cold water (and sometimes coffee which may or may not be complimentary) which people can use any time, but often it’s on their way out. Sometimes the staff brings a thermos of water or barley tea to your table. In any case, you will rarely find an American-sized glass. Instead, Koreans will just use small, paper cups or slightly larger metal cups.
This may seem surprising until you realize that Korean meals usually include some kind of soup, which kind of acts as a beverage. It’s usually more runny/brothy (like a beverage) than American soups, and it’s not unusual to drink it directly from the bowl.
Feel free to comment if I may have been away from the USA for too long and might be off the mark with some details about American cafés and restaurants.
I feel the differences between American cafés and especially restaurants are pretty big, but as one learns more about the underlying circumstances of the society and culture, it makes sense. I believe this is true of many other differences between cultures and regions which might even seems confusing or strange. The more you know and experience it, you start seeing it as just a different approach than you do strange.
And to be honest, this is really the message I enjoy spreading when I share about a different part of the world. People in different parts of the world have reasons for doing things differently, and it’s not because one way is better than another.
Thank you for reading!