For coffee fans, the rally cry is: 'Keep on truckin'

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For coffee fans, the rally cry is: 'Keep on truckin'

Nowadays, for Korean office workers in their 20s and 30s, eating a quick lunch and returning immediately to the office is simply unfashionable. Lunchtime is incomplete without a take-out cup of cappuccino or cafe mocha from an upscale coffee shop such as Starbucks or its endless imitators. Despite their relatively steep prices, the fancy coffee shops continue to grow quickly, and it is rare that you can find any empty seats. On a recent afternoon in Taepyeongno, central Seoul, home to many large companies including Samsung, you could witness an endless array of office workers decked out in white dress shirts, navy blue neckties and all carrying take-out coffee.

But increasingly, people are not only going to the large shops. More and more, they are buying their fancy cinnamoned and whip-creamed java confections from coffee trucks - not just any trucks, of course, but the latest high-end, classy coffee trucks.

Behind most of Seoul's skyscrapers are twisting alleys and small vacant lots. Squeezed in there, you can find the trucks carrying all necessary coffee-making devices - the so-called "mobile cafe" or "road cafe." Every day around noon, the mobile cafes park in their usual spots; within an hour or so, they're gone.

"At first, I only bought take-out coffee from a brand name like Starbucks," said Lee Hye-jin, an office worker, "because I thought the trucks would have only low quality coffee." Now, however, Ms. Lee, a coffee lover, patronizes the mobile cafe and is pretty happy about it. "It tastes much better than I thought it would."

The menu available from the mobile cafes is similar to that of a Starbucks, though not so diverse. But it has all the usual items, including cappuccinos, cafe lattes and espressos, with a variety of syrups available. The price at the trucks is the major draw, about half that of Starbucks. A cappuccino typically costs 1,500 won ($1.10) and the most expensive offering, caramel cafe mocha, is 2,500 won.

Since the trucks can move freely around town, they can show up wherever and whenever demand is at its peak. And because the government does not issue business licenses for this venture, mobile cafes cannot be regulated.

The owner of one truck in Taepyeongno, however, did not want to say anything about his prospering business. Not because he was afraid of getting caught at an illegal business, but because he was too busy, with more than 20 customers waiting in line.

by Chun Su-jin

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