Black, with two sugarsSo why doesn’t Itaewon have a Starbucks?
Before the coffee shop chain came to Korea in 1999, you would have expected that its first store would be in Itaewon. But no ― the first, all three floors of it, went up near Ewha Womans University, west of downtown Seoul.
At last count, Korea had 60 Starbucks stores, 43 in Seoul alone.There are two in the COEX Mall, and one right across the street from it.
But still none in Itaewon.
Jittery and irritable about this, we called the headquarters of Starbucks Korea for an explanation. A guy there said that the company wants to put a store in Itaewon, but hasn’t been able to find a good location.
We’re not buying that. Starbucks is notorious for paying whatever it takes to get the best locations. It allegedly even rents space it doesn’t plan to use, just to keep its rivals away.
So what’s the real answer? The best we’ve heard is that Starbucks is afraid that if it puts up a store in Itaewon it will become the new Muslim Fellowship Center (which would be relocated from its current location, the second floor of Burger King).
That’s because of the best thing about Starbucks: You can spend as much time as you want there after buying something. That’s great if you’re a student who needs a place to study. You can camp out on the sofas all day and read. And it’s great if you’re a foreigner here and run a small business. You can camp out on the sofas and see clients. All it costs is 2,200 won ($2) to buy a small coffee.
And though people think of Americans when they think of Itaewon, these days it’s more populated with other foreigners, such as Africans, South Asians, and Russians. Maybe Starbucks is afraid that an Itaewon store’s tables would be turned into desks by the ever-resourceful Nigerians.
But don’t panic; black justice is being done in Itaewon. New coffee shops have been opening up and down the main drag in recent months. Some are good, some are bad. The best is Hello Beans, which opened last October.
Hello Beans is designed on the Starbucks model; the menu is similar, as are the laid-back atmosphere and spacious confines. But Hello Beans has what Starbucks doesn’t: a personal touch. Walk in and the family of coffee makers behind the counter perks up and offers greetings. In fact, the store is a mom and pop enterprise; the pop is Koo Ja-deog, the mom Yoo Jae-jung. Mr. Koo’s father owns the building, and has for 35 years. The young assistants on the espresso machine include the couple’s nephew and two children of a friend of Mr. Koo’s.
Before opening Hello Beans, Mr. Koo and Ms. Yoo ran a handbag shop in the same space. They decided to try another business, Mr. Koo says, because they refused to sell knock offs even though that was the only way to make money.
Though the coffee competition is already hot with all the other new shops on the block, Mr. Koo isn’t bothered. But would he welcome a Starbucks nearby? “Not yet,” he says.
We don’t think you need to worry, Mr. Koo.
by Mike Ferrin