Most of them, who appear to be college students, are sitting alone. In addition to the word “Achievement” painted in big black letters and underlined twice in bold red, print-outs and memos of wise sayings and columns are posted all over the walls on every side.
A man enjoys ramen alone at Ichimen, a ramen house in Sinchon.
Park Hae-mook / The Korea Herald
Instead of small tables and chairs for two or four that are usually found in cafés, most of the furniture found at The 1st Penguin is for one person; from desks for one with wooden boxes on the side to place a bag and books to desk lamps.
“Please keep discussions quiet so you will not disturb others’ concentrations,” is another phrase written on the wall. The place looks like a café, with soft music, great interior design and serving a variety of drinks, but at the same time, functions like a library.
“The point of the interior design was to create an ambience where each customer could concentrate on his work. Because most of them use electric devices like laptops, we even prepared separate outlets for each seat,” said Kim Jun-yong, CEO of the café.
Being alone, especially eating alone, amounted to putting up a sign that says you are “wangdda,” or an outcast, in Korea. Women of all ages, especially, used to do everything with at least one friend, from eating in public and shopping to going to the bathroom.
The concept, however, seems to be changing. More men and women are going solo in public areas such as universities, restaurants and theaters. They “choose” to be alone, they say.
In a recent survey of 528 university students by Incruite, an online job search website, 34.5 percent of the respondents considered themselves as outsiders at school.
Among them, 87.4 percent answered that they voluntarily became outsiders for different reasons -- for example, not wanting to participate in unnecessary school events to concentrate more on studying or because they spend more time with friends outside of school. Only 12.6 percent said that they chose to withdraw from groups because they were not sociable enough.
Naturally, people’s attitude toward outsiders is also growing more positive. Some 66.7 percent of the respondents said that it is simply a different style of living while only 33.3 percent answered that they are people who lack sociability.
Kim Tae-hwan, a 25-year-old university student, prefers eating solo on campus. It has been so ever since he returned to school from his two-year military service.
“Sure, I have friends at school but I don’t have much time to spare now that I have put myself out on the job market. I choose to eat quickly, alone, and get other things done rather than to spend much time over lunch,” he said.
Recognizing students’ changing attitudes, a restaurant in the second basement of the Engineering Department building in Yonsei University recently installed partitions on its tables. Such partitioned tables are a more familiar sight in Women’s universities.
Restaurants outside the campus are not missing out on the trend either. One by one, they have started to offer private seats for students and office workers who come alone for a quick lunch.
Ichimen, a ramen house which opened in Sinchon, central Seoul, two years ago, is one of them.
As you walk into the restaurant, the first thing that greets you is not a waiter but an explanation board in three languages -- Korean, English and Japanese.
Simply follow what it tells you to do and you will get to enjoy your ramen without having a single conversation with anyone or seeing anyone’s face.
First, make your choice between two meals -- a ramen or a "katsudon", a type of fried steak with rice -- at the vending machine. Pay what you owe and you will get a meal ticket in return.
Check another board for empty seats -- the one with the light on is vacant --, and sit down. The seats have partitions on the sides and a red curtain in front. There are also napkins and hangers prepared behind each seat.
As soon as you press the bell on the table, the waiter/cook will silently approach from behind the curtain and hold out a hand to take your meal ticket and menu selection paper -- those who opt for ramen need to mark how spicy you want your noodle dish to be -- and give you a cup for water. No need to ring the bell again to ask for more water because there is a small faucet installed at every seat.
All you need to do now is listen to music, daydream and wait for your meal. In less than 5 minutes, your food will be served, again, by the silent hands of a waiter. When finished, just leave your tray and leave.
The ramen house is quite famous among those who seek private places to eat although it is quite a small place tucked away behind the Hyundai Department Store.
“The promotion was done naturally among young Internet users through blogs and homepages. The sales jumped 150 percent within two years of opening. We are planning to open more stores,” said An Su-kyung, public relations officer at Ichimen.
Customers at The 1st Penguin, a cafe in Anam-dong, concentrate on their studies.
Chung Hee-cho/ The Korea Herald
It is not hard to find people sitting alone in cafés, reading books or typing into their laptops anymore. Started in the big coffee chains like Starbucks and Coffee Bean, this trend can now be seen even in smaller cafés.
Many of the cozy little cafés clustered in Samcheong-dong, Sinsa-dong or the Hongik University area are book cafés where one can order a drink and sit around reading books all day long without feeling guilty. Most even have tables for one.
Library for chatting, a café near Hongik University, has a small seat for one in the attic which is so popular that it is almost never vacant. It has a cute sign below it that says “No couples allowed.”
The 1st Penguin decided to take a different approach. Opened last March in Anam-dong, it claims to be a “self-managing café.”
“My friend -- Choi Jae-young, the other CEO -- and I were ordinary office workers at fairly big companies but decided to start our own business. While seeking a concept, we heard how more people were visiting places alone and how the marketing that target such customers are becoming important in Japan. We thought this was it. We visited many cafés like Starbucks and figured it would be even better if we could provide an environment where our customers can really concentrate on their work,” said Kim Jun-yong, CEO of the café.
Wouldn’t a café suffer financially if all of its customers just ordered a single drink and stayed cooped up all day long?
“It is true that low turnover rate means low profit. But not everything can be perfect. In our case, we have regulars instead. Our customers are so satisfied with the place that they almost always visit again,” he said.
Cozy at her usual corner, Jessica Gosling, a British exchange student at Korea University, said she visits the café up to three times a week.
“I arrived in Korea last summer and this café was one of the things that struck me about Korean culture. There is something different about this café. It has a very welcoming ambience and you can actually study, talk, read and do whatever you want here,” said Gosling.
To really help its customers’ “self-management,” the café provides various projects such as “The A+ Challenge.”
At the beginning of every semester, students can submit their name and the title of one of their major courses to the café. If they get an A+ in that course after the final exam, they get a free drink. Over 150 students applied for the project this semester.
A similar project continues during school break. One can announce one big goal to achieve during the vacation and prove how they achieved it. It could be anything -- from passing a certain exam to dating the gorgeous girl next door. The person who best achieves the goal wins.
Last summer, the winner was a guy who set out to write a journal in English every day. He visited the café on the last day with a packet full of hand-written and typed journals and took home an iPod.
“Now, cafés that have nothing but cool interior designs to show off cannot last long. It gets boring too quickly. You need work on the specific contents. Ours is self-management. We also hold lectures to hear success stories from regular people around us and also provide mentoring services,” said Kim.
Those who really enjoy flying solo go further than just visiting such cafés.
Jo So-ri, a 24-year-old office worker often goes to the movies alone.
“I don’t have to fix a time with anyone and I can choose whatever movie I want,” said Jo.
The reservation rate for a single ticket is steadily increasing at CGV. It was 20.3 percent in the second quarter of 2008 but rose to 24 percent last year.
“The number of people who come to see movies alone has greatly increased. Our employees really sense the changes at the ticket booth,” said Lee Sang-kyu, CGV’s public relations officer.
The situation is similar for musicals and plays. According to Interpark, an online ticket seller, single tickets for various performances stood at about 96,000 in 2006 but increased to 141,000 in 2007 and 214,000 in 2008.
Performance organizers are now offering events and promotion packages aimed at attracting solo customers. Some designate "solo seats" and sell the tickets for half the normal price.
As a 28-year-old man living alone, Jang Jae-hyuk’s biggest concern is laundry and leftover food.
“I know how to wash and iron my shirts. In fact, all Korean men who have served in the military would, but I don’t have the time to do it. Nor do I want to. And I usually eat out because if I buy food in advance, half of it goes bad even before I get a chance to eat it,” said Jang.
Single men like Jang would be delighted to hear that more and more self-service Laundromats are opening in Korea. Though the system is already common in the United States, it is only recently gaining popularity here.
Coinwash 24, one of the biggest self-service laundry chains in Korea, is quickly establishing more branches throughout the country thanks to the increase of one-person households. According to Statistics Korea, one-fifth of the households in Korea are one-person households.
“One can finish everything from washing to drying the clothes within one hour, so it is very convenient. It is usually young people who live alone who use the system,” said Yu Dong-geun, sales director of Coinwash 24.
Single women frequently use personal errand services like the one provided by Life Manager. The company does practically everything for you from washing dishes and doing grocery shopping to running private errands.
And for leftover food concerns, some smart food companies and retailers came up with the idea of ‘mini marketing,’ in which everything comes in smaller packages. Shoppers can now easily find such goods in most big retailers in the country including E-mart, Lotte Shopping and Home Plus.
Vegetables are cut and packaged into smaller sizes, sausages, side dishes and sauces are packed to fit one person’s single meal and even soju comes in small bottles.
“Many retailers are offering products made to fit the lifestyles of those who live alone. The sales of the products are quickly increasing too, compared to other products. We are planning to present more sorts of such products,” said Kim Geun-man of E-mart.
Home meal replacement products such as instant lasagna or galbitang, or beef rib soup, are another good choice.
Many who eat solo at home must agree, because the sales of such products increased 60 percent this year, according to E-mart.
If none of these sound appealing, one can always rely on delivery food.
It was common practice until a few years ago that at least two dishes must be ordered in order to get something delivered. But now, more restaurants are willing to deliver single dishes.
One example is Panda Kitchen, a Chinese restaurant in Sangsu-dong.
It delivers small servings of usually large dishes like tangsuyuk, or sweet-sour pork, palbochae, or fried pork with vegetables, and yangjangpi, or assorted seafood and vegetables. The food is delivered in clean paper bowls, not in big plastic dishes that are normally used by Chinese restaurants.
McDonalds also recently started a home delivery service which is open to single set orders and Pizza Hut delivers mini-size pizzas as well.
Reported by Park Min-young for The Korea Herald