South Korea – A Roadmap to COVID-19 Economic Recovery, Everyday Distancing, Restaurants, Cafes, and Bars

South Korea - A Roadmap to COVID-19 Economic Recovery, Everyday Distancing, Restaurants, Cafes, and Bars

by Don Southerton
Founder and CEO, Bridging Culture Worldwide
People Culture Strategy
Offices: Golden, Colorado, and South Korea

South Korea appears to have reined in the outbreak without some of the strict lockdown strategies deployed elsewhere in the world.

As much of the world is beginning to ease restrictions, Stay at Home and closure of businesses, South Korea as a first mover is tackling one sector highly impacted worldwide – the Food and Beverage industry.

Everyday Distancing

Amid concerns for the second wave of infection, South Korea has set recommendations for ways the country can practice “everyday distancing” that would introduce more sustainable lifestyle changes rather than temporary campaigns.

As part of the guidelines, it recommends that people minimize time spent in restaurants and cafes, sit at least 1 meter from other patrons, and be seated in a row or in a zig-zag to avoid directly facing each other.

Still, the economy and businesses like restaurants, coffee shops, and bars have suffered. Although Korea never experienced mandated widespread closures, Koreans pro-actively stayed away from eateries, bars, and Starbucks. The restaurants and bars did remain open, eagerly waiting for customers who seldom came.

Fast forward, in Korea everyday life today is now resembling something closer to normal. There are lines outside restaurants during lunchtime; malls are bustling, and the streets are busier.

As pointed out by Robert E. Kelly, a professor at Busan National University, many are returning to pre-COVID-19 practices, much the result of corona-fatigue.

As everywhere else, there is pressure to re-open. Everyone is bored and frustrated at home. Businesses are struggling. Families are frazzled at having the kids at home all day every day. People are putting on weight because they are watching too much TV and over-eating. All the same sort of complaints accumulating on social media in Western countries exist here too.

Indeed, corona fatigue set in earlier here. Korea’s clampdown began in mid-March, and one can already see the edges fraying. I see fewer masks on the subways. The lines to pick up government-distributed masks are shorter. Bars and restaurants are filling. 

Pent Up Demand

Along with corona-fatigue, in response to pent up demand we are also seeing consumers back shopping—malls again busy. And, as a result in the past weekend, it was not uncommon at top shopping centers like Shinsegae Department Store, to see food courts with few empty tables.

Likewise, at the Starbucks in the Starfield Mall in Goyang, the baristas were busy working through a backlog of 33 orders with those in line waiting more than 20 minutes to get an iced coffee.

Looking to the Future

In addition to customers returning, we also see some positive signs as the major Korean food groups look to the future.

Korea’s largest food company, the SPC Group, just announced that its affiliate SPC Samlip has acquired the exclusive Korea rights for Eggslut, a popular California egg sandwich franchise. Looking outside Korea, too, SPC also secured the license for Singapore.

The company said it will introduce the first Korean Eggslut in the popular Starfield Coex Mall located in Seoul’s Gangnam District in June 2020.

SPC, which in 2016 had launched US burger chain Shake Shack in Korea, said it will also expand further into the “fine-casual” dining market with brands like Eggslut.

Not alone in moving forward post-COVID-19, Yum Brand’s Taco Bell and their local partner KALISCO, too, just opened their newest fast food restaurant. Located on the 1st floor of the Seoul Express Terminal building, the site is one of the nation’s leading commuter transportation hubs.

One side benefit in the wake of the pandemic experienced by the casual Mexican food franchise is a 56 percent growth in delivery sales in February and March over January.

Likewise, SPC and other franchise restaurants are jumping on the bandwagon, some via their own individual delivery platforms or delivery service apps.

A takeaway, as everyday life moves closer to normal in South Korea, it seems best practices will include new ways to attract customers wary of coming into contact with others while dining out and adopting “everyday distancing.” This will lead to a more routine and sustainable lifestyle—one that will allow restaurants, cafes, and bars to again operate profitably.

As businesses return to normal, it will also allow the potential for new brands to enter the market and current brands to grow.

Don Southerton is a long time C-suite advisor providing strategy, consulting and mentoring to Korea-based global businesses.  Over the past decades he has supported Fortune 500 firms including the Hyundai Motor Company, Yum Brands, Bristol Myers Squibb, the SK Group, and media giant Omnicom – to name but a few.

He writes and speaks frequently on business related topics and the Korean Food and Beverage contributing to The Economist, the BBC, CNN Fortune, Korea Times, Yonhap, Korea Herald, tbs eFM, Wall Street Journal, Branding in Asia, and Forbes.

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