No reservation needed at Korea’s hottest dining spot — the convenience store

In a scene from Netflix's ″Squid Game″ (2021), Il-nam and Gi-hun share soju with each other in front of a table set up at a convenience store. [SCREEN CAPTURE]
In a scene from Netflix’s ″Squid Game″ (2021), Il-nam and Gi-hun share soju with each other in front of a table set up at a convenience store. [SCREEN CAPTURE]

In the popular Netflix series “Squid Game” (2021), Il-nam and Gi-hun share soju with each other in front of a table set up at a convenience store. 

In Korea, people often stop at the convenience store for a drink with friends or to grab a quick lunch.

Although some may look at convenience store lunches as a sad option for the cash-strapped, that is not the case in Korea. Moon-young and Gang-tae, the main leads in tvN’s “It’s Okay to Not Be Okay” (2020), share ramyeon at lunch in a convenience store while discussing serious issues such as their families.

Some convenience store branches have a cafe-like area, where people can sit at tables and chairs and eat their food, as well as facilities to cook and heat their food. Many choose to meet their friends for a beer at the outside seating area of a convenience store at night to enjoy the chill and relaxing atmosphere, a different experience from going to pubs.

How have convenience stores become so popular as a dining and drinking option among young and old alike?

Moon-young and Gang-tae, the leads in tvN’s “It's Okay to Not Be Okay” (2020), share ramyeon at a convenience store. [SCREEN CAPTURE]
Moon-young and Gang-tae, the leads in tvN’s “It’s Okay to Not Be Okay” (2020), share ramyeon at a convenience store. [SCREEN CAPTURE]

Q. What do Koreans eat at convenience stores?
 
The variety offered at local convenience stores is huge, with most having microwaves to heat up dosirak, or lunch boxes, and hot water dispensers to cook instant noodles.
 
Even small branches will have a corner where people can stand and eat their food. Bigger branches have restaurant-like areas with tables and chairs both inside and outside, allowing customers to stay as long as they want.
 
Although eating a bowl of ramyeon or taking a bite out of gimbap (seaweed rice rolls) may seem like the only option, customers can get creative thanks to the variety of products on sale. 
 
The so-called Mark meal, named after boy band GOT7 ‘s Mark because a fan of his came up with the recipe, is one such example. The recipe mixes spaghetti with tteokbokki (spicy rice cakes), both sold as instant noodle-type meals and tops it with microwavable sausages cut into bite-sized pieces and cheddar cheese.  

Boy band GOT7's Mark makes the famous Mark meal using convenience store products on ″Weekly Idol.″ [SCREEN CAPTURE]
Boy band GOT7’s Mark makes the famous Mark meal using convenience store products on ″Weekly Idol.″ [SCREEN CAPTURE]

Another famous one is an easy and cheesy recipe. Featured on tvN’s TV show “3 Idiots” (2020) after it went viral online, the recipe instructs people to microwave any type of refrigerated dumplings sold at convenience stores and crush them with a spoon or chopstick. People then have to cook cream udon or carbonara — the instant version — and top it with crushed dumplings, string cheese, and cheddar cheese. 
 
“I see a lot of viral convenience store recipes on social media, and I’m often tempted to try making them at convenience stores because they look fun to make,” said Choi Yoon-jin, a 28-year-old office worker. “I actually tried the Mark meal a few times and when I make those recipes, convenience stores aren’t a second choice I involuntarily turn to instead of proper restaurants, but somewhere I go because I really want to try out the food offered there.”
 
Dosirak is also a popular choice, with sales of the lunch boxes at GS25 between July 1 and 7 rising 49.8 percent on the year. At CU, dosirak sales between June 1 and 19 rose 29.6 percent on the year. Sales rose by 35.1 percent in areas where many offices are located — Yeoksam-dong in southern Seoul, Gwanghwamun in central Seoul, and Yeouido in western Seoul.
 
The only restriction when it comes to dining at convenience stores is related to alcohol with customers only allowed to consume the alcoholic beverages they purchase outside.

Office workers eat dosirak, or lunch boxes, at a CU branch. [BGF RETAIL]
Office workers eat dosirak, or lunch boxes, at a CU branch. [BGF RETAIL]

Q. When did people start eating and drinking at convenience stores?
 
Eating inside convenience stores hasn’t always been possible — it was first allowed by the government in 1998. However, there were no tables inside back then so people would eat while standing.
 
CU was the first in Korea to set up comfortable eating spaces with tables and chairs in 2012, aiming to attract more customers by advertising their branches as a place where they could sit and have a rest.  
 
With customers liking the change, other brands such as GS25 and 7-Eleven quickly followed.
 
Some convenience store branches now offer proper cafe and restaurant-like areas inside.
 
The 7-Eleven branch in Namdaemun, central Seoul, has been given the name Namdaemun Cafe branch. The branch is spread across two stories, with the first floor housing a convenience store and the entire second floor is given over to customers to enjoy a cup of coffee or a bowl of ramyeon.  
 
The Emart24 branch near Dongjak Bridge in Seocho District, southern Seoul, has a separate floor for eating, accompanied by a view of the Han River view and a library area where people can read.  
 

An Emart24 branch near Dongjak Bridge, southern Seoul, has a sitting area for people to have food and drinks, along with a library for visitors to enjoy. [EMART24]
An Emart24 branch near Dongjak Bridge, southern Seoul, has a sitting area for people to have food and drinks, along with a library for visitors to enjoy. [EMART24]

Q. Is eating at convenience stores only a Korean thing?
 
Regardless of where people live, grabbing a quick snack at their nearby convenience store is nothing strange. But Korea is one of the few countries where actually eating inside is considered very common.
 
Although Japan is deemed the country of convenience stores, it falls behind Korea when it comes to offering eat-in spaces. Japanese conveniences have eat-in areas, but not at all of them.
 
Around half of Japan’s convenience store branches in city areas offer eat-in space. There are 2,320 Family Mart branches in Tokyo, with 1,004 of those offering eat-in corners according to the company’s website. Osaka has 1,350 Family Mart branches, with 686 offering eat-in spaces.  
 
Ministop is one franchise that offers eating spaces in all of its branches in Japan.  
 
With TV shows and movies showing celebrities sitting down at convenience stores to have a meal, the experience is even considered something specific to Korea. Foreign retailers sometimes reach out to local convenience store operators for licensing deals, asking the companies to replicate their authentically Korean eating areas.
 
A spokesperson for GS Retail, which runs GS25, said foreign companies specifically request to have a large sitting area in their branches just like its Korean stores. The company has overseas branches in Vietnam and Malaysia.
 
“Because of the requests, a lot of our foreign branches have the sitting areas, and are even three to four times bigger in size for branches in Mongolia,” said the spokesperson. “The customers really enjoy the area and we’re getting a lot of positive responses.”
 

An Emart24 branch in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, has a eating space upstairs. [EMART24]
An Emart24 branch in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, has a eating space upstairs. [EMART24]

Q. Why did eating and drinking at convenience stores become so normal in Korea?
 
The cheaper costs of convenience store products are one of the many reasons.
 
Jun Sang-in, a sociology professor at Seoul National University and author of “Convenience Store Sociology,” says young people choose to eat at convenience stores due to lower prices, with further discounts from loyalty points or membership discounts making items even more affordable.
 
Paying less for lunch is definitely a perk, but Koreans don’t necessarily flock to convenience stores to pinch pennies. 
 
“People go eat at convenience stores because of cheaper costs, but also because it saves them a lot of time ordering and waiting for their food, especially for company workers because time is very important for them,” said Lee Eun-hee, a consumer studies professor at Inha University. “Some used to feel bad for people eating at convenience stores in the past, but with more people eating there and collaboration products that are considered new and trendy being sold at convenience stores, having a meal there isn’t seen as something sad.”
 
Cheap 1,500-won bowls of ramyeon aren’t the only products offered at local convenience stores. Famous cafes such as Super Matcha offer their drinks, tiramisu, and ice creams at GS25. CU collaborates with KBS’ TV program “Star’s Top Recipe at Fun-Staurant” and offers products based on recipes from celebrities, with abalone gimbap selling for 8,900 won. A regular gimbap sells for around 2,500 won.
 
Prof. Lee also added that people choose to go have drinks at convenience stores just for the experience. Enjoying the cool breeze at night with a can of beer while sitting outside is something young Koreans like to do, and something that only convenience stores can offer.  
 
The rising number of people living alone, wanting smaller sized and more convenient meals is another reason. According to Statistics Korea, there were 6.64 million single-person households in Korea as of 2020, which accounts for 31.7 percent of all Korean households.
 
“As the number of single-person households rapidly grew, dosirak, small portioned food products, and desserts sold well at convenience stores and companies changed the overall concept of convenience stores,” said Jeong Dong-sup, an consumer industry analyst from Deloitte Korea. “Once a place to just buy things, they changed into venues that can perform the functions of restaurants, even eating into revenue and taking customers from snack bars and nearby restaurants.”
 
 
Q. In what other ways are convenience stores transforming?

A visitor uses a machine set up at a CU branch, which allows people to conduct various banking services. [NEWS1]
A visitor uses a machine set up at a CU branch, which allows people to conduct various banking services. [NEWS1]

Convenience stores have to give up a lot of shelf space to set up tables and chairs, but they do so to attract more customers. Following a similar business scheme, convenience stores are becoming banks, post offices, and even electric vehicle charging stations.

In October last year, CU opened a branch in Songpa District, southern Seoul, sharing a corner with Hana Bank. The store designated space for a machine that allows visitors to conduct 50 different banking activities such as creating an account and applying for a debit card. Using the machine, visitors can video call bank clerks if they find anything confusing or want a one-on-one consultation.

GS25 opened a similar branch that shares a corner with Shinhan Bank last October, and CU opened its second bank-service-offering branch in May, in Anyang, Gyeonggi.

Some 45 GS25 branches in Gangnam District, southern Seoul, and Pangyo, Gyeonggi, have electric bike charging stations, as the company hopes tired bikers will stop to grab a bottle of water or a quick snack while re-charging their bikes.  

Convenience stores have been offering parcel deliveries for some time. Since 2020, CU has been offering branch-to-branch deliveries. Customers can send parcels to a CU branch, delivering them to the recipient’s nearest CU branch rather than their actual doorstep.  

GS25 has also been offering similar services since 2020.

The service brings more people to their branches but doesn’t require the companies to add extra logistics facilities. Both CU and GS25 use trucks that deliver food and other products between branches to deliver the parcels.

BY LEE TAE-HEE [lee.taehee2@joongang.co.kr]