SEOUL, March 15 (Korea Bizwire) – Park Min-seo, on his fifth year working at a large telecom company in Seoul, has his office routine lined up with meetings, report write-ups, client consultations and periodic constructive criticism from his superiors. So to pat himself on the back for surviving a difficult day or week, he occasionally heads to restaurants and bars — alone.
“It’s like a self-comforting, self-healing moment of solace for me,” he said. “No need to keep up with the conversation with office co-workers, which usually end up being about work, anyway.”
Lucky for Park, 35, more eateries and drinking places are opening up for customers like him. He was happy to recently discover a perfect place not far from his home in western Seoul where he can grab a bottle of beer with side dishes served in manageable single-person portions.
A common choice for solo consumers like Park would have been takeout to eat at home while watching television. But there are more people wanting to venture out to public places to eat and drink alone and not be embarrassed or feel sad about it.
“I am not married. I have the evenings all to myself. I want to relish the time, and eating what I want there and then is very satisfying,” Park said. “If I had my way, every restaurant would have seating arrangements to accommodate people coming to eat alone.”
Shin Min-young, 29, works for an online shopping mall. She is practically on the phone all day, dealing with customers heavy with complaints. “By the time I get off work, I have had more than my share of human interaction,” she said. “I need pampering. I need alone time. And I get it by treating myself to good food at a cozy restaurant from time to time.”
Shin admits she is bolder than most women her age, eating at a restaurant without any companion. But there is definitely a change in perception about being and doing things alone.
Daumsoft, a data mining firm, and Innocean Worldwide, an advertising agency, put out separate reports in December last year that reflected a shift in how people view aloneness. Daumsoft counted more than 15,400 mentions in 2015 about eating and drinking alone, seven times the volume of the preceding year. Words associated with the mentions ranged from “enjoy” and “tasty” to “awesome.” Analysis from 2011-2013 for similar mentions got reactions like “afraid,” “don’t like” or “hungry.” In the Innocean Worldwide report that analyzed the singles’ consumption trend in 2015, 69 percent of office workers were highly receptive to being alone and doing things alone. Like in Daumsoft’s report, words associated with “alone” were mostly positive — “tasty,” “enjoy,” “happy” and “healing.”
Solos already have created a market. Convenience stores have increased menu options for boxed meals whose sales are now in the top rankings, outdoing alcoholic beverages that used to be the unshakable No. 1 seller. Records from Seven Eleven showed sales of boxed meals rose 90.2 percent in 2015, compared to 51 percent the year before. At CU, sales of boxed meals and other handy foods like sandwiches accounted for 11.5 percent of total sales in the first two months of this year, reaching double digits for the first time. The CU marketing team got the message. It opened a research office in Seoul to develop a wider range of products for solo eaters. Lotte Department Store earlier this month opened at one of its Seoul branches a food corner where a customer can pick the rice, soup and side dishes of his or her choice and box it. For those who want to eat in, the store has a bar nearby.
For single drinkers, retail superchain Home Plus sells select wines and traditional Korean alcoholic beverages in pouches. When they were packaged in assortments as a gift set for the Lunar New Year this year, they hit as high as 90,000 in single day sales. Lotte Chilsung Beverage Co. has been selling wine in smaller bottles, holding about two glasses, since summer last year. Complementing snacks, including cheese, are also easily found in smaller portions at supermarkets.
It’s no longer news that the number of one-person households is rising fast in South Korea. According to Statistics Korea and the Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs, there were 5.07 million such households in 2015, accounting for 27.1 percent of the total. Fifteen years ago, the percentage was 15.5 percent. Fifteen years from now, it is projected at 32.7 percent. As they grow in number, more voluntary soloists are bound to snap out of takeout and opt for mortar-and-brick restaurants.’
The restaurant choices for solo diners are widening, from what mostly were noodle-based or one-bowl gulp-and-go types to sit-and-savor places.
One of the online jokes among lone diners is the level of bravery that roughly breaks down to nine tiers, higher the number, the harder to do it alone. The epitome of bravery is drinking alone or going to a barbecue restaurant alone.
“I have found places where I can go by myself to enjoy a glass of wine or a bottle of beer with hardly any discomfort,” Shin said. “The real challenge is going to a barbecue place and cooking the meat at a table that seats four people minimum.”
Fret no more. “Betjang,” a small barbecue restaurant in western Seoul, gives you a mini grill, set up at your very seat, at a bar that takes up most of the restaurant space.
“Older people may not feel so comfortable eating at restaurants alone,” said Park. They are so used to ‘group culture,’ having to fit into a mold and not acting differently or out of the group. But group culture is nothing but social pressure. I have friends. I go on dates. It’s that sometimes, I choose to be alone. That doesn’t make me a misfit or a loser.”