Letter from Korea, April 2011

Suwon, South Korea
April 30, 2011

Dear Ireland,

Apologies for my lack of correspondence, I’ve been busy believe it or not. I won’t bore you with the details but I would in fact prefer to inform you of one of the reasons that I haven’t had as much time as usual to sit down and write you a lovely letter, as has been my wont for almost a year.

Recently, myself and Herself have become business people. We are proprietors. Not in the traditional sense, more in a temporary and experimental sense.

As I wrote in a previous post, I spend a lot of time in my friend’s traditional Korean tea shop that is close to our home. Recently the owner propositioned Herself whether or not she would like to run the tea shop. Herself was duly excited by the prospect and we decided we would take it on board for a few months and try it out.

This was duly done. The menu was changed and modernised – we brought in fresh juices, smoothies, coffee, beer, sangria and wine to drink, and we added sandwiches, soups and curries to the menu. Herself also bakes daily. As the owner is a vegetarian she asked us to keep it vegetarian fare, which isn’t a problem as dealing with meat is something I think we should avoid until we have a bit more experience outside of cooking our own dinners. As far as I can tell, everyone who has eaten in our new business has only complimented the food.

Along with changing the food, we changed the name to The OK Café. ‘O’ is for O’Reilly and ‘K’ is for Kim, and ‘Café’ because it is more like a café than a coffee shop or a tea shop – for me a café sells drinks, food and alcohol. I think in Korea the meaning of café has been confused with a place that just sells coffee and cakes. This is definitely not the case in most of Europe, and I’d wager that stateside is a similar state of affairs.

Last Saturday we had a music festival to celebrate the opening and new partnership with our friend Suni who still uses much of the space as a yoga studio, for holding group meals and other reasons. The 2nd International Music Festival was a huge success – We had over twelve performers with traditional Korean 창stealing the show followed closely by the mesmeric guitar work of LRD. We even managed to pull some people out of the crowd to sing a song or two with the music continuing long into the night and early hours. Fortunately it was worth it with not a drop of drink left in the house at the end of it all.

The whole experience has been unique. We have talked about opening our café or small restaurant for a long time and when the opportunity landed at our feet we didn’t know how to refuse. Of course, it is a temporary experiment for all concerned.  Opening a business is a difficult task for anyone, and it is especially difficult when you have little to no money.

In Korea, to open a business as a licensed company, the best alternative if you will need financial backing from the banks, you must have 50 million won. There are two possible reasons for this. If you are a foreigner you need it to get an investors visa. Also, and this applies to Korean citizens also, it is a legal stipulation that you have this money – I suppose that you can prove that you have financial support in case things go slower than expected or belly-up in a fortnight and you have to pay suppliers etc. We avoided both of these.

We are only subletting the premises, so we don’t actually own the business. We just manage it. So this is handy. I suppose. I won’t go into the current complications with this.

That being said it’s not all rosy. Finding customers is a problem. Our menu, sandwiches and curry essentially, doesn’t really tingle the taste buds when you mention it to the Yeongtong locals, an area devoid of fine dining but rife with barbecue restaurants, noraebang and bars (not to mention the room salons on the outskirts). Yes there are a lot of foreigners in the area, but the standard practice is to gravitate towards NOW Bar or escape into Seoul. They certainly aren’t gravitating towards The OK Café.

We started this with very little money and even less planning. Our expectations weren’t high but at the same time when these aren’t met how can we expect to make further progress. I look at all the other venues that are operated by westerners in Korea and they seem to be packed full of events every day of the week. But what about people who don’t want to go to events and who want to just relax and have a glass of wine or just sit and read in comfortable surroundings? That’s what we have created. A space that is not what everywhere else is offering. But are we open in the wrong part of the world? Do people not want this in Korea where the gimmick is king?

Atmosphere alone was our selling point, but do we have to get the ring of balloons around the door and the dancing girl in a short skirt just to get people to walk in the door and up the stairs? Maybe we should we scrap the healthy food and throw down a pig roast served by topless women covered in cream?

Or maybe we should just wait and see what happens.

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