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What's Behind South Korea's Shake Shack Fever?

South Korean customers place orders at the July opening for Shake Shack's store in Seoul's hip Gangnam District.
Han Myung-Gu
WireImage/Getty Images
South Korean customers place orders at the July opening for Shake Shack's store in Seoul's hip Gangnam District.

South Korea's got Shake Shack fever.

Since opening its first outlet in Seoul on July 22 — in the Gangnam District, known as the city's Beverly Hills — the popular American burger chain has attracted incredibly long lines of people. On its first day of business, about 1,500 people lined up for two to three hours before the store's 10 a.m. opening time to be the first to sample its burgers, according to The Korea Herald, a local newspaper; some had been there all night.

More than a month and a half later, the fever has not died down. The Seoul Shake Shack reportedly serves an average of 3,000 customers daily, which works out to about four burgers per minute. When sizzling summer temperatures hit Seoul, the restaurant dispatched a nurse to prevent heat-related illness among those waiting in line, and also provided free bottled water and sun-blocking umbrellas, according to local reports.

What accounts for Koreans' Shake Shack frenzy?

For starters, Shake Shack is the latest American novelty, and Koreans love the taste of novelty. For years, Korea has been brimming with American flavors, from Burger King to McDonald's, Pizza Hut, TGIF, Baskin-Robbins, Dunkin' Donuts and Krispy Kreme. But many of these fast-food outlets have now become firmly entrenched in the local food scene – McDonald's restaurants, for instance, have been in Seoul for 28 years, so they've lost their shiny new sheen.

As recounted in Golden Arches East, a chronicle of McDonald's rise in East Asia edited by anthropologist James Watson, fast-food restaurants that opened in the region in the '70s, '80s and '90s tended to be cleaner, brighter and less crowded than similarly priced local establishments. (And they had air conditioning, too, which their same-price counterparts often lacked.) All of that can help explain why fast food established itself as a popular choice among east Asia's younger people and the emerging middle class.

American fast-food franchises arrived in South Korea as the economy was booming, helping to feed a growing middle class. They were viewed as modern and chic and a symbol of American-style prosperity. As a young man in Seoul in the 1990s, one of my favorite spots to take dates was KFC.

As these fast-food franchises have thrived, they've also tweaked their menus to reflect local tastes. For instance, while McDonald's started out in Korea with the same menu it had in the U.S., it now boasts a bulgogi burger, which my U.S.-born kids love.

Fast-forward to 2016, and the older fast-food restaurants no longer enjoy the same status among Koreans. But Shake Shack is a new brand from America — selling a rather luxurious burger, by fast-food standards (a burger, fries and shake cost $15 in Seoul, versus about $5 for a McDonald's meal).
That new, "luxe" status help give Shake Shack a heightened sense of cool.

Right now, Shake Shack's offerings in Seoul are the same as one might find in America: burger, fries, milkshakes, etc. But if its popularity continues — who knows? Perhaps a Korean fried chicken sandwich might appear on the menu.

Interestingly, one of my Korean university students in Seoul, where I spent part of the year researching the leisure culture of Korea, told me he saw Westerners working in the kitchen at Shake Shack. For him, that gave the whole enterprise a more authentic sense of Americanness.

Going to popular eating places like Shake Shack has also become its own genre of entertainment — especially among younger Koreans. Waiting in line becomes part of the fun because it builds anticipation. While the first wave of American fast-food chains took off in South Korea because they were associated with American modernity, Shack Shack seems to be thriving here, in part, because of Korean modernity. The world is currently in the grips of Korean cool, and as the rapper Psy made famous in 2012, its epicenter is Gangnam — a place where the hip go to be seen.

That brings me to another factor behind the long lines: the allure of "foodstagramming" (in Korea, it's called meok-stagram, a combination of the words eat, or meok-da, and Instagram). As in the U.S., food photo sharing is prevalent in Korean social media. It's a way of showing off. And trending foods like a Shake Shack burger could help give you extra social media cachet. As is true for their American counterparts, Korean foodstagrammers use photos to create a carefully curated image of the good life — and that includes being among the first visitors to the latest offering of American fare.

It is too soon to tell when the Shake Shack fervor will cool. But the excitement of this new taste does not seem likely to dissipate anytime soon: A second Shake Shack restaurant is slated to open in Seoul in November. The company says it plans to have a total of 25 stores throughout Korea by 2025.

A native of South Korea, Sangyoub Park is an associate professor of sociology at Washburn University. He spent part of this year in Seoul studying the leisure activities of South Koreans.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Sangyoub Park