Shake Shack Burger Fever in Korea

Sangyoub Park
Washburn University

The popular American burger chain Shake Shack just opened its first Korean store on July 22, in the Gangnam District of Seoul, which is known as the Beverly Hills of Seoul. Koreans are hurriedly flocking to the store to taste the famous burger and fries.

The Korea Herald, a local newspaper, describes the grand opening day:

When the store opened on July 22, the online fervor was proven real. Even before the opening of the store at 10 a.m., people were reported to have lined up hours in advance, some having been there all night, to be the first to try the burgers. Around 1,500 people were reported to have lined up for two to three hours on that day (7.24. 2016).

shake shack opening korea

July 25, 2016, Shake Shack (around 9:00 am, people are waiting outside before the opening hour). Photo by Sangyoub Park.

It has been over a month after its opening but the fever has not faded away. It is reported that the Shake Shack store averages 3,000 customers every day. Due to recent sizzling weather in Seoul, the store dispatched a nurse from 11:00am to 6:00pm to prevent heat-related illness while waiting in line. The store is planning to keep a nurse until next month. The store also provides free bottled water and sun-umbrellas (used to block sun in East Asia) to those waiting in line as a cautionary step.

What accounts for this Shake Shack fever?  Why are Koreans obsessed with Shake Shack? First, it is because Shake Shack is the latest novelty from America. Korea has been brimming with American tastes from Burger King to McDonalds’, Pizza Hut, TGIF, Baskin Robbins, Dunkin Donuts, and Krispy Kreme. Koreans love the taste of novelty. Some of these American foods have lost novelty since they are successfully localized. For example, it has been 28 years since McDonalds’ opened the first store in Seoul. Or Baskin Robbins is no longer especially exotic to Koreans since its first shop opened over three decades ago. More interestingly, one of my students informed me that having Western people in the kitchen appears to create a more authentic sense of Americanness.

shake shack burger and fries

Famous Shake Shack burgers with fries and shake, courtesy of Seung-Whan Lee.

Second, it can be attributed to the social media effect known as “eat and tweet” or “foodstagramming” (in Korea, it is called “meok-stagram,” which is a combination of eat, meok-da, and Instagram). Like the U.S., the food photo sharing phenomenon is prevalent in Korea. Posting food photos online is a way of showing off or bragging about one’s hipness or coolness. Sharing food photos is a way of boosting social status, that is, more “likes” means more popularity. These food photos bring recognition. In particular, trending foods like Shake Shack burger could help creating extra coolness. These photos can be used to elicit an image of life is good. They project an image of the good life.

Third, going to popular eating places like Shake Shack has become entertainment and sort of a leisure activity. It is a cool thing to do. Especially for young people, hanging out at such places has become popular entertainment. They are like “special events,” not for filling their stomach. This explains why waiting in line for a long time is not cumbersome to them. Opportunity cost seems not to apply to these queuers in that the end benefits are supposed to outweigh the cost of standing in long lines.

It is too soon to tell when the fever of Shake Shack will cool. But the excitement of this new taste does not seem to be dissipating  any time soon because the second Shake Shack store is slated to open at another place in which is not far from the first store in November.

For more photos, please visit: http://www.eater.com/2016/7/22/12258334/shake-shack-seoul-south-korea-photos.

For the grand opening of Shake Shack, please visit: http://news.chosun.com/site/data/html_dir/2016/07/22/2016072202608.html.

Sangyoub Park is professor of Sociology at Washburn University. He can be contacted at sangyoub.park@washburn.edu

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Filed under anthropology, Food Studies, korea

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