Graph: Number of coffee shops by brand, from 2019 to 2021. Credit: KBS.
For a long time, the quality of coffee in South Korea was a staple of expat scorn. Not anymore: both the quantity and quality of Korean coffee have improved dramatically. Today, Seoul’s high-end coffee scene is among the world’s best, producing a World Barista Champion in Jeon Ju-yeon 전주연 in 2019. Meanwhile, the number of coffee shops in South Korea continues to increase exponentially. In 2022, South Korea had approximately 99k coffee shops, nearly doubling the number from 2018, when there were 50k.
South Korea has the second most Starbucks outposts in the world with 1,750 stores as of Q4 2022, trailing only the United States (6,608 stores) and ahead of the United Kingdom (838) and Mexico (769). But the global coffee giant is not the most numerous coffee joint in South Korea: that title belongs to local chain Ediya Coffee 이디야 커피 with 3,018 stores nationwide, offering a wider selection of snacks and a lower price point. Starbucks, however, is the undisputed king in terms of revenue: In 2021, Starbucks earned KRW 2.4t (USD 2.0b) in South Korea, while the next nine coffee chains earned a combined KRW 1.4t (USD 1.1b).
The COVID-19 pandemic changed the coffee market, benefiting discount coffee chains. Social distancing guidelines rendered comfortable interior spaces and hip decor expensive and pointless. Instead, takeout coffee shops with decent quality and reasonable prices prospered. The primary beneficiary of this trend has been Mega Coffee, which was launched in December 2015.
With its offering of affordably priced, massive coffee cups (the iced “Megaricano” is an entire liter, or 33 ounces, of coffee), the chain opened 1,750 stores in less than seven years, taking third place in the number of stores in Korea (behind Ediya and Starbucks) and second place in profit (behind Starbucks).