The Korea Herald


[Weekender] When the going gets tough, the tough deliver

From delivered food, restaurant takeaways to eating out strictly complying with social distancing rules, pandemic-weary diners have many safe options

By Song Seung-hyun

Published : Nov. 26, 2020 - 16:18

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In a year that has witnessed the COVID-19 pandemic disrupt lives and devastate economies around the world, Korea has sought innovations to meet the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The following is the second article of a four-part series on how Korea is creating a new normal during the pandemic, produced in partnership with The Korea Foundation -- Ed.

When asked about his diet during live streaming on VLive in June last year, pop sensation BTS member Jungkook said it was not easy because of the food delivery services in Korea.

“Just by tapping few times on the smartphone, Korean barbecue magically appears in front of me, ready to eat,” Jungkook said. The young artist added that the food delivery system was one of the best in the world as he can get all kinds of food delivered 24/7.

He is right.

Korean food delivery market is the fourth-largest in the world at over 20 trillion won in 2019. With this already mature environment, the food delivery industry expanded even faster this year, along with many other contactless businesses that saw demands surge due to the global pandemic.

“There is only so much home cooking you can do. You run out of menus. Sometimes, I am too tired to cook when I get home,” a working woman in her 50s told The Korea Herald on condition of anonymity. She said she orders dinner for the family through a delivery app at least once or twice a week these days.

After the government on Tuesday implemented stricter social distancing rules, which allows cafes to only offer takeout and delivery and restaurants to do the same after 9 p.m, food delivery services have emerged as the main option for enjoying restaurant foods.

According to Woowa Brothers, operator of the top local delivery platform Baemin, as of July 2020, more than 170,000 local stores are registered with its delivery platform. Baemin is Korea’s No. 1 delivery app by market share with over 10 million active monthly users in a country with a population of 51 million.

Another delivery platform operator, Shuttle Delivery, which offers English service targeting expatriates, foreign tourists as well as Koreans, said it has also seen the number of users increase.

“Probably a double increase in customers ordering through our platform since the pandemic began,” Shuttle Delivery CEO Jason Boutte told The Korea Herald.

He added that after the pandemic broke out, Shuttle Delivery started prioritizing offering the safest service possible to customers, riders and restaurants.

“We changed our policy to only allow payments online due to it lowering the amount of time that drivers and customers interact at the door. We have also introduced a contact-free delivery option on our app,” Boutte said.

“Riders will be able to see the comment when a customer writes this in the order’s delivery notes, and drivers will then follow a simple process to try to ensure there is no contact when the food is delivered.”

Food and wine from Millennium Hilton Seoul can be delivered to homes and offices through delivery services. (Millennium Hilton Seoul) Food and wine from Millennium Hilton Seoul can be delivered to homes and offices through delivery services. (Millennium Hilton Seoul)

Newcomers to food delivery market

Responding to the increase in the number of users, a growing number of hotels have also decided to make their food deliverable to customers’ doorsteps.

Millennium Hilton Seoul is one of the hotels in Seoul that started delivery services by joining hands with two local delivery platforms -- Baemin and Coupang Eats.

Baemin users can enjoy sandwiches and salads that are made by hotel chefs and also purchase wine to be enjoyed with the food. Coupang Eats users can enjoy not only the cold deli options but also various hot dishes, including burgers and pasta.

“As the market situation is rapidly changing at this time, growing expectations and the need for enjoying wholesome meals in the privacy of one’s home are observed, among those taking a lunch break while working remotely or a late dinner when other outlets are closed,” Millennium Hilton Seoul spokesperson Jenny Lee said.

Starbucks also launched a pilot delivery service on Friday at Yeoksam E-mart branch in Gangnam, Seoul. Customers within 1. 5 kilometers of the outlet can order food, beverages and merchandise through Starbucks’ mobile app. Next month, the coffee chain will offer delivery service at Starlit Daechi branch in Gangnam, Seoul before deciding on whether to expand the service to other outlets.

“We have been considering the delivery service option for a long time. We also considered the contactless trend and the increasing requests for delivery service from our customers and decided to launch the pilot service,” Starbucks spokesperson told The Korea Herald.

Also, many other franchise coffee chains, including Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, Hollys Coffee, Caffe Pascucci and Ediya Coffee are providing delivery services through different delivery platforms.
A Baemin delivery man rides a motorcycle. (Yonhap) A Baemin delivery man rides a motorcycle. (Yonhap)

Placing takeaway orders online

More restaurants are also offering contactless takeaway services, which allow customers to place an order, pay through an online and mobile platform and pick up the items at the outlet.

As of Sept. 30, the number of restaurants and cafes using Baemin’s contactless takeaway service has increased to 120,000, according to Woowa Brothers.

“I only used Baemin’s takeaway service once, but I could see that it is useful. I did not have to wait in the restaurant while my food was being prepared,” Yoon Young-mi, a working woman in her 30s said.

Yun added that she used the service because she wants to grab dumplings on her way home from work. “I did not want to pay the delivery fee.”

Woowa Brothers said it has made a minor change to reflect the increasing demand for the mobile takeaway service.

The delivery company added a separate tab to its Baemin app so that customers can find the takeaway option more easily, and also provide a map service to help customers locate nearby restaurants.

“The new tab was created as a response to the increasing importance of following the social distancing rule,” a Woowa Brothers spokesperson said.

Moreover, to assist local restaurants that are suffering due to the spread of COVID-19, Baemin is waiving any extra fees, including the amount that individual stores have to pay credit card firms for customers using mobile payment services, through the end of December.

Portal giant Naver also provides a similar takeaway solution “Smart Order” for free to restaurants until December.

This platform not only allows customers to place takeaway orders but also makes it possible for dining-in customers to minimize contact with restaurant employees by placing an order at the restaurants through the platform and paying online. 

A man uses a QR check-in system before entering a restaurant in Seoul (Yonhap) A man uses a QR check-in system before entering a restaurant in Seoul (Yonhap)

Korean diner’s cooperation

For customers who want to dine at a restaurant, restaurants are following the government’s guidelines, such as keeping a 1-meter distance between tables, installing partitions between tables and using QR check-in systems to keep track of customers.

“When the virus first broke out, we did have some worries that customers would feel uncomfortable when we ask them to follow the government’s guidelines,” an employee at a local restaurant in Sadang-dong, southern Seoul. said on condition of anonymity. “However, I think most customers are used to it now. The majority of the customers follow the guidelines without complaining.”

Infectious disease expert Kim Woo-joo of Korea University Medical Center in Guro, southern Seoul, says that the public’s cooperation is vital in the country’s battle against the COVID-19.

“Especially, prevention measures like installing partitions are helpful in preventing the spread of the virus,” Kim said.

“It would be more helpful if the government could further provide funds to the restaurants that are strictly following the guidelines to encourage their operations,” he added.

By Song Seung-hyun (