Fall in Cafe Willow, Fall in K-POP
The Eonju station, located in the Gangnam district, is crowded with people every weekend. Despite its steep uphill road, some people stroll there holding Taylor Swift’s slogans and official merchandise.
“Cafe Willow,” where the first Taylor Swift’s themed coffee shop in Korea was held, collaborated with South Korean Swifties (the fandom of Talyor Swift) to arrange the event cafe on October 1, 2021. Wherein this place’s ambiance and products are all Taylor Swift-inspired. Without their guest Taylor Swift, her followers Swifties visited Cafe Willow and talked, laughed and even sang a song there. Although it is such a remote place, Cafe Willow has received attention as a place where it takes the role of the bridge between artists and their fandoms.
Starting its business in April 2021, Cafe Willow has rapidly grown into a well-known celebrity event cafe in the short term. Kim, the main barista and owner of Cafe Willow, was a huge fan of K-POP and she had visited K-POP artists’ celebrity cafes several times before. In addition, she even held the event cafe of NCT, a South Korean boyband formed by SM Entertainment. Since she has been involved in the fandom community for more than four years and has worked in the coffee industry for two years, she decided to operate a coffee shop that focuses on holding celebrity events.
“K-POP is sweeping the world. As a huge fan of K-POP, I wanted to develop this culture more public,” Kim said. “In general, most event cafes arranged it temporarily due to their main duty. However, it is hard for some fans who live overseas or in rural provinces to participate or plan the event if the period is too short.”
After leaving her first job, without hesitating, she found a place to launch her shiny business plan.
“When thinking about proper place, I first consider the accessibility,” Kim said. “Gangnam, Hongdae and Apgujeong boast high accessibility to airport, train station and public transportation. Therefore, I strived to find a place there. In conclusion, I got a store within my budget here because most franchise coffee brands are already occupied with prime locations. So, the only place I could choose was here.”
At first, she worried about people who give up visiting her cafe because of the uphill. Then, however, she was not frustrated; she just paid more attention to designing the interior.
“The most crucial factor of holding the event cafe is interior. This is because so many fans come and visit to see not only the artist’s candid photos but also their videos,” Kim said. “But the typical cafe is uncomfortable to display and attach many fans’ artwork because of their ornaments. For that reason, although my cafe should climb up a bit to reach, if our cafe is optimized to fans, I firmly believe that everyone is willing to come and enjoy.”
Without a doubt, her plan indeed targeted every fan community. A large transparent window showing inside clearly helps fans find the place immediately and white wallpaper was suitable for attaching photos and shooting video. Plus, a large terrace enables fans to take a picture outside and stand in line if people are way crowded.
After opening her coffee shop, many fan communities contacted her within a month to host the event via SNS. Following its popularity, the number of customers sharply increased, reaching from 100 to 300 per day. Of course, it differs from the size of the fandom community, but it leads to the growth of her business. Winning her race aside from other franchise coffee brands, she became the hope of a local businessman.
The evolving ecosystem of K-POP culture
Celebrity cafe event is evolving now. It penetrates other industries, for example, reflecting the artist’s taste; some fandoms plan to open the event at a flower shop or restaurant where the artist often visits. Before, those cafes were only opened in Seoul; due to word-of-mouth, other cafes located in different cities are slightly getting on this wave.
As this cafe event is in the spotlight, it appeared in honor of not only celebrating K-POP artists but also commemorating the birth of cartoon characters and the debut of cartoonists. With enlarging its range, it has been applied everywhere. Since it gets popularizing, local coffee shops can get multiple channels to earn money. For example, a Chinese restaurant named ‘Yangjungwon’ was beneficent of this celebrity event cafe.
“That restaurant had suffered from making a profit despite its quality and taste,” Byun Yae-Ju, a culture and arts reporter at Dong-A ILBO, said. “However, with the appearance of K-pop boyband member Yang Jung-Won from ‘ENHYPHEN,’ visiting this restaurant becomes a pilgrimage to his fans. Because of its similar name, it started attracting many global fan journeys and successfully recovered its business.”
Byun emphasized this virtuous circle. She insisted that we shouldn’t see this social phenomenon with weird eyes. Because local businesspeople can receive help from increasing their business earnings and fandoms, they also capture the opportunity to promote their artists to the public. In conclusion, both stakeholders can satisfy together.
She also puts her world about global attention to this event.
“Since the social media has progressed, in Shanghai or Beijing, China such as at 1-tier cities, there has happened to open celebrity event cafe. Therefore, as a culture export, the way of sharing interests and enjoying the culture is diversified and goes beyond South Korea,” Byun said.
With the appearance of SNS, Cafe Willow got its fame; however, side effects also existed.
“I appreciate customers’ attention and their all postings. But the biggest problem is that due to anonymity and communication miss, there could happen some trivial conflicts. Some customers even upload unproven gossip, which makes us feel disappointed,” Kim said.
Despite these conflicts, she is always earnest about her job. She mentioned the memory of holding Taylor Swift’s cafe event.
“I totally could feel Korean Swifties’ affection for Taylor Swift. I even get so immersed in their event. They display vinyl records of all songs that Talyor Swift released,” Kim said. “Since this project was planned to arrange six months ago, I mean I took a lot of effort to it; therefore, it was so impressive. Without noticing, I just absorbed into their community.”
From minor to mainstream culture
As the way of enjoying K-POP is diversified, entertainment companies are quickly jumping on the bandwagon. YG Entertainment, a South Korean girl group Black pink’s music label, opened its cafe for fans and artists to chill. HYBE Entertainment, BTS’s music label, also displayed a BTS-themed cafe nearby its company. When it comes to SM Entertainment, they made a dining hall for fans to eat dinner with artists.
“Whenever I visited those cafes, I could feel a ‘bond’ between fans. Although we met there at first, the chemistry that cannot explain existed. Therefore, I hope such places are getting more and more. It was regarded as a minor culture before, but now it has changed,” Ham Seok-Young, a graduate student at Korea University of Visual Culture Studies, said.
A small uphill Cafe willow is spreading the pleasure of sharing common interests among K-POP mania.
“As a fan of the K-POP industry, I get energy from every fan and that is the motive for me to run my business,” Kim said. “Whenever I prepare for the event, it is tough and complex sometimes. But I feel so proud when watching their happy moments. I am so responsible for keeping their happiness to provide a place where they can communicate together.”