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Cafe-goers' bucketlist

Korean 100-year-old traditional house becomes trendy destination for cafe-goers

Sep 27, 2020 (Gmt+09:00)

The life of a building emulates the human experience more than we suspect -- encountering countless number of people, wearing down with age, and eventually perishing over time. While most buildings are left to fall into ruin or are destroyed, some are fortunate enough to get a fresh start. This breathing of new life into forgotten spaces is a hot trend in South Korea, perfectly exemplified in the fresh offerings, creative aesthetic and cultural commitment of the Onion cafe trio.
Cafe Onion

Onion isn’t your typical coffee shop. The company has transformed run-down properties and neglected businesses into swanky, hip venues – a kind of Cinderalla story for buildings. The brand operates three cafe boutiques: one in what used to be a metal factory; one in a near-defunct post office; and another in a 100-year-old hanok, a traditional Korean house, that was near ruins.

The first Onion store opened in the neighborhood of Seongsu, called the Brooklyn of Seoul, in 2016. Although Seongsu is now a fashionable area bustling with chic cafes and boutique shops, the scene was much different even as recently as 2016, given its beat-up factories and cheap rental space.

“We were inspired by Brooklyn -- the juxtapositioning of the metro and industrial districts,” said Yu Zu-hyung, the chief executive officer and founder of Onion.

True to his inspiration, Yu found a shabby factory in the Seongsu quarter next to PPB Studios, an ecommerce business that he had managed. The former metal factory was set to be converted into a parking lot and had piles of trash and junk scattered around. Since its construction in 1970 the building had been a supermarket, a restaurant and a maintenance shop, all before its incarnation as a metal factory.

CEO Yu and his creative design partners – a duo called Fabrikr – collaborated and transformed the space into what is now one of the most popular coffee shop destinations in Korea.

Thanks to Onion’s success, the empty streets of Seongsu soon flourished with life, booming with new coffee shops and bakeries eager to be within reach of the cafe that had become a Seongsu landmark.

“I was passionate about resuscitating things that were forgotten or thrown away. I wanted to show that we could make a change with our own hands,” said CEO Yu.

Onion in Seongsu


Onion has been around just four years, but it has become the place to go thanks to its unique decor and ambiance raved about on social media. The industrial-chic cafe always tops the ranks of recommended cafes for tourists, and before the spread of the coronavirus, over 50% of all three cafes' customers were foreigners.

Onion's rise to becoming the It destination among cafe-goers in such short period is credited to teamwork. The design duo Fabrikr alongside Kang Won-jae, a well-known patissier from the popular bakery Bread05, came on board as directors. Also, Kim Joon-yeon, a renowned coffee roasting specialist joined as the chief customer officer (CCO) to lead Onion. The team focused on creating a fresh experience, one that would make Onion more than a mere coffee-consuming space.

In 2018, the second store opened in Mia, a district located in the outskirts of Seoul, an area full of young adults in their 20s and 30s. Here they wanted to offer cafe enthusiasts an opportunity to “enjoy good coffee and delicious pastry in the neighborhood” without having to travel to Seongsu or Hongdae, areas overloaded with cafes. While checking out Mia, a nearly defunct post office caught CEO Yu’s eye; the iconic government building having a symbolic and nostalgic allure for Yu.

Yu’s proposal to convert half of the post office space into a cafe was successful. The Mia cafe is popular for offering a cup of batch brew coffee for 2,500 won (around $2) and offers a wide range of blends that vary in flavor from famous roasters all over the country.
Onion in Anguk

Onion in Anguk

Café Onion’s third cafe in Anguk, an area near the hanok (Korean traditional house) village and primary royal palace Gyeongbokgung, was an immediate hit. The large hanok was revamped to offer modern aesthetics and glass walls while still bearing its basic structure and traces of history. The Anguk space dates back over 100 years to Joseon Dynasty, Korea's last imperial dynasty, where this hanok was used as an upscale closed-door lounge that provided an entertainment space for politicians as well as a high-end restaurant.

At the Anguk store, customers can either sit at a table or on the floor, enjoying a balanced blend between the past and the present.

“We wanted to share the beauty of things that represent Korea to the fullest. We aimed to preserve the beauty that time brought, while sharing the story of this space and the sustainability of it all,” said CEO Yu.

Korean traditional rubber shoes "gomusin" display at Onion Anguk

Another attraction at the Anguk boutique cafe is the exhibition of gomusin, traditional rubber shoes worn in daily life from the 1920s until the 1960s in Korea.  The rubber shoes were morphed into an art piece in collaboration with illustrator Kim Jung-youn, who also works with Nike. The unique gomusin exhibited throughout the Anguk store were also sold on an ecommerce platform to encourage consumers to purchase items originating from Korean culture.

Modernized gomusin, a collaboration between Onion and illustrator Kim Jung-youn

A display at Onion explains gomusin as follows:

“The first person to wear gomusin in Korea is said to be Emperor Sunjong from the Joseon Dynasty. In the 1920s, rubber was an expensive, high-quality material. Before this, shoes were made from either straw or hides, making the mass production of rubber shoes that could withstand snow and rain a shocking innovation. Gomusin may be something from the past, but they shouldn't be seen as something staid,” said Yu.

Creating local coffee blends tailored to each cafe

In the beginning, Café Onion procured high-quality blends from specialty roasters nationwide, but lately they have begun self-roasting to create unique flavors tailored to the character of each cafe.

Recently, Seongsu Onion unveiled the Seongsu Blend, which the CCO Kim explains as “coffee that is intuitive and meaningful to space – one that is enjoyed comfortably.” Kim added, “We will continue to introduce blends that represent Onion’s philosophy.”

Cafe Onion planned to expand abroad this year, but the foray has been postponed in the wake of the coronavirus. This doesn't seem to be an issue as the team is focused on doing what they do best.

“At Onion, we are constantly brainstorming about how to incorporate healthy eating, sustainability and local storytelling into our spaces. And we are preparing something even greater for the next cafe,” said Yu.

Write to Bo-ra Kim at destinybr@hankyung.com

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