Wherever you are in Seoul, it’s safe to say you’re never too far from a café. There are so many Starbucks, the city has the makings of a Christopher Guest joke. And apart from the numerous international franchises, there are scads of domestic chains like A Twosome Place and Angel-in-us. With so much corporate competition, it’s amazing that there’s any pie left for the little guys with independent coffee houses. Pie there is (and cake and cookies, even), or at least enough to feed the boom in café openings. It’s tempting to look at the indie cafes cropping up all over and think, “It must be easy to start a café, right?”
Wrong—at least according to Sophia (Min Joo) Yoo, the owner of Glamorous Penguin, a new café in hip Hannam-dong. Glamorous Penguin will have its 100th Day anniversary this month, on December 13, and Sophia has hardly had a day off since the store opened. She works over 12 hours a day, seven days a week to maintain her business (which is doing well but still has months before it will turn a profit). Though the café appears to run smoothly, especially given how new it is, Sophia insists that it’s all smoke and mirrors. “I’m a swan,” she says, “On the surface, I look so graceful and organized. But underneath the water, I’m paddling like crazy.”
“You think you want to have your own café?” Sophia asked. “Follow me for a day and I’m sure I will change your mind.” And we took her up on that offer. Though many café owners hesitate to share insiders’ tips, Sophia was happy to provide information that might help aspiring entrepreneurs or even curious customers. She agreed to be shadowed for a full day, revealing the not-so-glamorous side of Glamorous Penguin.
8:00–9:30 am, shopping at Namdaemun Market
Sophia starts off each morning with a few hours of shopping, usually at one of Seoul’s famous markets (except for Fridays, when she goes to Costco). She prefers to visit her favorite vendors in person, rather than ordering supplies online, so that she can save money on shipping and stay up-to-date on what’s available. She doesn’t bring a set list of items she needs, but rather keeps track of a rough mental inventory and leaves room for unexpected items that inspire her.
On this particular day, Sophia needs ribbons to tie on to-go boxes and bags. She understands the importance of branding and detail, so even ostensibly minor purchases like this require a lot of thought. She heads to her favorite ribbon store (apparently, there are several shops devoted solely to ribbon) in Namdaemun, where she is already familiar with the various labels and lines. After finding the right navy blue silk for her cake boxes, she pauses to look at some ornaments that just arrived at the shop, then puts them down to find some green and red ribbon on sale.
Christmas is coming, and she’s still deciding how to prepare for the holiday season. Cakes are an integral part of Christmas culture in Korea, and Sophia looks a little weary thinking of the ordering rush that’s coming. Though she never stops smiling, there’s an undeniable shadow of fatigue that crosses her face at the mention of the busiest time of the year. It passes quickly as she jaunts out of the ribbon shop and over to a holiday decoration stand just down the block. It’s full of American-style trimmings like shiny Santa banners and glittery garland. Sophia giggles over festive glasses and headbands, which she plans to have her employees wear. Luckily for them, she passes up the accessories and decides to come back for them another day. It’s time to taxi over to the next destination.
9:30–10:30 am, shopping at Bangsan Baking Market
At Bangsan Market, Sophia starts by looking for bags and boxes. She buys packaging just a little at a time, since the café has limited storage. She points out some of her favorite stores, passing one of her regular spots and popping in to a fancier boutique to purchase cupcake liners and simple kraft paper bags. “If you want to have a café, you should save all your receipts,” she advises. “And take notes on where you bought things, so you remember where to go if you need more.”
As we walk toward a narrow alley of baking supply vendors, she explains that simply knowing the right places to shop is a big challenge for many new café owners. The sense of rivalry among small businesses keeps many entrepreneurs from sharing valuable information and tips. Sophia was lucky, since the coffee expert who gave her lessons also shared some shopping secrets with her. And Sophia hopes to continue passing them along to anyone else who wants to start a café. In fact, despite potential backlash from other businesspeople in Seoul, Sophia plans to publish an instructional book on starting up a café. She doesn’t see the other businesses as competition, but instead hopes to create a sense of community that doesn’t currently exist among most café owners.
Once in the alley, Sophia begins the search for holiday cookie cutters and new cake tins. She’s also looking for uncommon baking ingredients, like polenta and orange blossom water. One of the many daily challenges she faces is figuring out how to make classic Western-style cakes in a place where many of the ingredients are difficult or impossible to find. She experiments with potential substitutes, often at great cost. Still, she thinks of failed recipes as an investment rather than a waste of money. In fact, before the café opened, Sophia rented a studio just for trying out cake recipes. She and her pâtissier baked over 100 different maple apple cakes before finding the right one, and that’s just one of several varieties the shop offers.
Once Sophia has filled her bag with semi-sweet chocolate chunks, marmalade and scientific-sounding leavening agents, it’s back in the taxi to go prep the café for rush hour.
10:40 am, arrival at Glamorous Penguin
Sophia is all smiles as she greets her barista Natalie and pâtissier Soo. She puts on her uniform—a yellow Glamorous Penguin polo—and together the women unpack and discuss the supplies Sophia bought, running over a stock list in a small notebook they keep.
Soo has been in the kitchen since 7:30 am, working non-stop on the ten or so cakes she will bake for the day. When we arrive, she is dicing cauliflower for the café’s newest creation—a savory recipe from London also featuring turmeric, rosemary, cheese, basil and onion. [Ed. Note: I tried a slice, and it is phenomenal—especially with the salty olives on the side.] Sophia explains that the recipes change each month, based on Sophia’s research and Soo’s ideas, as the pair consider global baking trends and local produce. Soo must have fingers and forearms of steel—within the span of the conversation, she clears the cauliflower from the cutting board and begins peeling apples, all without a moment’s pause.
10:45 am, unclogging the toilet
When Natalie announces that the toilet is clogged, Sophia trudges up the stairs to plunge it herself, laughing as Natalie shouts, “It wasn’t me!” Several minutes later, Sophia pulls off her rubber gloves as she descends and heads back behind the counter, having completed her duties as the café plumber, at least for a while.
11:00–12:00 pm, catching up and administrative duties
It’s around this time each day that Sophia and her crew just chat and hang out (while taking inventory and baking cakes, of course). They talk about everything from recipes to relationships, and Sophia sees them as her friends and little sisters, rather than employees. She says that getting closer to her staff is the most difficult and the most rewarding part of her job. Having spent several years in Canada, Sophia embraces open and intimate working relationships, though her Korean friends warn her not to get too close. They fear Sophia’s crew may jump ship if they get a chance to earn more money elsewhere, but Sophia doesn’t worry about that. Natalie and Soo signed on to be part of the team when Glamorous Penguin was just a fantasy. The three of them have been through a lot together, and there’s a feeling of trust and gratitude among them.
After catching up with her girls, Sophia pulls out her laptop to order business cards online. Then she looks up the number of her lighting company and calls about replacing a blown light bulb. She continues down the checklist of administrative duties, attending to even the smallest matters with impressive organization. It’s the calm before the storm, and she’s trying to get the mundane minutiae of the way.
12:00–12:30 pm, preparing for the lunch rush
At noon, Sophia says, “See you in three hours!” and hurries off to make sure Glamorous Penguin is ready for the lunch rush, which she expects to start in half an hour. Soo remains busy, making buttermilk and pulling several layers of red velvet cake from the cooling racks. On a busy day, the store can go through as many as five red velvet cakes, not to mention online pre-orders sold separately. She climbs up and down a stepladder to load the next round of maple apple and lemon cakes into the oven overhead.
12:30–2:45 pm, the lunch rush
Pretty much on the dot, a constant stream of customers begins to fill Glamorous Penguin. The door is swinging open so often that the ground floor gets a little chilly from the air outside. The café’s mood changes entirely, from a leisurely lull to a fast-paced buzz. Natalie flutters about the right corner, grinding coffee beans, making espresso and steaming milk. Sophia takes orders at the register, chirping away about the drink and dessert selection. In the left corner, Soo bakes tirelessly, trying to keep up, as slices of red velvet cake are going fast. The café’s 34 seats fill up, but thankfully nobody is left waiting for a table, as regulars and passersby flow in and out.
Though the shop feels full, Sophia notices that the rush isn’t as crazy as it once was. She worries that a few recently opened restaurants nearby are wooing a greater share of the dessert crowd. Or maybe it’s just a cold day with fewer Seoulites out walking. At about 2:30, when most of the office workers return to their desks, the crowds in the café and on the streets thin out and disappear.
2:45–3:00 pm, lunch break
It’s the first time Sophia and her staff have eaten all day. They sit down to a quick, simple meal of banchan, fish and rice. It’s spare, and they’re exhausted, but they seem to relish the food and calm. When a few customers come in, Sophia works the counter so that her employees can rest. After a surprisingly short respite, all three of the women are back on their feet, once again at their respective positions behind the bar.
3:00–4:00 pm, slow and steady serving
A significantly slower but steady trickle of customers continues. Sophia chats with them, watching them admire the huge penguin doll on the stairs and explaining where she bought the furniture. Visitors often ask about the chairs and tables, which Sophia had custom-made in Jongno and Gangnam from wood she selected herself. It was pricey, she says, but worth it, since she wanted the store to feel cozy and comfortable. She was inspired by the cafes she saw in Paris, where people would linger for hours reading or talking.
4:00–5:00 pm, experimenting in the kitchen
Soo leaves at 4, after her marathon of baking. Natalie and Sophia take over the kitchen, and shortly after, Sophia asks, “Will you do us a favor?” They’re playing with the hot chocolate recipe, and they need some taste testers to help get it just right. The first mug is unanimously voted not sweet enough. More adjusting. The second mug is too sweet. Perhaps the problem isn’t sugar but something else? I timidly suggest adding a pinch of salt, and to my delight, everyone agrees the third mug is the best yet. Voilà, a new recipe is born!
Happy with the latest version of hot chocolate, Natalie goes home around 5, just as a younger part-time worker arrives. Sophia’s attitude toward the part-timer is noticeably different from the warmth she exudes around Natalie and Soo. Sophia seems more authoritative and detached as she tells the new girl to start cleaning and “closing” the store. As the girl quietly washes the windows and scrubs the toilet, Sophia explains that she has to be more strict with the younger employees—they haven’t known her as long and don’t have the same level of dedication and responsibility as Natalie and Soo, who both work overtime.
5:30–6:30 pm, Marcus comes to visit
Throughout the day, Sophia had mentioned Marcus, a regular customer and personal friend who lives nearby and stops in daily to say hello. When he walks in, Sophia beams, “Here is my V.I.P!” They talk about his day at work, his two daughters (who sometimes come to greet the big penguin) and how Sophia wants to join Marcus on one of his runs. Sophia says she wants to exercise more so she’ll be in better shape to run the café—she notes how her posture has worsened from stooping over to wash dishes and grind coffee. As the pair converse, Sophia lights up, genuinely happy to see him. She says that regulars like Marcus are what keep her going day after day. The visits give her something to look forward to—a piece of her Parisian dream come true—as she slogs through the long hours and sleepless nights.
6:30–8:00 pm, baking cookies
Since the café is relatively calm, apart from a small pick-up in dinner traffic, Sophia takes advantage of the opportunity to do a little baking. She likes to make cookies when possible so that she can take some of the load off Soo. The smell of the peanut butter dough fills the entire store with a sweet smell, and it feels like things are winding down for the night, though there is still a long way to go before closing.
8:00–11:00 pm, closing up
As Sophia takes the cookies out of the oven and bags up a few for me to take home, I remember that she hasn’t had a bite since lunch. She says she probably won’t eat dinner until she goes home, around 10:30 or 11—after taking inventory and making orders, deconstructing and cleaning the espresso machine, shining the showcase glass, and sorting and taking out the garbage. Each task can take over half an hour, potentially making these final steps the most physically grueling of the day.
After locking the doors and heading home to her hard-earned supper, she’ll surf the Internet for new recipes and articles on the latest cake trends, physically though not mentally removed from Glamorous Penguin. Shortly after, she’ll lie down for a few hours of sleep, before waking at sunrise to do it all over again—day after day, for the foreseeable future. Such is life, not just one day but every day, as a new café owner.