McDonald's offers beer in South Korea
SEONGNAM, South Korea -- Of all the places to grab lunch around Pangyo Techno Valley, an affluent neighborhood south of Seoul that's popular with technology companies, Jung Hyang chose McDonald's.
Jung heard from friends that the restaurant had something unique for the fast-food chain, though certainly not new for eateries in South Korea: alcohol.
"I was curious," says Jung, an information technology worker in Pangyo, a place urban planners hope will be this country's version of Silicon Valley. "And I was really craving beer."
The Pangyo McDonald's last month became the first in Asia to sell beer, offering a popular national pilsner to customers who order an "extra value" meal with an Angus beef burger and fries.
View photos of fast food from around the world:
The restaurant chain, with locations in more than 100 countries, already sells beer in some parts of Europe, in keeping with its tradition of altering its international menus to suit local tastes. Its restaurants in Asia have a certain flair, and that's the case in South Korea, where customers can get a bulgogi burger -- Korean grilled beef. In China, the company sells breakfast chicken congee, a version of the country's ubiquitous rice porridge. In Singapore, it boasts a paella-spiced salmon patty on a multigrain bun. And its restaurants in Japan have even tried chocolate-covered and plum-flavored fries.
The experiment here is a response to the popularity in South Korea of burgers with beer, known locally as maekju. It also comes as McDonald's is tinkering with its American menu, offering healthier options and breakfast throughout the day in an effort to boost sales. South Korea is the ideal place to introduce beer into East Asia. Drinkers of both sexes here consume more alcohol per capita than residents in most countries around the world. That's especially true for men, who lead all wealthy nations -- including vodka-loving post-Soviet states like Russia, Poland and Slovakia -- in daily consumption, according to the World Health Organization.
Beer and other forms of alcohol are ingrained in the local culture, especially at popular collective activities such as meals and hiking, the national pastime. One of the most-beloved drinks here is soju, a distilled local liquor that fuels late-night binging among friends and co-workers and occasionally rowdy behavior. It is sometimes mixed with beer and downed in a single shot.
Despite the country's comfort with alcohol consumption, the restaurant chain's move has caused some concern among parents in Korea. One mother from Pangyo, who was identified in a report by Aju News only by her family name of Hong, said she worried that beer sales at a family restaurant would send the wrong message to young Koreans. "Once they sell beer I won't go anymore. It's not good for the children's education."
At the same time, the South Korean government is taking steps to change the country's drinking culture. Last November, the health ministry began a campaign aimed at reducing excessive drinking. It's motto includes the phrase, "Drink lightly, go home quickly."
Perhaps recognizing such concerns, McDonald's for its part is taking steps to ensure that its customers drink responsibly. The restaurant offers a German-style pilsner in two sizes – around 12 and 20 ounces – that's distributed by Oriental Brewery, a top-selling brand here. Customers can have just one, though, and only then with a burger and fries. The company also isn't selling to customers who bring children into the restaurant, and it requires an identification check before handing over the beer, which must be consumed inside.
The restaurant here also doesn't advertise the new item "in order to prevent any misunderstandings that McDonald's is endorsing drinking," a company spokesperson said in a statement. "Crews only guide customers who specifically ask for the beer."
Customers so far have been "pleasantly surprised" upon learning about this new "differentiated burger experience" with beer, which can be purchased through storefront kiosks just like the non-alcoholic beverages, company officials said.
EXPLORE MORE: South Korea Ranks High for Entrepreneurship
During a recent lunchtime visit to the restaurant, employees checked a reporter's birth date twice before serving, and then logged the purchase on a clipboard behind the counter. The document showed 12 sales that day by 1:15 p.m. (McDonald's declined to share specific sales numbers).
Whether the new menu will succeed – or expand to other locations around South Korea – remains to be seen. But it's attracted a fair amount of local attention among the young office workers here, Jung says, drawing a crowd on the first day: Feb. 22. She, for one, is likely to return.
Copyright 2015 U.S. News & World Report
RELATED: Compare prices of a cup of coffee at 10 fast food joints