Where are all the vegan goodies?Foreign vegans in Korea
Vegan Space, an all-vegan grocery store established in August 2018 in the mostly foreign neighborhood of Haebangchon within Seoul’s Yongsan district, was a welcome addition to the local landscape.
Despite the convenience of online stores such as Coupang and iHerb, it’s nice to have a physical store where you can get all the basics — pasta, lentils, oat or soy milk, peanut butter, jam, tortillas, frozen vegetables — without passing the meat counter or digging through piles of nonvegan products. Treats like cookies, hummus, vegan yogurt and vegan Korean dumplings are there for those who want them.
A new location
In October 2019, Vegan Space moved down the street and is now a much more spacious store. There’s a counter where you can order coffee, tea, smoothies and baked goods. There are tables where you can enjoy a coffee while reading a vegan cookbook or magazine in a relaxing environment. Online delivery is available too.
Behind the counter is Jaeseok Lim, founder and owner of Vegan Space. He doesn’t usually do interviews in English, but he agreed to an email interview for this blog. With his permission, I’ve edited his answers for clarity and style.
On what led up to Vegan Space
When I was into yoga before, the guidance for yogis was “do not eat anything slaughtered.” And I was inspired by this, and I’ve tried to choose vegan meals since that time. I went to the supermarket hoping to try out some vegan recipes, but it was hard to buy vegan food or ingredients in one place. I searched on Google to see if there was a vegan grocery store or something like that, but I couldn’t find it in Seoul or anywhere else. This is the main reason why I started Vegan Space.
On why he picked Haebangchon
I did a lot of market research before I opened and I found that veganism had already been established in Western countries for a long time. Haebangchon is well known as a place full of foreign cultures, and many foreigners/Westerners live here too. I thought this was the right spot for Vegan Space because I thought there must be some vegans here, and other people who are interested in veganism as well. And there were some places already offering vegan options here too.
On his interest in yoga
My girlfriend suggested doing yoga together, so I started going to a studio three times a week. I started to feel positive changes in my body, and I’ve been into yoga ever since. I’ve gotten a bit busier these days, since the move, so I only go to yoga twice a week. I still practice every week because I love it and feel better this way too.
On his ongoing transition to veganism
It’s very hard. I’m still working on it. But I try to have vegan meals once a day, or to be vegan one or two days a week. I think I should say that changing my eating habits is very difficult. But I think it’s getting better than before because vegan groceries are getting more and more widely available. I’m trying for a balance between nonvegan and vegan for now.
On Koreans and veganism
I would say 40 percent of the customers are Korean. I’m not sure if they are more aware of the importance of veganism, but I would say veganism is spreading more and more as we can see news and information about vegan culture pretty much all over the internet and TV these days.
On how Vegan Space has grown and changed
It’s getting stable, fortunately. I think it will take time to grow more because the Korean vegan market is still very small, and it will take time for people to learn about it. Since the move, more people than before are coming in to look around and buy stuff. I think it’s because the shop is wider when you look in from the outside, and it brings more people in, and also we have tables where you can have drinks too.
When asked to share any funny/weird/inspiring stories
It was about a month after the store opened in 2018. Three Koreans dressed in yellow, modern-style hanbok came into the store and said they had heard that a vegan shop had opened up and they wanted to visit.
After looking around they found out I was selling vegan beer and wine, and they said “it’s not vegan” and yelled about how angry they were, and they just left the shop without saying anything. It was the most ridiculous experience I’ve had so far.
On the future of Vegan Space
I have no specific plans for the next 10 years, but I’d like to import good vegan food from overseas and offer people a much wider variety of options in two or three years. And I’d like to make it a place vegans can rely on for a long time.
When I followed up on the story about the visitors in yellow hanbok, Mr. Lim confirmed that all the beer and wine at Vegan Space has been checked carefully and hasn’t been through any nonvegan filtering processes, unlike some beers and wines. But the visitors left in such a hurry that he never got a chance to tell them.
Vegan food is all around us, but a dedicated space makes a big difference. Since I moved back to Seoul in 2018, Vegan Space has made a big difference in my life and has provided a wonderful service to the community. I’m sure I’m not the only one who thinks so. To show our support for this oasis in the city and its dedicated owner, let’s all drop by the store and pick up some amazing vegan stuff.