But unprecedented social distancing restrictions imposed on eateries in Seoul since late August, banning onsite dining after 9 p.m. and limiting coffee and bakery franchises to takeout and delivery, has made trading tough for new start-ups.
The government has warned South Koreans for several years not to open more fried chicken shops or cafes as the small hospitality sector is saturated.
Small business profit margins were thinning before COVID-19.
On top of the coronavirus pandemic, that has also fueled an acceleration of e-commerce, small businesses are fighting spiking rents, a shorter work week and higher minimum wages under the left-leaning President Moon Jae-in.
Moon has raised the legal minimum wage by about a third in the past three years to 8,720 won ($7.2) an hour for 2021 and capped weekly work hours to 52 hours, raising costs and making lay offs inevitable for small businesses.
Statistics Korea data show the number of self-employed businesses were down by 128,000 in July from a year earlier to 5.55 million, logging the biggest drop since the comparable period of 2009.
Kim Da-eun, 27, ran a private tuition school for the past three years in Anseong, south of Seoul, but is now shuttering it as the number of students has dropped below 10, down from 40 last year, as the coronavirus outbreak kept many at home.
“I’m now looking for a job but I don’t see anyone hiring. So I will be sticking to my delivery part-time for a while,” Kim said, observing the demolition of her business. (Additional reporting by Daewoung Kim; Editing by Michael Perry)