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[Weekender] 'Too cute to eat'

Visual appeal of adorable desserts makes irresistible trend among young female customers

By Shin Ji-hye

Published : Feb. 17, 2024 - 16:01

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At Melting Of, a dessert cafe in Seoul’s vibrant Hongdae neighborhood, seven tables buzzed with youthful energy among the predominantly female patrons.

"It's too cute to eat!" one woman at a table exclaimed in a high pitch as the order arrived, just a moment before beginning to devour the treats.

At another table occupied by a young couple, the woman was absorbed in taking photos of a pandoro sweet bread with cream shaped into a rabbit.

She meticulously reviewed each photo she took and, not yet satisfied, snapped several more. When her companion brought over their coffee, she didn’t pause, incorporating the mugs of coffee into her shots and experimenting with various arrangements. Just as he attempted to start eating, he quickly realized the photo session was not yet at its end as she moved to the next phase: dessert selfies.

Finally some minutes later, she delicately took a bite from a cream puff -- and only then did he begin to eat. But the impromptu photo shoot was still not truly over until a final selfie with the partially eaten cake.

"When you visit a regular coffee shop, all you do is drink coffee, sometimes with some baked goods, and chat," said Kim Chae-ryung, 26, explaining the rationale behind her extensive photo sessions. "But coming to a place like this, there seems to be a sense of novelty and uniqueness that cute desserts provide. That's why I wanted to remember this moment and took many photos."

In South Korea, the appeal of cuteness has long permeated diverse sectors, from retail and electronics to even pharmaceuticals, captivating not just children but adults as well.

The trend has recently made its way into the world of desserts in a big way. Bakers are crafting sweet treats into delightful animal shapes, particularly by whipping up cream and molding it into shape. The adorable creations are especially popular with women in their 20s, who find the cute culinary creations irresistible.

Yu Seo-ha, 30, owner of Melting Of, opened a dessert cafe in July last year. When Yu first opened the shop, both the interior design and the building’s exterior were simple and modern, lending the space a somewhat stiff feeling. She believed that incorporating lovely, cute desserts could make the atmosphere more welcoming.

“As time passed, the desserts got cuter and cuter,” she said. “So now, I think this place offers a kind of dual feeling."

The most popular with customers is a rabbit made of whipped cream atop a pandoro. Initially, the rabbit had only one expression, but now it comes in a variety of them, with smiling, frowning and expressionless faces adding another element of fun for customers when choosing.

Yu said her customers are 90 percent women in their late teens and 20s. She also gets many Japanese and some Chinese visitors.

"These days, many places employ European or American vibes, but there aren't many cafes that focus on cuteness," Yu said. "I want to specialize more in that direction."

In South Korea, where people have a strong interest in food, desserts have carved out a significant niche and proved to be a phenomenon in their own right. This is highlighted by the continuous emergence of dessert fads, like macarons and tanghulu in recent years, notes Lee Eun-hee, a professor of consumer sciences at Inha University.

“The cute desserts could be the next fad as there is a fondness for things that are pretty and cute among the younger generation,” Lee said. “While there are limitations in making meals look cute, desserts have ample room for creativity, allowing them to be crafted in various adorable ways.”

Sharing a cute dessert at a gathering also serves as a delightful icebreaker, as participants can easily bond over the visual and gustatory charm of the treat, she added.

Admiring a white puppy on a plate, a signature cake crafted with whipped cream at Happy Puppy House in Itaewon, friends Song Ji-na and Kim Ji-soo, both in their 20s, could personally attest to that.

Kim said she is willing to pay more for cuter desserts.

“This puppy cake costs 9,500 won,” she said, “but considering that I could have a good time with my friend sharing it, I think the cost is reasonable.”

“I often visit cafes (like this) because being in such spaces is healing for me,” Song added. “There are not many opportunities to see cute things in everyday life, so it is nice to see a lot of them.”

At C.Through in the Hongdae area, a trio of customers from the US and Canada were experiencing firsthand the Korean penchant for cute aesthetics in their cups of coffee and desserts.

Katie Jo, 29, from the US, said this particular aspect of Korean culture was very strange to her at first.

“You wouldn’t find it in America, like KakaoTalk goods. It is such a big thing that adults buy stuffed animals,” she said, referring to Kakao Friends, a line of characters released by Korea's most popular messenger app.

“Now I have been here for seven years, so I feel more Korean than American," she smiled as she pointed to her latte with cream art. "Now I drink this at 10,000 won.”

Kim Jae-hyeong, 33, the owner of C.Through, said he started experimenting with cute-looking treats and coffee with cream art to navigate the challenges of the pandemic. His cafe has since become known as a "cute cafe."

While the pursuit of cute aesthetics in food presentation might not be universal, the appeal of cuteness resonates with humanity in general, not just with Koreans, explains evolutionary psychologist and Kyung Hee University professor Jeon Joong-hwan.

“Humans have traditionally raised children within a community, and through this nurturing process, we have evolved to not only care for our offspring, but also to look after younger siblings or babies,” Jeon said. “This protective instinct leads us to find animals or characters with babylike features cute and to feel an instinctive desire to care for them."

Using cute appeal has long been a solid strategy across various industries, and in a similar vein, "it has now extended to the dessert industry,” the professor said.