What’s the Deal with Subeesu (서비스) in Korea?


Not sure why you keep getting free stuff at Korean restaurants?

This post is all about the wonderful concept of subeesu.

It includes:

  • how to get it
  • what to do after
  • and more!

Subeesu blew my mind when I first found out about it.

Let’s get started!

What's the Deal with Subeesu (서비스) in Korea

Dining out in Korea is awesome. Not only do you get delicious and healthy meals, but you don’t need to tip, tax is included in the price and to make things even sweeter, they sometimes give you free stuff.

Check out the finer points of subeesu in Korea below!

Here are my other favorite things about Korea:

  • nunchi – intuition or sense
  • jeong – unspoken bond
  • gibun – mood or feeling
  • sohwakhaeng – small but certain happiness
  • banchan – side dishes
  • ssam – leafy vegetable wrap

Knowing these will be bring you one step closer to understanding Korean culture!

What does subeesu mean?

The best Macaron in life are free

Subeesu (서비스) is Konglish derived from the word “service”. It means a small gift “on the house”.

It can be:

  • a plate of anju (side dish accompanied with alcohol)
  • extra minutes at a noraebang
  • small package of rice cakes
  • an extra apple at a local grocery store
  • a soft drink or candy with a delivery order

Subeesu is basically an expression of gratitude from a shop keeper (typically at a small business). And there’s usually a reason for it. For example:

  • you’ve become a regular customer
  • you’ve made a large purchase
  • something made things less convenient than usual (like a problem with the card reader)
  • you’ve been polite and understanding

If you live and Korea for a year, you’ll most likely get subeesu.

Subeesu vs Seobiseu?

Both spellings are acceptable, but “subeesu” is shorter and more common. Feel free to use whatever spelling you’d like though!

Why is subeesu a thing in Korea?

Why is subeesu a thing in Korea
A nice café in South Korea where I got chocolate as subeesu

There’s a low barrier to entry for places like cafes and restaurants, but running one can be competitive with the huge conglomerates that dominate the country. There’s also a café and fried chicken restaurant in pretty much every building. Owning one of these can be draining with long hours, and burnout is very common.

Small business owners are happy to have regulars, and it’s easier to keep a customer than get a new one.

Koreans can make a lot of money running a business since population density is high, but cheerful and appreciative customers are harder to come by. They need a morale boost more than money, and you being there and being friendly and understanding is appreciated.

Cons of subeesu

It’s sometimes exploited by those in positions of power such as government ministers. The line between subeesu and bribe can get blurry.

Also, some jinsang (진상 or obnoxious) customers may demand too much subeesu with a “brass neck” (철면피 or shameless face), making store owners upset. In other words, some customers develop a sense of entitlement, since many restaurants give out things for free.

How to get subeesu

How to get subeesu

I get tons of subeesu with just a few simple tricks.

  1. Don’t expect it. Not every restaurant owner gives subeesu and it’s really up to them.
  2. Be nice, even if the staff is not in a good mood. You simply don’t need to return if you have a bad experience.
  3. Order a lot. I’m a big eater, so this isn’t hard for me. I cook most of my meals, and dining out is my chance to splurge.
  4. Be with a large group of people who naturally will order a lot.
  5. Don’t criticize or give feedback, unless the order is wrong. In other countries you’ll get items comped, but in Korea you won’t get anything except scorn. If you don’t like a place, don’t go back.
  6. Compliment the owner on what you enjoyed.
  7. Be enthusiastic and appreciative about the food. This works in every country I’ve been to, including Japan. I’ve even gotten subeesu and a thoughtful note at a fancy restaurant in Tallin, Estonia, by being genuinely happy to be there. Even if you don’t get subeesu, you’ve at least brightened someone’s day.

What to do after I get subeesu?

If you’re like me, you’ll feel obligated to reciprocate. Don’t worry though, a person who gives you subeesu is happy already to have you as a customer.

The best thing to do is to say “thank you” with a big smile.

But, if you’d like to do more, you can bring friends to places you enjoy. I also give small gifts to restaurant owners and staff after a trip or write a nice review.

My experience with subeesu

I had my first taste of subeesu at 18 while drinking with friends in K-town. They taught me my first Korean phrase, “Subeesu eopseoyo? (서비스 없어요?)”. The waitress looked amused and returned with plate of snacks. As the night went on, they coaxed me into asking again, but she said it was nearly closing time.

I learned that subeesu is a magical concept, but not one that should be abused. In hindsight, it’s very poor form to ask for free things and I don’t recommend this.

Once I got to Korea, I just naturally started getting subeesu. It helped to speak the language and enjoy Korean food.

Some restaurants and cafes have given me so much subeesu over the years that I’m uncertain if they made a profit. I always reciprocate by bringing friends and leaving good reviews.

Learning Korean

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Let us know your experience with subeesu in the comments!

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