By Kim Tae-jong
Han Gi-seok, 60, the owner of a famous samgyetang or chicken soup restaurant in central Seoul, showed frustration as more than 100 seats gathered dust at lunch time Friday.
Gogu Samgyetang, one of the most famous restaurants in the bustling office town, has been deserted for weeks following the outbreak of avian influenza that swept across the nation. Normally, it's hard to find a vacant seat during lunch hour and one has to wait in line to be served. Samgyetang is a traditional chicken soup boiled with ginseng and glutinous rice.
``The last time we experienced such bad business was when we opened the restaurant 30 years ago,'' Han sighed. ``This afternoon, we had only six customers.''
President Lee Myung-bak and many top government officials ate samgyetang in front of the cameras in a gesture to ensure the public of the safety of boiled chicken. But most citizens are staying away from dishes made of chicken, duck and any other bird-related foods.
Experts as well as the government say that it is safe to eat boiled chicken and duck as the virus cannot survive high temperatures of 80 degrees Celsius. But their appeal has failed to regain diners.
``I know it's safe to have chicken. But seeing chickens and ducks killed and buried every day on television doesn't stimulate the appetite for chicken or duck,'' Kim Hye-kyoug, a 34-year-old office worker, said.
Many restaurant owners hope that the public scare of bird flu will pass before the upcoming peak season in summer. About 30 percent of chicken dishes are consumed in July and August as it is enjoyed in preparation for the hot season.
Some restaurant owners, pushed to bankruptcy, are seriously considering changing their businesses.
``Even before the outbreak of bird flu, it was hard to run a shop due to the prolonged economic downturn. The bird flu was like the last nail in the coffin,'' said Choi Han-kyu, 53, owner of a chicken restaurant chain, Two Two Fried Chicken.
Before the outbreak, he used to sell up to 50 chickens a day but the number has dropped to 20, Choi said. ``We are tolerating a lot of difficulties. I don't know how long we can survive,''
Han also sees little prospects of improvement in the near term, lamenting almost no concern from the government.
``I know poultry farmers will get some government aid. But who will help restaurant runners?'' Han said.