An hour before dawn, Kang Hye-jeong was already out cruising on her battery-run mobile refrigerator, briskly moving through alleys in Cheongdam-dong, a district of southern Seoul. She parked her refrigerator and darted among apartments and office buildings, door to door and desk to desk, punching in building entry codes with ease as if she were another family member or colleague.
But to her loyal customers, Kang is simply known as a “yakult ajumma.” Dressed in beige uniforms and quick with smiles and greetings, yakult ajummas have been fixtures in South Korea for decades. They sell yakult — a sweet, drinkable yogurt invented in Japan in the 1930s — from refrigerated carts. In many Korean communities, they have evolved from door-to-door saleswomen to surrogate mothers, daughters and aunts.
Ajumma is a Korean word often used affectionately to describe middle-aged women with children.
“I deliver yogurt but also cheerfulness and energy,” said Kang, 47, a yakult ajumma since 2012, who knows her customers’ orders by heart. “People, especially the elderly, feel good to see a cheerful and hard-working woman, and some of them eventually start buying from me.” Kang was flagged down by a neighbour who bought yogurt but also gave her some of his rice cake. An old janitor greeted her warmly and gave her a cup of coffee in the chilly morning. “She is always on time, with her smile and greeting,” said Lee Hae-sook, a wine-shop owner. “I buy yogurt from her and she helps me start my morning feeling good. It’s a win-win deal for both of us.” Yakult ajummas have a long history in Korea. In the early 1970s, the government provided farm subsidies to promote the country’s livestock industry. The growing cow business created a milk surplus because Koreans at the time had little appetite for dairy products. So Korea Yakult, in a joint venture with Yakult Honsha of Japan, introduced a sweet probiotic drink made from fermented milk, advertising the health benefits of “yusangyun,” or lactic acid bacteria, long before probiotic drinks became a part of the health food vernacular.
Yakult Honsha had already been using a network of women for home delivery in Japan, and the company’s Korean counterpart took to the idea. In 1971, a few dozen women looking for jobs to supplement their household income became the nation’s first yakult ajummas. The work was hard. Lacking cold storage for fresh drinks, the women had to pull carts filled with ice to sell the yakult.
And buyers didn’t come readily. At first, the women were accused of selling “germs.” The company launched an aggressive “good-for-gut health” ad campaign. Now there are customers in hillside shantytowns and gleaming apartment buildings, factories and Parliament. There are roughly 11,000 yakult ajummas in South Korea, the nation’s largest female-only, home-delivery sales network. Half of them can be seen cruising around Seoul, riding their sleek mobile refrigerators called CoCos, short for “cold and cool.” Yakult ajummas have been credited with helping to establish South Korea’s taste for dairy, and are so ubiquitous they have become minor pop culture celebrities.
Choe Sang-Hun is the Seoul bureau chief for NYT© 2020
The New York Times