San Francisco developer Noah Conk was scrolling through his Instagram stories when he stumbled upon a “very sexual” ad for coffee.
“And I was like, ‘OK this is weird, but I’m down to see why I was targeted,” he chuckled in an interview with TODAY Food.
When he opened the ad, Conk realized it was for a company called Whipped Drinks selling $49 drink kits and frothers. “Whipped” was being used as sexual innuendo in its marketing.
“I see the face of the creators and I’m like, ‘OK, it’s happening again,’” said Conk, who is Korean American. “I usually give people the benefit of the doubt … but they really made it seem as if they created it, which was really weird.”
In the early days of the pandemic, a homemade whipped coffee trend took over TikTok. Originally known as “dalgona coffee,” South Korean actor Jung Il-woo popularized it on “Stars’ Top Recipe at Fun-Staurant” when he ordered the drink in Macau from café owner Leong Kam Hon.
Dalgona, which means “honeycomb toffee” in Korean, is a candy that became popular after the Korean War. It’s an affordable sweet made by melting sugar and stirring in bit of baking soda.
But as Conk looked at the Whipped Drinks website, it made no mention of that history at all.
“In the Spring of 2020, like so many others, Katie’s entire world turned upside down and she sought an outlet for her creative spirit. With coffee shops closed and grocery store lines around the block, she improvised with premium instant coffee in her home kitchen to make a whipped coffee creation to rival any Los Angeles barista,” the website originally read. “After months of delicious trial and error, she finally came up with the recipe for Whipped Drinks by blending a perfectly balanced combination of 100% Columbia Arabica coffee, premium cocoa, natural cane sugar, and a dash of sea salt (to keep things interesting.)”
Conk couldn’t let that slide. He joined a late-night Clubhouse room his Seattle-based friend, Joe Park, runs every night and brought it up.
“I was like, ‘Yo, I don’t want to trigger anyone but there’s this white lady who is … alluding to the fact she “created” dalgona coffee,’” Conk said.
Park immediately jumped into action.
“For me, it hits home,” Park explained. “I’m Korean American myself and I’ve been going to Korea my entire life.”
He explained that he grew up eating dalgona as a treat on his visits to Korea from his childhood home in Iowa.
“I just felt like it was being bastardized or just like, stolen,” he said. “When I was looking at their Instagram, it was being like, sexualized, which was so odd for me.”
Park, who works for South Korean e-commerce company Coupang, decided to reach out to others in his AAPI network to raise awareness about the issue.
“I think for me, it was the fact that if they had paid homage or at least called that out, I felt like this would be less of an issue,” he explained. “It felt like blatant ignorance.”
He reached out to the company and started mobilizing his friends, including Bora Park in New York City.
Bora Park, or @modooborahae as she’s known online, shared her outrage to her more than 168,000 followers.
“You have got to be kidding me. Is she really claiming that she ‘came up with the recipe’ for dalgona coffee that was popularized by KOREANS??” she tweeted on April 11. “It was NOT invented by a white woman. She even ripped off instant coffee packs. F---ing tired of this s---.”
Whipped Drinks did not reply to TODAY's request for comment.
The company issued an apology on Instagram with an almost-unreadable white font on a light peach background.
“We appreciate everyone’s feedback and that you have taken time to weigh in and express your feelings on our small business,” the company wrote in its first apology. “This has made us aware of the fact that we did not highlight the origins of the dalgona/whipped coffee trend. We are committed to doing better.”
Whipped Drinks updated its website as well to “properly acknowledge the origins of this trend."
The site now includes a description of the history of the viral trend:
“In Spring of 2020, like so many others, Katie Angel’s entire world turned upside down and she sought an outlet for her creative spirit. She fell in love with the viral whipped coffee trend, also known as dalgona coffee, that originated in South Korea and gets its name from a popular street toffee. She spent months perfecting her version of the perfect way to make the drink easily at home.”
But Joe and Bora Park both said they didn’t think that initial apology was sufficient.
“It just doesn’t seem like their apology was really an apology. It was very passive-aggressive,” Bora Park told TODAY. “I’m just tired of people doing this. Credit the original people who made this possible and none of this would have happened.”
The company ended up deleting their original apology and reposting another one — this time on a much more legible purple background. They used the same text as the first apology in the image, but wrote the following in the caption, as first reported by BuzzFeed News:
“We are sorry and we acknowledge that this was inspired by Korean culture and we completely stand by the Asian community. We did not intend to make it seem that we invented dalgona. In the spirit of that, a percentage of proceeds from every sale will go to the National Asian Pacific American Women's Forum, building power with AAPI women and girls.”
On April 16, the National Asian Pacific American Women's Forum issued a statement saying the organization had not been contacted by Whipped Drinks and they did not consent to recieving donations from them.
"NAPAWF will not be accepting any donations from Whipped Drinks," Sung Yeon Choimorrow, the organization's executive director, wrote in a tweet. "We oppose the long history of white supremacist culture appropriating and profiting from the cultures of communities of color, while the systems that prop up whiteness deny us the resources we need to thrive."
Joe Park later explained that the reason he “made this a thing” was mostly because he was “tired of the white erasure.”
“Especially with everything going on within the AAPI community … I do think we’re finding a voice a community in general and speak out on things,” he said. “Our parents’ generation was like, ‘Hey we need to stay quiet, we grind,’ and that’s kind of how it was. I personally feel that we have more of a voice and can speak up about things that are wrong.”
“It goes beyond just the coffee thing. I think it’s how do we stand up for ourselves, for the community and the people around us,” Joe Park said, adding that he believes what holding Whipped Drinks accountable this week is “a start.”
“Micro to macro. If we can start small, hopefully that can lead to something bigger.”
EDITOR'S NOTE (April 16, 2021 3:45 p.m. PT): This story has been updated to include new comments from the executive director of the National Asian Pacific American Women's Forum.