By Jack Tarrant
PYEONGCHANG, South Korea (Reuters) – When fast food chef Cha Gwen Sol added a one-million-won ($920) “Flying Tomato” burger to the menu of his Pyeongchang restaurant as an Olympic gimmick, he never expected the owner of the nickname, snowboarding star Shaun White, to turn up and order one.
“Is it real? This is Shaun White? It is not a dream? Shaun White tells me it is real. Oh my God, unbelievable,” exclaimed Cha, who is also a snowboarding instructor, after the American double Olympic champion walked into his restaurant on Sunday.
“He ordered from me the Flying Tomato Burger and so I cook it for him. Today is a very happy day.”
White, who said he heard about the gimmick from a member of staff at Phoenix Snow Park where he will compete in the halfpipe qualifiers on Tuesday, sat with friends and enjoyed a free burger, made up of two patties, two types of cheese and two chicken wings.
White was dubbed the “Flying Tomato” for his shock of red hair when he won his first gold at the 2006 Winter Olympics, though he keeps his locks shorter these days. A second gold followed in Vancouver and he was fourth in Sochi four years ago.
“I cannot believe it,” said Cha, talking about the 31-year-old American’s visit to his Santa Burger restaurant three kilometres from Phoenix Park, which cheered him up in a difficult season that local retailers blame on the Winter Olympics.
With the slopes at the snow park shut to the public, the nearby vendors selling food and ski rental equipment are receiving little to no custom from domestic tourism, usually their key customer base.
On the road leading to the park, signs reading ‘2018 Pyeongchang Olympics kill us! Keep our right to live!’ are spread across the front of shops and restaurants.
Cha, who became a chef this winter because the snowboarding business was so bad, says retailers feel let down by the Pyeongchang 2018 organisers.
“The resort closed on Jan. 21 and so they lost their jobs,” he said.
“They can’t earn money and they are losing money every day. Every day maybe two million won they lost. They are upset. The government doesn’t want to talk with them.”
Sebim Kim, a local retailer who says he has lost his job due to the Olympics, blames local government for not consulting people in the build-up to the Games and is demanding compensation.
“Five hundred people have lost jobs around here,” he said. “The local government do not care about us and we have not received any compensation for what we have lost.”
White’s visit at least cheered up one retailer and Cha is hoping to seeing his hero again on Wednesday.
“I am going to the snowboard halfpipe final on Valentine’s Day, with my girlfriend,” beamed Cha.
“I really wish he gets a gold medal again. I think every day: return of the king, return of the king.”
(Editing by Clare Fallon)