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Haidilao: Taking Chinese Hotpot to the Next Level

Twenty-three years after opening its first restaurant, China’s Haidilao hot pot chain is hotter than ever before. With its special business model and service creativity, people happily wait in line for two hours before getting served. At Haidilao, even the lonely eaters never eat alone – they get a teddy bear to dine with them.

Manya Koetse

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Twenty-three years after opening its first restaurant, China’s Haidilao hot pot chain is hotter than ever. With its special business model and service creativity, people happily wait in line for two hours to get a table. At Haidilao, even the lonely eaters never eat alone – they get a teddy bear to dine with them.

It has been over two decades since Zhang Yong, the owner of Haidilao (海底捞), set up his first hot pot restaurant in Jianyang, Sichuan, with a mere investment of 10,000 yuan (±1470$). Now, 23 years later, it has become the dominant hot pot chain in the country. The restaurant is popular across China, where it has an annual turnover of approximately 450 million dollars.

In Beijing alone, the chain has 36 locations. From Shanghai to Shenzhen, Haidilao has 176 outlets in 53 Chinese cities. The chain allegedly opens 20 new restaurants every year. By now, Haidilao has over 15,000 people working for them and has also gone international, with more restaurants opening up in Singapore, the USA, and Seoul.

How did a restaurant serving such a traditional and ubiquitous Chinese dish become such a success? Hot pot restaurants, where fresh meat and vegetables are dipped in simmering broth, are extremely common across China. But Zhang Yong chose to market Haidilao and its authentic Sichuan hot pot with an innovative strategy: high-service, high-tech, and high-quality.

High-Service Hot Pot: “Brainwashing” Staff

Except for the tasty hotpot, anyone who has ever visited Haidilao will surely remember one thing: here, you can get a free manicure while you wait. The restaurant has become so popular that waiting in line for one or two hours to get a table is no exception. But with an entertainment area that provides customers with board games, free snacks, drinks, manicures, massages, and even shoe polish services, queuing has become part of the Haidilao experience.

The ‘entertainment area’ is just of the many ways in which Haidilao accommodates to its customers’ desires. There is ample staff for every table. Customers with longer hair get free hairbands to tie their hair back while eating. Customers with glasses are provided with eyeglass cleaning tissue. There are special aprons to avoid stained clothing, and even handbags get their own protection. At the Haidilao toilets, staff will hand out hand towels and provide customers with any toiletry items they may need.

Anyone working at Haidilao is thoroughly trained. On question-and-answer platform Zhihu.com, former Haidilao servers shared their experiences of working at the restaurant. They explain that all Haidilao workers have to follow a compulsory training after they are accepted to come work at the restaurant.

The training is provided by people who have worked at the chain for at least 3 to 5 years, who teach new workers about corporate culture and Haidilao food. The staff learns how to welcome guests, how to make small talk to set a good atmosphere, and learn about the restaurant rules (always smile, never quarrel with customers, etc).

According to some former workers, working at Haidilao is a bittersweet experience. Since the staff works, lives, and eats together, their whole lives basically revolve around their work, except for the 4 days off they have per month.

Although there are some who applaud the company for setting the work ethic and for its relatively luxurious common dorms and good canteen, there are also those who say that Haidilao “brainwashes” its staff by creating its own community with “ridiculous rules” (staff cannot use customer’s toilets, all workers have to turn in their mobile phones before their shifts, working very long hours, etc).

Haidilao’s staff management and training have become a popular topic for marketers and scholars in China. Over recent years, many Chinese academic books and articles have been published that focus on Haidilao’s business model innovation, its service creativity, and customer satisfaction.

High-Tech Hot Pot: Ordering through iPad

Although Haidilao is not as digital as ‘newcomer’ Wodi Huoguo, it does fully incorporate China’s digital developments into its restaurants.

All tables are equipped with a charge station for mobile phones (iPhone, Android), and a personal tablet for customers to go through the menu to order the hot pot and all ingredients and drinks. Items ordered through the tablet arrive at the table within minutes. The restaurant also provides free Wi-fi in all areas. Needless to say, they accept WeChat and Alipay as payment methods.

Haidilao also provides online reservation and ordering services. Customers can order the Haidilao hotpot to their home – they’ll even bring the pot itself. Afterward, they will come to pick up the dirty dishes.

The Haidilao Wechat app has several features. One especially fun one is its online gaming area, where gamers can compete and win discounts on their next hot pot bill.

High-Quality Hot Pot: Outstanding

No matter how good the service is, eventually it all comes down to taste and quality in order to make customers come back. The Haidilao chain has strict rules on quality control, and carefully selects its suppliers. This is something that is especially important to Chinese customers, since China has seen ample food scandals over the last decade.

Haidilao offers new variations on standard hot pot recipes, adding new recipes and dishes every year.

Haidilao also offers a condiment bar with over 20 dipping sauces, from sesame dip to spicy oil, as well as side dishes such as cucumbers, peanuts, and fresh fruit.

The restaurant consistently gets good reviews, also from the expat community. In the restaurant awards by magazines such as Time Out and Beijinger, Haidilao has often won prices throughout the year, including those for “Best Hot Pot,” “Outstanding Service,” or “Outstanding Chinese Restaurant of the Year.”

You Never Eat Alone

On Weibo, Haidilao is also praised by many netizens, although some say that “the service is so good that it actually becomes embarrassing.” (“I just needed a band-aid but the servant personally came and helped me put it on.”)

Recently, netizens find Haidilao’s latest service addition especially funny; whoever eats alone at Haidilao is now provided with a teddy bear to accompany them at the table. “I am happy with this new friend Haidilao picked out for me,” one netizen posted.

Many netizens post pictures of their Teddy friend on Weibo.

There are also those who post pictures of guests at other tables, saying: “So it really is true that people at Haidilao dine with teddy bears!”

One Haidilao story especially attracted attention when this WeChat conversation surfaced online. “I went to eat at Haidilao by myself (..) and I asked the waiter if it was true that I would get a teddybear to eat together with me. They said their restaurant didn’t have teddies and I said never mind. After a while they came up with this one [picture of a cat], and they asked me: ‘Is a cat ok too?‘”

For more about dining at Haidilao, check out our recent video blog here:

By Manya Koetse

Notice: What’s on Weibo is an independent blog and is in no way affiliated with Haidilao.

©2017 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

Manya Koetse is the founder and editor-in-chief of whatsonweibo.com. She is a writer, public speaker, and researcher (Sinologist, MPhil) on social trends, digital developments, and new media in an ever-changing China, with a focus on Chinese society, pop culture, and gender issues. She shares her love for hotpot on hotpotambassador.com. Contact at manya@whatsonweibo.com, or follow on Twitter.

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China Comic & Games

KFC China’s Psyduck Toy is a Viral Hit

As Psyduck goes viral, KFC Children’s Day toys are deemed “too childish for children but just perfect for us adults.”

Manya Koetse

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American fast-food chain KFC recently introduced three new Pokémon toys to go with its kids’ meals in various regions across China, with one of the toys, in particular, becoming a viral hit: Psyduck (可达鸭).

The new Pokémon toys were introduced on May 21st to celebrate Children’s Day (June 1). As reported by Shanghai Daily, the toys are randomly distributed in Children’s Day meals and will be released in different regions at different times.

Psyduck is a yellow duck-like Pokémon that is known to be confused because it’s bothered by headaches. One of the reasons why the Psyduck toy might be more popular than its fellow (Pikachu) toys, is because it dances, with its arms going up and down, and because of the catchy tune that starts once it starts moving. Psyduck is also a bit more dopey and ‘uncool’ than Pikachu, which makes him all the cooler (remember the Peppa Pig craze?)

Since its release, many people have been going crazy over the KFC toy. Psyduck fans have been hunting for the KFC treasure, and some have even turned it into a side business: they offer their services in getting as many KFC meals as necessary before grabbing the Psyduck toy – you’ll have to pay for their meal – and they’ll send the toy to their ‘customers’ later on.

The #Psyduck hashtag saw the first spike on Weibo on May 21st, the day of its release, when it received nearly 135 million views.

Although the toys were released for Children’s Day, most of these Psyduck fans are not kids at all. In one interview moment that went viral, an older man was asked about the Psyduck while he was standing in line at KFC. “I’m only here because my son wants it,” the man says. When he is asked how old his boy is, he answers: “He’s over thirty years old.”

A popular comment about the craze over the kids’ meal toys said: “This toy is perhaps too childish for children, but it’s just perfect for us adults.” The comment received nearly 20,000 likes.

If you buy a set meal including the toy, you will spend in between 59-109 yuan ($9-$16), but the reselling price of Psyduck has reportedly been as high as US$200 for just the Pokémon figure alone. KFC China has stated that it does not support this kind of reselling.

Illustration about the Psyduck crazy by New Weekly (@新周刊).

Especially among students, it has become popular to stick messages to the arms of the dancing Psyduck with motivational or humorous messages. Some students say the Psyduck keeps them company while they are studying.

Since short funny videos featuring Psyduck are going viral on Weibo and Douyin, a lot of Psyduck’s appeal relates to its social media success and joining in on the hype. People post videos of themselves unboxing their Psyduck, introducing it to their cat, imitating it, or they use the Psyduck in various creative ways.

This is not the first time for KFC toys to become a national craze. Earlier this year, KFC came out with limited edition blind boxes in a collaboration with Chinese toymaker Pop Mart. To get one of the dolls, customers needed to buy a 99 yuan (US$15.5) family set meal.

But the blind box sales also sparked criticism from China’s Consumer Association for promoting over-purchasing of its food and causing food waste. In order to get all of the six collectible dolls, including the rarest ones, customers would start buying many meals just for the dolls. As reported by SCMP at the time, one customer went as far as to spend US$1,650 on a total of 106 meals to collect all six dolls.

KFC is the most popular fast-food chain in China. People outside of China are sometimes surprised to find that KFC is so hugely popular in the mainland.

As explained in the book written about KFC China’s popularity (“Secret Recipe for Success“), its success story goes back to 1987, when the restaurant opened its first doors near Tiananmen Square in Beijing. Some reasons that contributed to KFC’s success in China are the popularity of chicken in China, the chain’s management system, the restaurant’s adaptation to local taste, and its successful marketing campaigns.

Now, Psyduck can be added as one of the ingredients in KFC China’s perhaps not-so-secret recipe for success.

By Manya Koetse

With contributions by Miranda Barnes

Featured image via @Baaaaaaaaal, Weibo.com

Image via Weibo

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China Food & Drinks

Would You Like Coffee with Your Sneakers? Chinese Sports Brand Li-Ning Registers Its ‘Ning Coffee’ Brand

Li-Ning enters the coffee market: “Will they sell sneaker-flavored coffee?”

Manya Koetse

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An unexpected competitor is joining China’s coffee market. With over 7000 stores in the country, Li-Ning has the potential to become the biggest athletic coffee chain yet.

Another player is joining mainland China’s growing coffee market. It’s not an American coffee giant, nor a coffee house chain from Hong Kong – it is China’s leading sportswear brand Li-Ning Sports (李宁体育).

Li-Ning registered its coffee brand under the ‘NING COFFEE’ trademark. As reported in an article written by ‘Investment Group’ (@投资界) and published by Toutiao News (@头条新闻), Li-Ning has confirmed on May 6 that it will provide in-store coffee services to enhance customers’ shopping experiences in the near future.

The move means that Li-Ning could potentially become a big player in China’s coffee market, competing with major brands such as Starbucks, Luckin Coffee, Costa and Pacific. If the in-store coffee cafes would roll out in most of its shops, there could be over 7000 Ning Coffee cafes in China in the future. By the end of 2021, Li-Ning Sports had a total of 7,137 stores in China.

Starbucks has 5,400 stores in China. Leading domestic coffee chain Luckin Coffee expanded to over 6000 stores last year. Costa Coffee, although closing some of its China stores in 2021, announced that it aims to have a total of 1,200 stores open in China later this year. Looking at Li-Ning’s presence across China, its in-store coffee cafes could be serious competition for the leading coffee chains in the country.

Over the past few years, various Chinese sportswear brands, including Anta Sports and Erke, have seen a rise in popularity, but Li-Ning is still China’s most famous brand name for athletic apparel and shoes. The company was founded in the early 1990s by Chinese Olympic gymnast and business entrepreneur Li Ning (1963) and was generally seen as a Nike copycat – the original logo was even similar to the Nike swoosh. Although Li-Ning looked like Nike, the brand is more appealing to many Chinese consumers due to the fact that it is cheaper and made in China.

Li-Ning markets itself as being “deeply and uniquely Chinese” (Li Ning official website 2022), which has made it more popular in an era of “proudly made in China” (read more about that here). Moreover, it also promises to offer high-quality sportwear at a price that is cheaper than the American Nike or German Adidas.

Li-Ning’s success is also owed to its marketing strategies. Besides being the official marketing partner of many major sports events, including the NBA in China, the brand has also contracted with many household athletes and famous global ambassadors.

Over a decade ago, marketing observers already noted that despite the remarkable success of Li-Ning in China, the brand still had a long way to go in order to strengthen its image as a long-term brand, recommending Li-Ning to “create excitement around the brand” by building more associations related to lifestyle and coolness to better resonate with younger Chinese customers (Bell 2008, 81; Roll 2006, 170).

With its latest move into the coffee market, it is clear that Li-Ning is moving its brand positioning more toward the direction of lifestyle, trendiness, and luxury. Although purchasing a coffee at Starbucks or Luckin is part of the everyday routine for many urban millennials, coffee is still viewed as a trendy luxury product for many, relating to both cultural factors as well as economic reasons. As noted by Cat Hanson in 2015, the price of a single cup of coffee was equal to a month’s worth of home broadband internet (read more).

Previously, other fashion brands have also opened up coffee stores in China. As reported by Jing Daily, international luxury brands Prada, Louis Vuitton, and FENDI also opened up coffee cafes in mainland China.

Another unexpected coffee cafe is that of China Post, which opened its first in-store ‘Post Coffee’ in Xiamen earlier this year. On social media, many netizens commented that the brand image of the national post service clashed with that of a fairly expensive coffee house (coffee prices starting at 22 yuan / $3,3).

“The postal services are located in cities and in the countryside and are often used by migrant workers, and generally this demographic isn’t buying coffee,” one person commented, with another netizen writing: “This does not suit the taste of ordinary people, it would’ve been better if they sold milk tea.”

Post Coffee, via Jiemian Official.

On Weibo, Li-Ning’s journey into the competitive coffee market was discussed using the hashtags “Li-Ning Enters the Coffee Race” (#李宁入局咖啡赛道#) and “Li-Ning Starts Selling Coffee” (##李宁开始卖咖啡##).

Like with China Post, many commenters say the combination of sportswear and coffee is not something they immediately find logical. “Will they also sell sneaker-flavored coffee?” one person wondered, with others thinking selling coffee – seen as a product from western countries – does not exactly match with Li-Ning as a ‘proudly made-in-China’ brand.

“How would you feel about trying on some clothes at Li-Ning while sipping on Li-Ning coffee? I understand Li-Ning is jumping on what’s popular, and this time it’s coffee,” one Weibo user writes, with others also writing: “I think it has potential.”

“I’m willing to try it out,” various commenters write. For others, they want to see the menu first: “It all depends on the price.”

For more about the coffee and tea market in China, check our other articles here.

By Manya Koetse

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References

Bell, Sandra. 2008. International Brand Management of Chinese Companies. Heidelberg: Physia-Verlag.

Roll, Martin. 2006. Asian Brand Strategy: How Asia Builds Strong Brands. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Spotted a mistake or want to add something? Please let us know in comments below or email us. First-time commenters, please be patient – we will have to manually approve your comment before it appears.

©2022 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

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