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:
Notice: What’s on Weibo is an independent blog and is in no way affiliated with Haidilao.
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98-Year-Old Hotpot and Coca Cola Lover Becomes Online Hit
Are hotpot and cola the key to longevity?
This week, a 98-year-old Chengdu resident has become an online hit on Chinese social media, after videos of her and her granddaughter went viral. The popular grandmother loves to drink Coca Cola, eat hamburgers, and is crazy about hotpot – but only if it’s really spicy.
The 98-year-old became an overnight hit because of the videos posted by granddaughter Cai on China’s popular video app Douyin (TikTok), that show the grandmother’s great appetite for spicy food, alcohol, and sweet sodas.
When the granddaughter tries to persuade her grandma to drink less alcohol (“You’ve already had five!”) she’ll pour herself another cup; while dozing off, she’ll still talk about her favorite hotpot with beef tripe; when eating her hamburgers, she’ll eat so fast that her dentures fall out – all moments that were caught on video by Cai.
The woman, who has been nicknamed “grandma foodie” (吃货奶奶), has been starring in her granddaughter’s Douyin videos since August of last year. Since then, she has accumulated a social media following of some 410K fans and has now risen to nationwide fame, with dozens of Chinese news outlets writing about her. On March 4, she became the number one trending topic on Weibo.
On social media, most netizens praise the grandma for her positive attitude. “I hope I can do all the things I love, too, when I reach her age,” some say: “Eat whatever you want, whenever you want, and drink whatever you like, whenever you like.” “Eating good food is the key to happiness,” others write.
Some also see a lucrative opportunity in the grandma’s sudden rise to fame: “She should become a brand ambassador for Coca Cola.”
Granddaughter Cai told Chinese reporters: “I think it’s the contrast that makes her so popular. She drinks Coke, eats hamburgers, loves spicy food, and all that greasy food. She’s leading the life of a young person, and it appears to be very unhealthy. But she still has longevity.”
Because Cai’s grandma does not know much about social media, Cai tried to explain to her that “many, many people” like her a lot. “Why on earth would they like me for?” she replied: “I’m old!”
By Manya Koetse
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These Chinese School Are Awarding Excellent Students with Pork Meat Gifts
Awarding excellent students with raw meat or even fresh fish seems to be a new trend in Chinese schools.
A remarkable award ceremony at a middle school in Fuyang, Anhui province, has attracted the attention of Chinese netizens this week for the meat gifts the school offered to its outstanding students.
The award ceremony was held on January 26 at the Anhui Fuyang No. 1 Middle School. The five best students of every class were each rewarded with 2,5 kilogram (5.5 pounds) of pork meat.
At the end of the ceremony, a total of 600 students took home a staggering 1500 kilogram (3306 pounds) of pork meat in total.
Although the initiative of this particular school came as a surprise to many netizens, more schools across China are introducing these kinds of food gifts to their students lately.
“Nowadays, every household has enough stationery. So we came up with the idea to award our students with pork meat instead.”
The director of the Anhui school, Mister Sun (孙), told reporters: “In the past, the school always awarded its best students with pencils and notebooks. But nowadays, every household has enough stationery. So we came up with the idea to award our students with pork meat instead.”
The pork meat, gifted in a bag with a pig on it, was given just in time for the upcoming Chinese Spring Festival, which celebrates the start of the Year of the Pig this year.
Sun further added: “The students’ hard work is rewarded with something they can take home and share with their family members and other people they love. In this way, they can also experience the gratefulness of others.”
The Fuyang middle school is not the first school that awards its students by offering them fresh meat products. Recently, several stories of Chinese schools awarding their students with meat gifts made their rounds on Chinese social media.
A primary school in Liuzhou, in a mountainous and impoverished area of Guangxi province, received the praise of many netizens when they awarded their 71 most outstanding students with 1,5 kilogram of unwrapped pork meat on a string. It is the second year in a row that the school chose to present its students with a meat gift.
At another school in Dongguan, Guangdong province, the 90 most outstanding students were each rewarded with a fresh fish earlier this month. The fish were caught from the Humen Wharton School’s own pond, The Paper reports.
In a recent interview, director Wu (吴) of the Dongguan Humen Wharton School told The Paper that the fish are usually fed with the leftovers from the school canteen. By rewarding the students with these fish, Wu said, the school not only hopes to make the pupils happy, but also hopes to increase their awareness on the ecological environment.
“This is the reality. When you work hard, you’ll have meat to eat.”
Last year, a school in Fujian’s Nan’an awarded 30 of its highest-scoring students with a pork leg, something that also attracted the attention online at the time. More schools, including one in Shanwei, then followed their example.
On Weibo, various hashtags relating to the new ‘trend’ are making their rounds. “Middle School Awards Its Students with 1500 Kilogram of Pork Meat” (#中学用3000斤猪肉表彰学生#) received over 5.5 million views this week. “School in Mountainous Area Awards Students with Pork at the End of the Year” (#山区小学期末发猪肉奖状#) had over 3 million views on Weibo.
Chinese netizens applaud the schools for giving these food products to reward students, mainly seeing it as a way to boost the children’s confidence.
“This is great!” one commenter wrote: “The students can really experience how it feels to earn something and what it feels like to contribute. And at the same time, they can share and enjoy their achievements with their family.”
“What a great award,” others say: “They’ll feel so proud to bring this back home.”
“This is the reality. When you work hard, you’ll have meat to eat. Why weren’t there such good schools around when I was a kid?”, a Weibo user says.
It is a tradition in China to hold an award ceremony at the end of the semester. During the ceremony, that is attended by the school’s students, teachers, and sometimes (grand)parents, the best students are praised for their accomplishments. The purpose of the award ceremony and the public praise is to let the excellent students set an example for their fellow classmates, and to motivate the students.
But not everyone is equally positive about the initiative. “The intention is good, but how attractive is it for a child to receive a pork leg nowadays?” one man from Guangdong wonders: “Isn’t it more and more uncommon for people to perceive meat as something that’s rare to eat?”
“It’s not about the meat itself,” others argue: “It’s about bringing home something and making them feel accomplished.”
Among the few voices criticizing the idea, there are also those who advocate vegetarianism and think it would be more valuable to teach children the value of living creatures rather than to give them pork.
Others argue that the pork meat gift is not ‘halal.’
But the vast majority of commenters still praise the initiative, saying it is honest, nutritious, and lets the whole family benefit from their child’s accomplishments. For some, the idea is simple and straightforward: “Those who study hard get to eat meat.”
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