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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.

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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 editor-in-chief of www.whatsonweibo.com. She is a writer and consultant (Sinologist, MPhil) on social trends in China, with a focus on social media and digital developments, popular culture, and gender issues. Contact at manya@whatsonweibo.com, or follow on Twitter.

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China Food & Drinks

Man Throws Tantrum in Hunan Restaurant Over Food Being “Too Spicy”

“If you can’t handle spicy food, don’t go to a Hunan restaurant!”

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A video showing the angry outburst of a customer at a Hunan restaurant is going viral on Weibo. The incident occurred on December 3rd in Changsha, the capital of Hunan province, which is known for its spicy food.

The man was having dinner with five other guests, who started sneezing after eating some spicy dishes. The man then angrily complained to the waitress that the food was too spicy and that they were not able to eat it. “I’ve had Hunan cuisine before,” the man said: “But this is much spicier.”

Since there was “too much leftover food,” the man asked how the restaurant wanted to solve it, suggesting that they would not be charged for the dishes.

When the waitress offered the guests some free juice instead, the man starts throwing a tantrum, yelling: “You think I can’t afford juice myself?! I just said we have too much leftover food and I asked you how you want to handle this!” The waitress then repeats that she can offer free juice, after which the man aggressively throws a glass on the ground and takes off, screaming “We’re leaving!” to his friends.

The video shows the waitress looking distraught as the guests stand up and leave the restaurant without paying.

One hashtag dedicated to the incident received over 110 million views on Weibo on Saturday (#男子吃湘菜太辣打喷嚏要求餐馆免单#).

Most people commenting condemn the man’s angry outburst and him leaving without paying: “If you want to dine and dash, just be honest about it instead of first putting up such a performance,” one person writes.

“This is just an evil trick to avoid paying,” others say: “If it isn’t spicy, it’s not Hunan food.”

Many commenters said food being very spicy should not be a reason to leave without paying, especially not in Hunan: “If you can’t handle spicy food, don’t go to a Hunan restaurant!”

Another commenter wrote: “Some people think they can eat spicy food, but the real Hunan cuisine is too spicy for them. Hunan food in Hunan is different from the Hunan dishes served outside of the province.”

Hunan cuisine, also known as Xiang cuisine (湘菜), is known for being very spicy. One saying goes: “Sichuan people don’t fear spiciness, Guizhou people are fearless when it’s spicy, and Hunan people fear it’s not spicy enough.” (“四川人不怕辣,贵州人辣不怕,湖南人怕不辣”).

According to Sina News, the man apparently regretted his behavior the next day. On December 4th, he apologized to the restaurant and the waitress. He paid for his bill and also paid an additional 3 yuan ($0.50) to compensate for the broken glass.

The restaurant says the dispute is now resolved, and that no further action will be taken.

By Manya Koetse

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.

©2021 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

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China Food & Drinks

Hotpot Chain Haidilao Is Shutting Down Over 300 Restaurants

After adding 544 stores in 2020, Haidilao will close 300 locations this year.

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News that China’s most popular hotpot chain is closing down over 300 restaurants became a top trending topic on Chinese social media site Weibo on Friday.

Haidilao (海底捞) made the announcement on Friday evening through a social media post, saying the company will gradually shut down about 300 of its stores. The restaurants that are to be closed are those with relatively low customer traffic and lower-than-expected business performance.

Although the stores will be shut down before December 31 of this year, some of them will potentially reopen at a later date after reorganization. The company also said it would not lay off its staff for now.

Haidilao has approximately 1600 restaurants, of which many were opened in 2020, when the chain added an astonishing 544 new restaurants. In the summer of 2021, Haidilao had a total of 131,084 employees.

It has been over 25 years since Zhang Yong, the owner of Haidilao, set up his first hot pot restaurant in Jianyang, Sichuan, with a mere investment of 10,000 yuan ($1470). It later became the dominant hot pot chain in the country.

Hot pot restaurants, where fresh meat and vegetables are cooked at the table in the 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.

The restaurant is known for giving its customers a free manicure along with snacks and drinks while waiting for a table. The staff is thoroughly trained in providing the best customer service, and Haidilao has introduced new concepts throughout the years to enhance customer experience. People who dine alone, for example, will get a teddy bear to join them. The restaurant also introduced robot waiters and is known for its noodle dancers and staff singing birthday songs whenever there is a birthday celebration.

Want a bear to join you for hotpot? Haidilao’s got you covered.

Over the past two years, however, Haidilao’s table turnover rate shrunk dramatically. The average table turnover rate in 2019 was 4.8 per day, but that number fell to 3 times per day in 2021, with some restaurants only doing 2.3 per day, leading to significant losses for the company’s net profit.

Due to the Covid19 crisis and lockdowns, Haidilao closed its doors in late January of 2020. By mid-March, it started to gradually reopen some of its locations, although they initially offered fewer seats and introduced an increased distance between dining table, that were allowed to have no more than three guests.

Due to the restaurant’s limited tables and increased labor costs, its menu prices went up, much to the dismay of many netizens, who already thought the prices at Haidilao were steep before the pandemic.

In October of this year, the story of a Haidilao customer in Zhengzhou discovering that the 200 grams of tripe he ordered for 72rmb ($11) was actually only 138 grams also went viral on Weibo, stirring discussions on the Haidilao menu prices.

While news about Haidilao closing so many of its stores attracted over 260 million views by Friday night, many commenters agreed that the company should scale down. “The more stores you open, the less you focus on service, the surroundings of the newly opened stores are not up to par, while prices are only rising,” one person wrote on Weibo.

“They’re not making enough money, while their prices were already being pressed down, and still I can’t afford to eat there,” another commenter wrote.

Others also wondered how Haidilao could claim they would not sack their staff while closing down so many stores. “Does that basically mean they’ll wait for them to leave for themselves?”

“When there’s a pandemic, there’s bound to be bad luck [in business],” another commenter writes: “There’s really not much to do about it.”

By Manya Koetse

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.

©2021 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

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