China’s Haidilao plans a global push, offering manicures with hot pot

  • customer service
- Elsie Chen, Sui-Lee Wee, BEIJING

Sep 26, 2018-

Sometimes, Shang Feifei goes to a restaurant just for the manicures. On a recent Wednesday night, Shang, 40, sat patiently at a downtown Beijing branch of Haidilao, a restaurant chain that defies China’s well-earned reputation for lousy customer service. A Haidilao employee buffed and painted her nails, free. The aroma from bubbling broth-filled pots lingered in the air.

Shang wasn’t planning to stay to eat after she got her pink, glittery nails done. For her, the food was secondary to the experience.

“I find Haidilao’s special services so entertaining,” said Shang, who comes to Haidilao every week to get her manicures. “Like the free pedicures, the photo printing machine, Chinese checkers and origami.”

Hot pot, in which diners cook their own meat and vegetables in a boiling broth, is a favorite meal in China. And Haidilao is China’s most popular hot pot chain, mostly because of how employees go all out to greet, serve and entertain.

Haidilao hopes people outside China will be as captivated. It is set to raise nearly $1 billion on Wednesday in an initial public offering in Hong Kong, a semiautonomous Chinese city where foreign investors are free to buy up shares. It wants to use the money to expand, including beyond its overseas locations in California and New York as well as other countries.

“It was disgusting that people were waiting and having their nails clipped,” Joel Silverstein, chief executive of the East West Hospitality Group, a restaurant consultancy based in Hong Kong, said of a Haidilao outlet he visited in mainland China.

“In the US, it would be a total violation of health codes to be doing that stuff,” he added. “But the thing I’ve learned about China is, Chinese people love over-the-top service as long as they don’t have to pay for it.”

A different chain made global headlines when a diner found a dead rat in her hot pot. The Chinese company vowed to get to the bottom of the matter.

In a country where service without a smile is still the norm in many places, Haidilao earns its loyalty. Customers are offered free shoe-shining services and board games while they wait. Diners can watch a traditional Sichuan opera show. Eating with toddlers? “A “playground sister” will keep them entertained.

Patrons in China sometimes line up for hours to get into one of Haidilao’s nearly 300 domestic restaurants. A 2016 survey of 2,600 people conducted by OC&C, a consulting firm, ranked Haidilao as China’s favorite restaurant. Its dining experience was cited in a Harvard Business School case study in 2011.

“The staff here gives you the feeling that you are a family member,” said Liu Lu, 42, a stay-at-home mother who said that the chain’s employees would arrange a crib for her baby so she could indulge in the hot pot without a care.

Hot pot — known in China as huo guo, or fire pot — was originally consumed to ward off the cold of winter. It is now a year-round cuisine. Chinese diners love the participatory nature of the cooking process: People gather around a pot of boiling broth, dunk their meats in it, fish them out and dip them into sauces. The time spent cooking gives people time to socialise.

Haidilao’s name originates from a Sichuanese mah-jongg term that connotes winning. While the chain offers a wide variety of broths, it is known mainly for its Sichuan-style spicy hot pot.


Published: 26-09-2018 09:11

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