Imagine this: you’ve just arrived at your favorite restaurant and they tell you it will be a three-hour wait for your table. Without hesitation, you grab a chair to receive a complimentary back massage and start munching on free-flow snacks.
Around you, other waiting guests are playing chess, getting manicures, or browsing the internet and gaming on different consoles. Three hours later, pampered and relaxed, you are ready to sit down for a meal with your friends.
Haidilao CEO Zhang Yong has made all this a reality. The chain of restaurants he co-founded is renowned for its service and for the free perks for waiting guests — as well as its popularity among students, reasonable prices, “nightclub-like” atmosphere, and (at many branches) 24-hour availability. In many ways the food — Sichuanese-style hotpot, where guests cook their own vegetables, meats, and noodles around a mini-cauldron of boiling broth — isn’t even the main attraction.
As a lower-class welder, Zhang relished the experience of eating in an actual restaurant, an experience that was a luxury to him at the time. Taking the name from a mahjong term signifying a successful turnabout, he opened the first Haidilao in Sichuan province in 1994. Since then, the renowned hotpot chain has gained global success, is reportedly worth more than a billion dollars, and appears set for a $700 million USD IPO in Hong Kong before the end of the year.
There are numerous regional variants on hotpot, but the cuisine as a whole (if we can lump it together in such a way) is a Chinese institution wherever you are in the country.
It’s a refreshingly communal and social mode of eating, and many people across China will indulge in hot pot several times a month — especially during colder weather. As a result, hotpot outlets, especially Sichuan- or Chongqing-style joints (known for their spicy bases), can be found in any Chinese city. Yet Haidilao has built a reputation for difference based on its (fairly gimmicky) service and extra perks.
In China, waiting several hours for a free table is not uncommon and, in the minds of many consumers, denotes popularity and therefore quality. While numerous restaurants simply offer a handful of stools outside their front door, Haidilao has cleverly turned the wait into part of the experience — it makes diners more willing to wait, which in turn builds more buzz around the restaurant.
But even once you’ve had your shoes shined and gotten your nails done, the over-the-top service doesn’t stop when you get to your table. Guests at Haidilao receive complimentary hair ties, aprons, and protective bags to keep them and their valuables hotpot-free (the dipping and retrieving of food items into the broth can get messy).
Although it’s increasingly common in Chinese restaurants these days, Haidilao was one of the first major chains to offer an iPad equipped with the entire menu. Once they’ve ordered, guests rush to an extensive self-service bar where they can concoct their own dipping sauces (an all-important factor for this kind of hotpot). Also pulling in younger diners are social media and WeChat Moments-friendly dishes, like “kungfu noodles.”
Order this item and a Haidilao employee personally comes to your table and does a “noodle dance”, whipping the noodle dough over his head and around in loops before snapping it back, pulling it into noodle form, and dropping it into your hotpot right in front of you.
Since the first Haidilao opened in Sichuan in 1994, the restaurant chain has expanded across China. The first overseas location opened in Singapore in 2012, followed by locations in Japan, South Korea, and the US. Now, the company has over 300 locations worldwide. More global locations are set to open soon including a landmark restaurant in Queens, New York and a 10,000 square foot outlet in the heart of London.
In Los Angeles, Haidilao’s outlet has built a large following among Chinese expats and Americans alike. But with different labor laws in the US, the chain has not able to offer the same complimentary services it does in China. The LA restaurant does, however, still provide noodle dances.
As other chains have caught on and upped their service game to compete with Haidilao, its hotpot joints have lost some of their novelty value. But that hasn’t stopped them from rolling out some new gimmicks. In 2012, Haidilao launched its Video Conference Dining Room, or “virtual neighbor”, concept, which allows guests to virtually dine with their loved ones through the use of large TVs, cameras, and microphones.
It’s not all been a cake walk for Haidilao, however. Last year, the firm closed two restaurants in Beijing and was forced to implement stringent hygiene improvements across the chain after undercover reports by CCTV found rat infestations in their Jinsong and Taiyanggong branches in the capital. And earlier this year, one of its international branches in Singapore was temporarily shuttered for selling “unclean” food.
Haidilao apologized and sent staff for special training in response, but interestingly also launched livestreaming from their kitchens in China (with TVs displayed prominently in restaurants), an initiative which has since spread to other brands.
Having seemingly weathered such storms, the company is now setting its sights on continued overseas expansion, anticipating a rise in demand for Chinese food abroad. How it navigates other countries’ health and safety laws will be interesting to watch, but according to Reuters Haidilao is looking to raise 600-700 million USD to fuel its international roll-out by listing in Hong Kong, with reports suggesting this will be finalized by late September.
Even if you’ve never been to China before, it seems Haidilao hotpot (and its kungfu noodles) could well be coming to a town near you soon.
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