While not particularly well known among foreigners, almost any Chinese person you ask will be able to tell you about HaiDiLao Hot Pot (海底捞火锅). On the surface, HaiDiLao is a popular chain of restaurants serving hot pot (a style of cuisine which originated over 1000 years ago in Northern Asian, in which dishes like thinly sliced meat, fresh vegetables, seafood, and dumplings are cooked in simmering “hot pot” of soup stock in the middle of the table).
In reality, it’s much more: HaiDiLao is a sensation, an innovative approach to food service in China, and an experience unlike any other.
As expected, there is good food at good prices, but what sets HaiDiLao apart is the hospitality – an aspect of restauranting many Chinese eateries do not focus on. The company goes above and beyond in its customer-first attitude, and their unreserved devotion to this goal that brings the consumers by the crowd.
“I can’t fix all the societal problems, but I can run HaiDiLao my way… I want to build a team that trusts each other and believes in kindness and honesty.” – Founder and CEO Zhang Yong
Wait times at HaiDiLao can be very long – a testament to the chain’s renown – but the staff will do their best to ensure it’s the most enjoyable wait you’ll ever experience.
Snacks like cherry tomatoes, watermelon, popcorn, and tea are served to soothe any hunger pangs. Children can play in colorful play rooms, while their mothers and sisters can put their names on the list to get a free manicure from professional nail stylists (sparkles and ombre and flowers and other fancy designs – all viable).
The waiting area is stocked with games: cards and Chinese chess as well as those of the digital variety. Computer kiosks can be used to surf the web; some locations even offer shoe shines and massages.
This blogger knows from personal experience that the staff doesn’t mind if you turn down an available table to prolong your “wait”.
The wonderfully warm service doesn’t stop once you do head into the restaurant proper, though. More than likely, waiters and waitresses will greet you as you make your way through the bustling labyrinth of tables, good smells, and lively chatter. Sitting down, you’ll might be offered warm towels to wash your hands, a plastic bag to protect your cell phone, or a soft cloth to wipe your glasses if they steam up from the hot pot. You will definitely be given a bib – feel free to dig in with as much vigor as you please (Fun fact: in Mandarin, 海底捞 literally means to fish or scoop from the depths of the ocean, just as one ladles food out from the hot pot!).
Typically, orders are placed on an iPad; almost all dishes are available in half portions, if so desired. The most popular hot pot configuration is often called “yin-yang”: the pot is split, one side filled with spicy stock, the other mild. While waiting for your food to arrive, make sure to head to the do-it-yourself sauce bar, where you can create a personalized concoction (in which to dip food after it’s been cooked) out of anything from chili paste to sesame oil to barbecue sauce to spring onions.
All of this, and dinner hasn’t even started yet.
HaiDiLao’s standard of service makes sense in light of its history.
Established in 1994 in the small city of Jianyang (in Sichuan province), the restaurant was started by four friends with a dream. 19 years later, HaiDiLaohas 72 restaurants open worldwide – with one branch opening soon in the US!
Getting here, however, has not been easy. Founder and CEO Zhang Yong says: “I learned lessons the hard way. However, the most important thing I learned was that kindness would eventually bring customers and money back.” It’s a philosophy he sticks to even today, often at the cost of a larger profit.
Zhang comes from a humble background, working in a factory before coming up with the idea for HaiDiLao. Today, most of the company’s employees fit a similar profile: young, with limited education, from small towns or rural areas. They receive apartments with air-conditioning and internet access – both of which are still considered luxuries in many parts of China – and are treated so well that they refer their friends and family to also work at the chain. “Life really isn’t fair sometimes,” says Zhang. “I can’t fix all the societal problems, but I can run HaiDiLao my way… I want to build a team that trusts each other and believe in kindness and honesty.” The company makes a point of never looking to outsiders for high-level management positions: everyone is given the chance to work from the bottom to the top.
HaiDiLao understands both its employees’ and its patrons’ needs, and by going out of its way to fulfill them, has paved its own path to success.
The experience isn’t over, by the way. Customers rarely leave before asking for the 手拉面, the Hand-Pulled Noodles. This HaiDiLao signature is not just a dish, it’s a show. The “noodle masters” train for four to six months before they’re allowed to perform – and what a performance! The doughy noodle is twirled like the ribbon of an Olympic gymnast, whipped in the air over your heads, stretched to lengths of more than 10 feet, against a background of upbeat music. It has to be seen to be believed.
Watch the hand-pulled noodles “show” in this video:
It’s a good formula, perfected over the years and proven to work.
Online, positive reviews and stories abound: some who found a dish unsatisfactory and had its cost waived, or another whose shoes had gotten soaked in the rain, given slippers and dry shoes returned before leaving. The HaiDiLao experience is absolutely unique.
So next time you come to China, consider making like a local – maybe soon, you’ll have your own HaiDiLao experience to share.
Try this delicious eating experience for yourself on a private Beijing tour.
All photos taken by WildChina’s Irene Jiang at the Taiyanggong (太阳宫） HaiDiLao branch in Beijing.
Noodle dance video by looxx008 on Youtube.