In 1994, two couples in China’s Sichuan province opened a hotpot restaurant, offering customers vats of spicy broth they could cook meat and vegetables in at their tables. Because it was a relatively common dish, the restaurant, called Haidilao, decided to take a different approach to its business, helping customers carry their bags and even looking after their children. These unusual services proved to be a success, as competitors nearby began closing down (link in Chinese), and helped it grow into a hotpot behemoth.
Today, Haidilao is a chain with more than 300 restaurants in China, Singapore, Japan, South Korea, the US, and other countries. And as a further sign of its mainstream success, it went public on the Hong Kong stock exchange today (Sept. 26). The stock rose in early trading to HK$19.64 ($2.51) but closed at HK$17.80 ($2.28), slightly below its open price. Despite its lukewarm reception on the market, it’s developed a fervent fan base largely because of its customer service.
Though the chain suffered a public-relations setback last year when an investigation revealed a rat-infested kitchen, the company’s quick response—including a public apology and changes that allowed customers to see how their food is prepared—has won it praise.
For Chinese diners, Haidilao’s quirky offerings extend far beyond the menu. Customers keep returning because of Haidilao’s unique attentiveness to customers. Here are some of the beloved services they have come to expect from the hotpot chain—almost all of which are offered without charge.
At Haidilao, it’s not uncommon for customers to wait two hours for a table. To make sure they don’t stray to other restaurants, Haidilao has a number of tactics to help diners kill time. Its restaurants offer manicures (link in Chinese), shoe-cleaning services, board games, and all the free snacks (usually fruit and crackers) they could want.
The staff at Haidilao is attentive to say the least. In addition to handing out hot towels, they also:
They have hair ties on hand and offer plastic bags for customers to store their phones in so they can use them without risking getting hot broth on their screens.
At request, servers will come to customers’ tables to peel shrimp using a pair of chopsticks.
If you order Chinese ramen, the noodles will be made right before your eyes in an elaborate dance-like performance (video). If the noodles break during the performance, the noodle maker will toss out the old batch and start a new one.
Hotpot is best enjoyed as a group, but Haidilao is welcoming to solo diners. To make them feel more comfortable, the restaurant will place a toy (link in Chinese)—usually a large stuffed bear—in the seat across from them.
Someone is ready to hand you paper towels when you’re done washing your hands after using the bathroom, a nice touch for a casual restaurant in China.
Hotpot is not the type of meal that is easily taken to go, but Haidilao offers an unusual delivery service (link in Chinese). In China, a staffer will deliver the ingredients, including the broth mix, to customers for an additional fee of 58 yuan ($8.40). The courier helps set the table, including laying a plastic cover and preparing the broth, and comes back after the meal to pack up. To make sure customers have a similar dining experience at home as they do in the restaurant, the delivery also includes gum, wipes, and hair ties.