My friend and I arrive for dinner at 8:30 pm.
Hotpot, hand treatments and hold’em at the Chinese restaurant trying to raise $700 million
We’re told that there will be more than an hour’s wait.
But at Haidilao restaurant in Shenzhen, waiting is half the journey.
One of China’s most popular food chains, Haidilao offers Sichuan-style hot pot – where diners dip slices of meat, seafood or vegetables in bubbling, fiery-hot broth.
The chain has become so successful that it is planning its IPO debut in Hong Kong, and analysts expect it will raise up to $700 million.
The waiting game
Every Haidilao restaurant has a designated waiting area, as customers can easily spend hours waiting for a table. Free snacks such as popcorn and cherry tomatoes are served; customers can also entertain themselves by playing cards and chess.
To the uninitiated, it is unimaginable that a restaurant offers free manicures for waiting patrons. But at this Shenzhen restaurant, there is a mini nail salon where two beauticians trim, shape and paint the nails of waiting customers. I go for bright red; my friend picks deep red and silver.
Customers who want a manicure scan a QR code to get a ticket number, and they’re notified on their phones when they are next in line.
Some branches of Haidilao also offer free massages and shoe-polishing services. Too bad they didn’t have any at the restaurant we visited.
Friendly staff keep checking on waiting patrons, handing out icy-cold hand towels. “It’s too hot to wait out there,” one of the waitresses tells us.
I appreciate the thought, but the air-conditioning is freezing.
At around 10 p.m., we finally get our table. A sizeable crowd is still waiting.
Haidilao customers can make orders using a tablet, choosing from dozens of items ranging from slices of beef to fish balls to tofu. The culinarily curious can also try specials like beef tripe and duck intestines (Don't judge Asian food like James Corden). A must-order? The hand-pulled noodles, which are created with a dance:
China isn’t exactly known for its service – no one works for tips – but at Haidilao the staff is faultless. The waitress serving us even removed the shells from our shrimp for us.
The verdict? The food was decent for the $60 we paid – that’s a lot in Shenzhen – but it was definitely more about the wait.
Hot pot prospects
Haidilao has become hugely popular thanks to its service. Chinese internet users jokingly sing the praises of Haidilao’s service as “unstoppable by humanity.”
Founded in 1994, the chain now has more than 250 restaurants in China, and it is planning to open at least 180 new outlets this year.
Last year, the chain made a profit of $187 million, almost triple that of 2015.
Co-founder Zhang Yong, who once worked as a welder in Sichuan, told the press that the restaurant is able to offer high-quality service because its staff is happy. According to its IPO documents, the average annual salary of Haidilao employees is $9,400 – that’s well paid by Chinese standards.
The hot pot chain has also expanded into other countries, opening its first overseas restaurant in Singapore six years ago. Currently, the Haidilao in Arcadia, Los Angeles is the chain's only outpost in the US.
An IPO will give Haidilao more cash to continue its expansion, but some think that it remains questionable if its success will be sustained.
“The F&B sector is an industry that changes quickly,” said Eddie Zhou, a food expert with Zhejiang Gongshang University. “Consumers, especially those in the cities, are always looking for new, exciting and trendy food. They don’t really develop brand loyalty.”
Zhou believes that Haidilao’s success is based on the vision of its founders. “But once there is a lot of capital investment, it is difficult to say whether it can still follow the management ideologies of its founders.”
Haidilao had humble beginnings, but can it can repeat its success story?
We’ll just have to wait and see.
Perhaps there’ll be a manicure in the meantime.