Haidilao hotpot chain offers free massage, manicure to customers waiting for a table

Haidilao in Singapore offers manicures to waiting customers.
Haidilao in Singapore offers manicures to waiting customers. PHOTO: TNP FILE

BEIJING (BLOOMBERG) - Mr Zhang Yong, co-founder and chairman of Haidilao, one of China's most successful hotpot chains, remembers his first time eating out.

As a 19-year-old welder in Sichuan, it was exhilarating to escape the company cafeteria and dine in a restaurant. But the staff were rude and the hotpot did not inspire.

Then came a twist of fate that would change China's culinary history. He bolted from his job in a dispute over a company apartment for him and his fiancee.

In 1994, he opened his first restaurant with just four tables.

Today, he runs the nation's most popular chain of restaurants that serves boiling soup broth with meat, seafood, vegetables and noodles. 

Haidilao has 196 outlets in 60 Chinese cities as well as more in Los Angeles, Tokyo, Singapore and Seoul. 

Mr Zhang splits his time between China and Singapore, where his wife and son live.

What really sets Haidilao apart is its customer service.

Customers waiting for a table can get their nails done or receive a shoulder massage at no charge. After being seated, every diner is given a moist warm towel and apron to protect their clothes.

Individual plastic baggies are provided for mobile phones and those dining solo are sometimes offered a teddy bear to accompany them.

Mr Zhang, like his waiters from a humble background in the hinterland, knows the challenges migrants face in the big city.

Haidilao provides apartments, often with air-conditioning and Wi-Fi, for its staff.

It tends to promote from within.

The person who runs its US business started as a restaurant doorman.

Chief executive officer Yang Xiaoli worked her way up from her first role as a waitress.

Managers are evaluated by levels of customer satisfaction and staff morale, rather than primarily on restaurant revenue.

Successful managers are eligible to open franchises.