Robots to replace chefs at Haidilao

The hotpot restaurant, famous for offering free massages and snacks, will open its first fully automated kitchen in Beijing

HONG KONG • Haidilao International Holding is putting the heat on other hotpot restaurant operators by using robots to replace chefs and waiters.

Tomorrow in Beijing, Asia's biggest listed restaurant chain by market value is partnering Japan's Panasonic to open what the two companies say is the world's first eatery with a fully automated kitchen.

At the new Haidilao outlet, robots will take orders as well as prepare and deliver raw meat and fresh vegetables to customers to plop into soups prepared at their tables.

The automation will lower labour costs and boost efficiency, underpinning Haidilao's plan to expand to as many as 5,000 restaurants worldwide, the companies said.

"It could be difficult to expand to that size in terms of personnel, so Haidilao is shifting earlier to an operation that doesn't rely so much on manual labour," said Mr Jun Yamashita, managing director of Ying Hai Holding, the Singapore-based joint venture that Haidilao and Panasonic have set up.

"That's where Panasonic's technology comes in."

The joint venture was started with an investment of US$20 million (S$28 million), according to the companies.

Haidilao has plans to expand the automated restaurants gradually in China and, later, overseas.

Haidilao became Asia's first eatery chain to surpass US$10 billion in market value when it held its initial public offering in Hong Kong last month. The company has outlets at more than 360 locations around the world, including Japan, Singapore, Taiwan and the United States.

The chain's billionaire chairman, Mr Zhang Yong, said that when he started Haidilao 24 years ago, the restaurant business seemed "centuries" out of date.

With technology, he has set out to run more efficient restaurants.

He pointed to the advice he received from Alibaba Group Holding founder Jack Ma on how to think about the business.

"Haidilao is not just a restaurant. We're also a company that does manufacturing and logistics," Mr Zhang said in Tokyo on Thursday.

"Before the food is brought to the table, it's all a manufacturing pro-cess. After that, the service aspect takes over," he added.

The chain has made headlines with its efforts to go the extra mile for customers by offering complimentary back massages and snacks while waiting for a table.

Guests could also surf the Internet and play games on consoles, another ingredient in Haidilao's recipe to click with customers.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 27, 2018, with the headline 'Robots to replace chefs at Haidilao'. Print Edition | Subscribe