A first-hand review of Haidilao’s ‘smart’ hotpot restaurant in Beijing

  • Haidilao has equipped a restaurant in Beijing with automated cold room with robotic arms and servers
  • Automation can help improve kitchen efficiency but no plans to cut front-line service staff, Haidilao says
PUBLISHED : Saturday, 03 November, 2018, 11:33am
UPDATED : Saturday, 03 November, 2018, 11:48am

When I first learnt that Haidilao was going to employ robots and become the world’s first “smart hotpot restaurant,” my first reaction was not excitement but worry.

As a self-anointed hotpot connoisseur who has patronised the Beijing-based chain’s restaurants 33 times in less than two years, I believe that friendly and meticulous service was what made Haidilao what it is today. Can robots, with their preprogrammed responses, cater to China’s demanding hotpot warriors?

The restaurant chain’s good service is legendary within the food and beverage industry in China. If a waiter sees a patron having hotpot alone, he or she will place a big cuddly soft toy in the seat opposite you so that you feel less lonely. Having your birthday? Here is a bowl of free noodles and a birthday song.

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It is probably a curiosity that the company put “being nice to one another” as a core value for employees in its IPO prospectus. Some 83 per cent of Haidilao’s staff find their compensation satisfactory while 79 per cent are content with the promotion system, it noted in the filing, citing survey findings by Sullivan. The company went public in September in Hong Kong.

But back to the eating. The reservation was made for a weekday evening at the “smart” restaurant located in Beijing’s Guomao business district (Full disclosure: the booking was made through the company’s public relations team because Haidilao’s queues are as legendary as its service. The Post paid for the meal.)

When I arrived with my Post colleagues, we found a small theatre-like resting area where customers can relax while waiting their turn for a table. There were free snacks, boxed juice and patrons can scan QR codes to play lottery games that give free dishes and discount coupons.

Just how “smart” is the restaurant? As you enter the venue, an automated cold room kept at 0 to 4 degrees Celsius is on view, where queues of robotic arms prepare and deliver raw meat and fresh vegetables according to the orders placed by patrons through an iPad at each table.

No humans are involved in the food preparation and food past its use-by date is tracked and disposed of automatically. Large displays show a live-stream of the kitchen premises, a measure to maintain customer confidence after reports last August of rats found in Haidilao restaurants in Beijing.

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The robot-run kitchen was a project between Haidilao and Japanese electronics giant Panasonic, according to Haidilao chief information officer Shao Zhidong, who accompanied the Post team on a tour of the kitchen. We saw how the soup base, originally packaged separately and mixed in the pot by humans, is now prepared by robots who can cater to individual tastes and specific requirements with machine-like precision, each and every time. Your favourite soup base recipe and special combination of spices, various oil and key ingredients are automatically documented and uploaded into the cloud.

Inside the kitchen, various monitors on the walls display key information on the restaurant, such as a real-time inventory of each dish, including how much of the food material will soon expire.

The automation is expected to eventually benefit as many as 5,000 restaurants worldwide, according to Shao. For example, the current restaurant is projected to save at least 10 per cent on electricity consumption from the smart feature detecting the weight of the hotpot that automatically turns the heat up or down.

Given that each restaurant runs up an average of 200,000 yuan in electricity bills each month, just that feature alone could result in substantial savings if adopted in more of its restaurants.

Then there are the humanoid robots. Six of them roam the restaurant delivering the food while another four are in charge of fetching used trays. But they are not enough to take care of all 93 tables in the restaurant, which still rely on human waiters to bus the tables.

For now, the delivery robots are a novelty. They are a natural attraction but that also means patrons stand in their way to take photographs or interact with them.

“Ideally, we will bring down the staff size to about 130 to 140 per restaurant from the current 170 level,” said Shao. “But it would never be possible for a restaurant to go unstaffed … It is said that dining is a combination of two: before the dish comes to table, it's logistics; but after that, it's called service.”

The automation for now is aimed at cutting down the number of staff who work in the kitchens and boost efficiency, he said. The chain will not cut back on frontline service staff, who still hand out hot towels, guide customers through the menu and orders, and help with putting the food into the sizzling pot.

Haidilao will aim for new restaurants to adopt some of the automation features being tested now while the company improves on the technical details, Shao said. The ultimate aim is to roll out the features fully to all of its restaurants, he said. As part of that, two more restaurants will soon go “smart” in Beijing.

Back at our table, I could finally sit down and order. The familiar menu, an array of raw meat fit for the most hungry of carnivores, was in front of me on the iPad. I refused to be distracted by the snowy mountains and cherry blossoms projected onto the walls.

I placed the order and waited in anticipation for my 34th time eating at Haidilao. The robots did not disappoint, and more than 20 dishes of beef, pig brain, cow stomach and tofu soon began to arrive – after a wait of only 10 minutes.

Some of my colleagues surprised me with their appetite. As for my secret soup base combination, now that is a secret between me, Haidilao and its cloud.