China Consumer

Simmer down

Why a hygiene shock at hotpot king Hai Di Lao isn’t deterring diners


Hai Di Lao: patrons still happy

In 2011 Huang Tieying, an academic, published a case study with the unpromising title “You can’t copy Hai Di Lao”. His point was that the restaurant chain is so focused on responding to the needs of individual customers that its business model is impossible to standardise, and hence there’s not much benefit to analysing it.

Nevertheless, after weathering a recent kitchen hygiene scandal, more businesses might feel encouraged to take a look at what the hotpot king is doing and learn some lessons.

Last month, a report from Beijing-based Legal Evening News asked questions about the hygiene at two of Hai Di Lao’s Beijing kitchens. A hidden camera revealed a rat infestation. There were photos of dirty dishes caked in grime and a kitchen worker was filmed using a ladle to dredge a sewage outlet.

The two outlets were immediately closed down, and the company issued a statement on its official weibo page within a few hours of the reports going public. Rather than downplaying the case or issuing a brief apology, as other businesses have responded in previous food scares, Hai Di Lao posted a seven-point action plan to address the issues raised by the report.

The gist of the plan was to improve and extend its inspection procedures. But the post also detailed which of its managerial staff will supervise the changes and provided contact details, and encouraged the media to inspect the upgraded food safety programme.

In the contributions beneath the post, consumers were impressed by the company’s openness. One popular comment read, “Another case of successful crisis management. Other firms should learn from this.”

So Hai Di Lao has come through this health scare relatively unscathed and Sixth Tone reported business at its restaurants in Shanghai was still brisk, just a few days after the scandal broke.

On weibo, another netizen seemed to sum up consumer sentiment, albeit with an impossible claim. “I’ve eaten at Hai Di Lao over 300,000 times, and I’m still very much alive,” he assured.

The post went on to say that the revelations at the Beijing outlets are probably a good thing for Hai Di Lao, encouraging the company to improve its standards. “I trust Hai Di Lao can do even better,” he concluded.

Hai Di Lao is best known in China for its focus on customer service – perhaps more so than for the quality of its food. Patrons are treated to manicures and shoe polishing, given board games to play and kept happy with snacks while they wait for tables. Hair ties and plastic aprons are offered as cooking begins (see WiC212). For some, this focus on customer care trumps the occasional slip-up in kitchen cleanliness.

Speaking to Sixth Tone, one diner said, “Few restaurants can compare with Hai Di Lao in terms of service… And a dirty kitchen is too common in the restaurant trade to bother much about.”

Opinion writers at various newspapers said this was no reason to be lenient with the hotpot chain, however. “If the public adopts such a mindset of low hygiene standards and benchmarking against the worst practices, it’s hard to expect much improvement in China’s food and beverage industry,” argued an op-ed in the Hong Kong Economic Journal.

All the same, it seems that the public will be getting a greater role as the hygiene police at Hai Di Lao’s kitchens in Beijing. Responding to the initial story in Legal Evening News, officials at the State Food and Drug Administration have decreed that all the Hai Di Lao restaurants in the Chinese capital must install open kitchens, allowing diners to check the conditions with their own eyes.

The People’s Daily was delighted with the news, commending the instruction as “grasping the very root of supervision”.

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