For most of us, Chinese takeout means little white boxes packed full of sweet and sour pork and General Tso's chicken. But in China, facing intense competition, restaurants are getting innovative. One chain has come up with the ultimate Chinese takeout: hot pot in your very own home.
Haidilao is more than just a restaurant; it's a modern Chinese institution. This popular hot pot restaurant feeds more than 10,000 Beijingers a night, with people willing to wait two hours for a table. The lines are so long that the restaurant gives out free Internet access, manicures and shoeshines.
But now Haidilao has found a novel way to beat those lines: It's bringing the entire restaurant experience to your home.
'It's So Convenient'
"Hello, I'm the delivery man from Haidilao," says Liu Lei, smiling, as the door opens. He's dressed in a red uniform, with one red box slung over his back, one on his front. He motored over on his electric bicycle with the hot pot on his back.
"You brought the pot and everything?" asks the woman opening the door, Cui Zhilian. She's a 20-something dancer who has invited three friends over to eat yin-yang hot pot.
This is a huge steaming pot of soup divided into two sections: One has cream-colored chicken broth; the other is fiery-red oil full of chili peppers and numbing Sichuan peppercorns. Slices of raw meat and an array of different chopped vegetables are boiled in these soups and eaten. It's hard to think of any dish less suited to home delivery.
"Yes, yes, I've even bought a trash can," says Liu Lei, whipping out a pop-up trash can, and lining it with black plastic liners. "I'll come back later on to take away your trash," he promises, as he sets up a portable electric hot plate on the table. He snips open sealed vacuum packs of soup to pour into the hot pot.
"It's so convenient!" gasps Lu Siqi, a Haidilao regular, comparing the ease of home delivery with the endless queues at the restaurant. "We always have to wait so long. You go at 5 or 6 o'clock and there are 40 tables in front of you. You can't eat until 8 or 9 p.m. It's so agonizing."
The delivery man lays out soup ladles, and red aprons to protect the diners' clothes from oil splashes. He's even brought popcorn. But there's a hitch: The electrical circuit has overloaded, and the power strip isn't working, causing momentary panic among the hungry diners. The indefatigable delivery man has a solution: a spare power strip, which earns sighs of relief.
The bill for the meal is less than $10 a head, a reasonable amount that includes a delivery charge of just $4. Add another $10, and you get your own personal waiter.
"When we add it up, there's no profit," says Haidilao manager Zhang Fu. "But we're giving the customers an excellent experience."
Put another way, it's not about the bottom line. This chain has grown from one tiny outlet with just four tables to one of the nation's most popular hot pot joints with 53 restaurants across China. In Beijing, most branches serve four sittings in one day.
In China, even McDonald's does home delivery, upping the stakes for everyone else. But Kou Na, as she tucks in to her hot pot, admits she prefers eating Chinese food socially.
"When you eat Western food, you need the ambience," she says. "So you don't dare speak loudly. And you have to be careful about clinking your cutlery loudly. It's good for dates, very romantic, but not relaxed."
Hot pot, on the other hand, is as relaxed as it comes. And the sighs of contentment are loud.
"Can I give them 11 points out of 10?" one of the friends asks.
Just a generation ago, when communist ideology reigned supreme, their parents "ate bitterness" in canteens on agricultural communes. Nowadays, money is king — and restaurants are wooing this new middle class as hard as they can.