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When anyone mentions Haidilao, the first thing that springs to mind is its excellent service. Arrive at 2am in the morning to fix a hot pot craving and you’ll find smiling wait staff, eager to take your coat, serve you some hot soy bean milk or polish your nails. Which is why it was with some trepidation, and okay we admit, some childish glee, when we heard that the newest Haidilao has replaced its greatest selling point – its irrepressibly happy staff – with robots.
We realise on entering the restaurant that progress comes at a cost: gone are the board games and free manicures. In its place is a waiting zone not too different from a movie theatre, showing a preview of the tech Haidilao is embracing.
Walk in and you’ll see it in action: robotic hands filling out food orders and placing them on robot servers. Other tech advances in the restaurant include LED screens 3D motion graphics – think the screensaver on your computer – which are slightly distracting. Its restrooms have also have been upgraded to the Japanese style of toilets – with bidets that offer warm seats and buttons to activate different types of cleaning, and flushing.
Its main draw however, are its robot servers that roam the restaurant. Each transport food from kitchen to tableside where human servers then place on dining tables. It’s designed to mimic the service Haidilao is known for. Stand in front of it and it’ll stop. Obstruct it too long and it’ll plead for you to move, otherwise it might get fired (in Chinese). It also blinks too – more for effect rather than any functional purpose we can discern.
There are still certain kinks to work out – which explains its limited opening hours, though this might also be due to robots running on batteries that last just four hours. For example, an outstretched hand won’t stop the robot servers from moving forward. And there is a matter of being too efficient – once you place your order, robotic hands fill them out almost immediately. So if you’re the indecisive sort, by the time you change your mind, your order might already be by your table.
Another drawback especially for families is the absence of the children’s play area – which is a boon for parents looking for a place both to eat and entertain the kids – although they try to make up for it with toys offered tableside.
However, we’re quite pleased with the way Haidilao is using technology. Rather than making it a gimmick and the centrepiece of its new restaurant, it feels more like an enhancement of their already outstanding service. Human waiters are still in abundance with their wide smiles and eagerness to serve while its understated tourist attraction of noodle dancers are still jigging along merrily tableside. Its food quality remains consistent though prices, as far as we can tell are marked up slightly at this location.
Our initial fears that Haidilao’s greatest draw – its standout service – had been replaced was unfounded. So whether you want a glimpse of its restaurants of the future – they’re looking to implement this in most of its locations – or just simply looking for a meal at the Haidilao you know and love, it might be worth heading down to this branch.