ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
For those of you with a fondness for Chinese takeout, those two words likely conjure an image of little white boxes packed full of sweet and sour pork or General Tso's chicken. But in China, one chain has come up with the ultimate Chinese takeout: hot pot at home and, for an extra charge, your own waiter.
NPR's Louisa Lim sent this postcard.
(Soundbite of crowd noise)
LOUISA LIM: Haidilao is more than just a restaurant. It's really an institution here in China. The restaurant is so popular that people are willing to wait two hours on busy nights to eat hot pot here. There are so many people waiting that the restaurant's even laid on free manicures and shoeshines for those waiting.
But now, this chain has come up with a novel way to beat those lines, and it's bringing the restaurant experience right to your home.
Mr. LIU LEI: (Foreign language spoken)
LIM: Hello, I'm the delivery man from Haidilao, says Liu Lei, as the door opens. He's dressed in a red company uniform, with one red box slung over his back, another on his front.
Ms. CUI ZHILIAN: (Foreign language spoken)
LIM: You've brought the pot and everything? asks the woman opening the door, Cui Zhilian. She's a 20-something dancer who's invited three friends over to eat yin-yang hot pot.
That's 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 vegetables are then boiled in these soups. It's hard to think of any dish less suited to home delivery.
Mr. LEI: (Foreign language spoken)
LIM: Yes, yes, I've even bought a trash can, says Liu Lei. I'll come back later on to take away your trash, he promises, as he sets up a portable electric hot plate. He pours the two soups out of sealed vacuum packs into the pot.
(Soundbite of soup being poured)
Mr. LU SIQI: (Foreign language spoken)
LIM: It's so convenient, gasps Lu Siqi, a regular at the restaurant.
Mr. SIQI: (Through translator) We always have to wait so long. You go to the restaurant 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.
LIM: The delivery man lays out soup ladles, and red aprons to protect the diners' clothes from oil splashes. He's even brought popcorn.
Mr. LEI: (Foreign language spoken)
LIM: The damage is less than $10 a head, a reasonable amount that includes a total delivery charge of just $4. Add another $10, and you get your own personal waiter.
It's all about brand-building, says Haidilao manager Zhang Fu, rather than the bottom line.
Ms. ZHANG FU (Manager, Haidilao): (Foreign language spoken)
LIM: When we add it up, there's no profit, she admits, but we're giving the customers an excellent experience.
The four friends tuck in happily. Here in China, even McDonald's does home delivery, upping the stakes for everyone else.
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.
Louisa Lim, NPR News, Beijing.
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