BEIJING: Zhang Yong, the co-founder and chairman of Haidilao, one of China’s most successful hotpot chains, remembers his first time eating out. As a 19-year-old welder in Jianyang, Sichuan, it was exhilarating to escape the proletarian company cafeteria and dine in an actual restaurant, a rare experience for him at the time.
But the employees were rude and the hotpot didn’t inspire. Then came a twist of fate that would change China’s culinary history: Zhang bolted from his job at a state-owned tractor factory in a dispute over a company apartment for him and his fiance.
In 1994, he opened his first restaurant with just four tables. Today, Zhang runs the nation’s most popular chain of restaurants that serves up boiling soup broth with meat, seafood, vegetables, and noodles. Haidilao has 196 outlets in 60 Chinese cities as well as more in Los Angeles, Tokyo, Singapore, and Seoul.
He’s also one of China’s newest billionaires, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, thanks to his 68% stake in closely held Sichuan Haidilao Catering and 63% stake in Hai Di Lao Holdings along with a 36 % stake in publicly traded Yihai International, a food distribution and seasoning manufacturer for Haidilao, whose products are also sold in China by Wal-Mart, Carrefour and other retailers. Yang Yingying, a spokeswoman for Haidilao, said Zhang declined to comment on the net worth in an email.
Zhang has no regrets. “That factory never made a profit,” says Zhang dressed casually in an open shirt during an interview in Zhengzhou, Henan, where he was attending a conference for Chinese entrepreneurs. “If I had not started Haidilao, I would have had to find something else, because you have to support yourself, you have to eat.”
Zhang said he plans to keep expanding and aims for as many as 80 more stores this year, with maybe ten of them overseas.” Revenue of Haidilao will likely grow by more than 30% to 10 billion yuan (US$1.5bil) this year, he said, and there are no plans to publicly list the company on domestic or overseas stock exchanges.
Zhang splits his time between China and Singapore, where his wife and son live. He’s done well for a guy who started out earning just 93 yuan (US$14) a month in his first factory job. Last year, he bought a high-end property in Singapore for S$27mil (US$20mil), according to the Business Times, a financial daily.
Hotpot restaurants have surged in popularity as young Chinese entered the middle class and began eating out together.
Haidilao specialises in spicy Sichuan hotpot dishes featuring a spicy broth and choices of meat, seafood, mushrooms, tofu and assorted vegetables.
At Haidilao, stoves are built into each table to keep your broth boiling. It’s possible to order a hotpot with two compartments set apart by a metal divider designed to match the curvy yin yang symbol. That way one side can be mushroom or chicken-based broth for more delicate palates, while the other is seasoned with whole peppercorns for diners looking for some spice. — Bloomberg