40 Elites in 40 Years: The queen of hot pot
Updated 10:19, 30-Dec-2018

Yang Lijuan was born in 1978 into a poor family in a rural area of Jianyang County, southwest China's Sichuan Province. She began working at Haidilao at the age of 17. At that time, Haidilao was just one of the many local hot pot restaurants.  

Over the next 24 years, she rose from an ordinary waitress to the COO of Haidilao, which listed its shares in September 2018 on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange.

All this success would not have been possible without the efforts of the chain's founders and staff, who were boosted by the ever-expanding catering industry in the country, the improvement of employment levels and consumption upgrades following reform and opening-up. The number of employees in the industry rose from 1.044 million in 1978 to nearly 30 million in 2017.

In the 40 years of reform and opening-up, more individuals have found their calling in life. In the early 1990s, waves of young people from rural areas flocked into the catering industry, attracted by the great market potential, relatively easy access, and countless opportunities. Yang worked as a waitress, a restaurant manager, and a vice general manager before becoming the COO of the renowned hot pot chain.

"For every newly opened store, a third of our existing employees would be eligible for a promotion."

Yang seized such opportunities. Haidilao has a strict appraisal system, whereby staff must do their very best to get a chance for promotion. However difficult that may sound, Yang always showed outstanding abilities.

At the same time, the "Haidilao style" could not have gained popularity had it not been for the changing times in the country.

Haidilao is acclaimed for its first-rate service: Free beverages, snacks and a manicure in the waiting area; aprons, cloths to clean one's glasses and rubber bands to tie hair back on the table; and after-meal chewing gum. The waiting staff have also been praised online for being willing to meet any of the patrons' needs.

According to the "Progress in Human Rights over the 40 Years of Reform and Opening-up in China" white paper, In 2017, China's annual per capita consumption expenditure reached 18,322 yuan, nearly 18 times more that in 1978. Many people are willing to pay for high quality experiences, and that includes visiting Haidilao restaurants. 

Consumption upgrades have led to increased quality requirements by consumers. In October, Haidilao opened its first intelligent restaurant in Beijing, where food safety is guaranteed by automated machines. "Food safety is the baseline of the catering industry. We even built our own factories for hot pot seasonings and ingredients, because there aren't enough well-regulated establishments out there," Yang explained.

Now Haidilao owns 320 stores, and plans to open to 400 stores in 2018. In fact, it's already gone abroad, opening stores in the U.S., Japan, South Korea, and Singapore. Most of its foreign stores are enjoying success.

"What we are doing now is catering to the tastes of every customer. Everyone can get the flavors they want. Wherever people like hot pot, we want to be there," Yang said.