A meal for $1.40? Haidilao money-saving tips trend online but draw criticism

A photo posted on Weibo showing two children at Haidilao, with a plain water hotpot base and complimentary dishes.
PHOTO: Weibo

For just seven yuan ($1.40), you can have a reasonably satisfying meal at a popular hotpot chain in China: just spread free ground beef over rice that costs five yuan, and add a two-yuan egg and complimentary tomatoes to a plain water hotpot base – also free – for a simple tomato egg drop soup.

Tips such as these to save money at hotpot chain Haidilao have become popular on Chinese social media, but if the response to one woman’s post is any indication, some feel that customers are going too far and taking advantage of the restaurant.

Haidilao’s restaurants are known not just for their signature Sichuan-style hotpot soup, but also for offering a comprehensive dining experience. They have free snacks, condiments and side dishes, as well as services such as manicures and shoe-polishing for waiting customers.

Free fruits are among the attractions at hotpot chain Haidilao. PHOTO: Weibo

The restaurants do not have a minimum spend, making it possible for some customers to access the freebies at a very affordable rate by being conscientious about what they order.

According to a screenshot shared on microblogging site Weibo on Thursday (April 15), a woman with two children wrote that she “could not resist” bringing her children to Haidilao “for the experience” after seeing online tips to save money at the restaurants while making use of the free services.

The table of three went to a Haidilao branch in Xiamen, in eastern China’s Fujian province, and spent 27 yuan in total – ordering a free water soup base, a half portion of rice noodles, one raw egg and one bowl of rice.

A mother in Xiamen attracted flak after she took her two children to the famous Haidilao hot pot chain to have a meal for 27 yuan and complained about the restaurant's service. PHOTO: Weibo

According to the post, which was originally made on social commerce platform Xiaohongshu , the woman found the experience “awkward” at first and was at a loss as to how to make a meal out of the items ordered.

A waitress came to the rescue, bringing over toys for her children, as well as some free food, including tomatoes, steamed eggs and fruits. The waitress also helped to prepare a tomato and egg soup base with the ingredients for the children to have with rice, and made a sour and spicy sauce to mix with the rice noodles.

But this did not stop the customer from complaining about the service.

“I had a full meal but felt very awkward… The waitresses looked a bit unhappy about the low spending,” she wrote.

“Yes some food was served for free but the service attitude made me feel embarrassed – they didn’t serve me water when I was waiting to have my nails done.”

The waitress helped prepare tomato and egg soup for the children to mix with the rice, according to the social media post. PHOTO: Weibo

As of Friday afternoon, the original post on Xiaohongshu appeared to have been taken down. A Weibo post by another user sharing the screenshot and photos on Thursday attracted more than 570,000 reactions and 22,600 comments.

Many were critical of the original poster, who was not identified in the screenshots, accusing her of “acting like a beggar”.

“Why don’t you buy some food and cook at home rather than humiliate yourself at Haidilao?” one internet user wrote. “And what were you thinking to bring your children along, what kind of example were you setting? Restaurants need to make a profit and service staff need to get paid.”

A photo posted on Weibo showing two children at Haidilao, with a plain water hotpot base and complimentary dishes. PHOTO: Weibo

“People go to hotpot for good food, what were you after? Just to eat tomatoes, eggs, rice or noodles? Why?” another asked.

The Post contacted the Haidilao restaurant based on a photo of the family’s receipt shared on Weibo. A manager who identified herself only by her family name, Yang, said she could not confirm whether the woman and her children ate at the restaurant as she was not on duty on that day, but that customers would not be treated differently based on how much they spent. 

She added that the restaurant did not have a minimum spending threshold and that it was not for staff to consider whether the amount that customers spent would cover the cost of free services at the restaurant.

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.