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Robots are serving spicy soup at Haidilao’s hotpot restaurants

[TOKYO] In Haidilao International Holding's hotpot restaurants, robots are replacing chefs and waiters.

Asia's biggest listed restaurant chain by market value is partnering with Japan's Panasonic Corp. to open what the two companies say is the world's first eatery with a fully automated kitchen on Oct 28 in Beijing. At the new Haidilao restaurant, robots will take orders, prepare and deliver raw meat and fresh vegetables to customers to plop into soups prepared at their tables.

The automation will lower labour costs and boost efficiency, underpinning Haidilao's plan to expand to as many as 5,000 restaurants worldwide, the companies said. Panasonic also supplies batteries to power Tesla's electric cars.

"It could be difficult to expand to that size in terms of personnel, so Haidilao is shifting earlier to an operation that doesn't rely so much on manual labour," said Jun Yamashita, managing director of Ying Hai Holding Pte., the Singapore-based joint venture Haidilao and Panasonic have set up. "That's where Panasonic's technology comes in."

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The joint venture was started with an investment of US$20 million, according to the companies. Haidilao has plans to expand the automated restaurants gradually in China and later overseas.

Haidilao became Asia's first eatery chain to surpass US$10 billion in market value when it held its initial public offering in Hong Kong last month. The company has more than 360 locations around the world including Japan, the US and Taiwan.

The chain's billionaire chairman Zhang Yong said that when he first started Haidilao 24 years ago, the restaurant business seemed "centuries" out of date. With technology, he's set out to run more efficient restaurants.

Mr Zhang pointed to advice he received from Alibaba Group Holding  founder Jack Ma in how to think about the business. "Haidilao is not just a restaurant. We're also a company that also does manufacturing and logistics," he said at a briefing in Tokyo on Thursday. "Before the food is brought to the table, it's all a manufacturing process. After that, the service aspect takes over."

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