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Hi-Lai Harbour Restaurant

High-class Seafood at Reasonable Prices


High-class Seafood at Reasonable Prices


Hi-Lai Harbour, a buffet restaurant chain founded in Kaohsiung, has established outlets in department stores in all of Taiwan's five major cities. The group's revenue growth tops the list of hospitality businesses in our 2016 Top 2000 Survey.



High-class Seafood at Reasonable Prices

By Yi-ting Lin
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 597 )

The sixth five-star Grand Hi-Lai Harbour Restaurant opened last October in the Taipei Sogo department store complex. It has been packed with fine food connoisseurs ever since.

This newcomer to Taipei's restaurant scene arrives with a fine reputation in southern Taiwan. The forty-third floor of the Grand Hi Lai Hotel in Kaohsiung is home to the original Hi-Lai Harbour Restaurant, which has earned a reputation as the top choice in buffet-style restaurants in the southern part of the island.

It's not even 5:30 on a Friday afternoon, yet a sizable queue of patrons waiting to get in has already begun to form. Looking out the window, the grand presence of Kaohsiung harbor in the distance and the seafood theme décor throughout the restaurant complement each other. The new Hi-Lai Harbour carries this stature and momentum to its expansion into its new territory further north, bringing with it revenue growth as well.

Last year the Hi-Lai Foods Co., Hi-Lai Harbour's parent company, recorded revenue of nearly NT$2.9 billion, for almost 33% growth. This figure was leagues beyond the average 2.7% growth recorded across the food and beverage industry on the year, sufficient to steal the thunder from the Wowprime and Thai Town Cuisine groups. Notably, around one-half of the revenue was generated from the six Hi-Lai Harbour restaurants now established in Taiwan's five largest cities.

The grand debut of this Kaohsiung royalty from hotels to its aggressive expansion of restaurants can be traced back to 2011, when dining at department store complexes became firmly ingrained in the Taiwanese public's habits and preferences. Sensing a change in the wind, Hi-Lai Harbour set to pioneer new territory, opening three new restaurants in 2014-15. While this is by no means an unusual number for most restaurant chains, for a five-star buffet restaurant that occupies over 1,300 square meters, is staffed by over 40 chefs, and must juggle 20,000 types of food, the speed at which Hi-Lai Harbour has gone about its expansion shows the group's keen ambition.

Affordable Seafood Sweet Spot

How can rapid expansion be reconciled with maintaining quality? As Hi-Lai Foods General Manager Sophie Lin explains, coming from a five-star hotel background, Hi-Lai Harbour exercises strict controls, applying comprehensive practices at every step from cost structure and purchasing to the training of chefs and wait staff. Consequently, "Whether it is the food or the service you receive, everything is better than at your average restaurant. And that does not change as more branches are opened," Lin adds.

However, buffet style restaurant service carries a host of challenges and difficulties. First, the sheer number of dishes complicates management, and given the popularity of buffet dining among the Taiwanese public, competition has intensified as major five-star hotels strive to get a piece of the action. So what is Hi-Lai's key to standing out from the crowd?

"We offer a high CP ratio," Lin says without hesitating. "We deliver five-star food, culinary execution, and interior design and appointments, but at a price point lower than that of five-star hotels."

At Hi-Lai Harbour, patrons can enjoy a variety of seafood for over 20 percent less than most five-star hotel buffets. Tables overflow with fresh crab, jumbo shrimp and scallops, and chefs slice as many plump choice cuts of fresh sashimi as customers want. Of the more than 200 dishes served here, seafood accounts for 60 percent.

Shirley Huang, a researcher in the Business Model Innovation Research Division at the Commerce Development Research Institute, offers that buffet restaurants must establish a unique selling point. Emphasizing a fine seafood dining experience at reasonable prices for years, Hi-Lai Harbour shrewdly targeted the Taiwanese taste for seafood and created a market.

The group's reasonable pricing is made possible by its purchasing power. "We have high turnover, with NT$400 million in sales from our Hanshin Arena branch in Kaohsiung per year alone. That's more than twice that of our competitors, and our large number of branches gives us an advantage over others when negotiating freshness and price with our suppliers," explains Sunny Liu , Hi-Lai Harbour Restaurant's Chief Brand Officer.

Hi-Lai Harbour also appeals to customers' palates with variety. In addition to seasonal variations of 20 to 30 percent of the menu, from time to time they hire guest chefs from around the world to introduce even more variety. This April, Japanese master pastry chef Noriyuki Nagai was invited to preside over a celebration of French desserts. "It allowed the public to try different things for the same amount of money," says Liu.

On the outside, customers see variety, freshness, and value; on the inside, it is the system led by the head chef that sets Hi-Lai Harbour apart.

With its background in the hotel industry, the Hi-Lai Foods packs the power of five or six hundred chefs capable of constantly innovating new dishes. The group restaurant manager and brand manager are both head chefs themselves, leaving the kitchen to oversee dining area services, at times even holding up a design plan or financial report as they look after operations.

Dishing Out Service

The restaurant manager, also the head chef, must take frequent strolls around the dining area to keep close tabs on everything from ingredients to food placement, and listen directly to customers to get the best grasp of things outside the kitchen. "When you just hole up in the kitchen and focus only on one dish, it's impossible to see that everything is done just right," Liu says.

The restaurant manager and brand manager oversee branch operations. Design plans in hand, they must discuss layout plans, seating arrangements, and become familiar with financial reporting figures before and after opening for business. They are expected to be well-versed in many areas, a challenge previously unknown to head chefs. "Weaknesses in areas such as finance or communication skills must be improved, and we must get ahead of others and forge the brand," says Liu, himself a highly decorated former head chef.

Led by head chefs, Hi-Lai Harbour has developed a niche for itself apart from other buffet restaurant brands outside the five-star hotels. According to industry observers, the rigorous training and exceptional culinary skills of hotel head chefs are an advantage and asset as hotels seek to establish affiliated restaurant branches. Hi-Lai Harbour's strict attention to ingredients and personnel has fueled its growth and propelled its northward expansion, pioneering new territory for fine cuisine.

Translated from the Chinese by David Toman