Dishwashing factory meets demand for Hong Kong's growing fine dining scene

Diwash dynamos Ricky Au (left) and Alex Liu

An increase in fine dining and a decrease in unskilled labour prove to be the perfect combination for two innovative restaurant owners.

By Ben Richardson

Diwash, a centralised pot-scrubbing and crockery service, takes the sweat out of dishwashing for Hong Kong’s restaurants.

Hong Kong restaurant owners Ricky Au and Alex Liu knew something was wrong when they found themselves spending hours bent over the sinks in their own restaurants because they couldn’t hire enough dishwashers.

Cramped and often sweltering conditions, low pay and a tight labour market have created a chronic shortage of pot-scrubbers for the city’s more than 24,000 eateries. “Since Hong Kong people are becoming more educated and wealthy, you don’t have new people entering this kind of job,” Au explains.

So they set out to fix the problem. The result: Hong Kong’s first centralised dishwashing factory. Three years on, Au and Liu’s Diwash Ltd services about 100 customers, with a fleet of trucks ferrying crates of tableware between their three factories to restaurants, schools and canteens. They’ve also spawned an entire industry of copycats in the Chinese territory.

Their original plan was to meet their own restaurants’ needs, not start a business. Just as well. The pair learned a lot from their mistakes, both as a service provider and a customer. And there were plenty of mistakes, especially in a “kind of terrible” first month or two.

“Unexpected things happened,” recalls Au. “We learned we always needed to have extra drivers sitting in the office. We needed extra trucks sitting in the factory. Even we needed to know how to drive.”

At one point, the factory lost its water supply. On another occasion, the entire workforce failed to show up. Then there were car crashes and traffic jams.

“Our business seems like it’s cleaning, but in fact it’s logistics,” explains Liu. “We are focused on solving a logistics problem because we are selling a commitment. We need to deliver the dishes on time, no matter what the traffic or weather problems.”

Initially, the pair focused on their own outlets, learning the business through trial and error. Then their friends and contacts in the restaurant trade began to ask to see the factories and the word spread. After 18 months they opened their second factory and the business took off.

“Our business seems like it’s cleaning, but in fact it’s logistics.”

The concept of centralised dishwashing services isn’t unique to Hong Kong, however the city presented challenges that required new solutions, the pair explains. In neighbouring mainland China, for example, Au estimates that more than half of the restaurants outsource dishwashing. Hong Kong’s diverse cuisines make such standardisation impossible.

Existing machinery wasn’t up to the task of processing Hong Kong’s huge variety of different plates, dishes, glasses and cutlery. So they designed their own production lines.

Their newest plant, in the Kwai Chung industrial area, is bright, spacious and air-conditioned – a far cry from the typical conditions for a Hong Kong kitchen worker. Rather than spending hours up to their elbows in scalding water, workers simply scrape and rinse dishes and load them onto the conveyor for cleaning with superheated steam.

Au and Liu are now fielding calls from owners setting up new restaurants who want to build Diwash’s services into their plans from the start. More factories are on the horizon, and the pair are expanding into sales of washing machine lines to bigger restaurants that want to retain some in-house capacity.

The pair is also helping tackle Hong Kong’s crisis levels of waste by targeting school lunch services that use mountains of disposable lunch boxes that clog up landfills.

One piece of advice

Mistakes are useful. Au and Liu had a “kind of terrible” start, but it meant they ironed out problems, and added extra drivers and trucks. And they wanted to get it right. “We have a strong vision of this industry … to solve the problems of the restaurants, improve the working environment and reduce waste,” says Au.

This article is from the May 2015 issue of INTHEBLACK.

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