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Squeaky Clean

Established to address rising labour costs and cope with worker shortage, Hong Kong’s first centralised dishwashing company, Diwash, offers restaurants the opportunity to outsource the dirtiest of tasks, washing dishes.

With plants in Chai Wan, Siu Sai Wan and Kwai Chung, washing dishes for more than 150 clients, Diwash currently has more than 100 employees on its books. It plans to open another factory later this year in Yau Tong and take on about 20 new workers, says co-founder Ricky Au, who also operates 10 restaurants in Hong Kong with partner Alex Liu.

Soapy Concept

Ricky Au
Ricky Au, co-founder of Diwash

Mr Au returned to Hong Kong about 10 years ago after studying in Vancouver and opened a restaurant in bustling Causeway Bay district. When a minimum wage was introduced five years ago, the restaurateur encountered difficulties hiring dishwashers and would often end up doing the job himself. “I began to wonder why I have invested so much money and I’m washing the dishes?” He was keen to expand his business, but worried that finding dishwashers would be one of the biggest headaches.

At that time, Mr Au was also enrolled in an F&B programme at the Institute of Vocational Education, which gave him the idea to establish a start-up that would complement his existing business. “I started thinking, ‘since there are centralised factories to produce food, why not have a centralised dishwashing factory?’ The idea’s the same, it’s just the product that’s different.”

Set up with an investment of HK$1 million, the first factory opened in Chai Wan with most of the dishes initially coming from his restaurants. “At first, it was just a back-up for ourselves, then six months later, people started asking us, ‘why don’t you need to wash the dishes?’ and so we began selling the idea to others.”

Addressing Staffing Issues

While centralised dishwashing businesses exist elsewhere in Asia, including on the Chinese mainland and Taiwan, Diwash was a first for Hong Kong. But it wasn’t plain sailing to begin with. Mr Au recalls being rebuffed by some restaurant owners when they tried introducing the service.

Four years since, more businesses are now receptive to the idea, with prospective clients – including hospitals in addition to restaurants – now seeking them out.

While the introduction of a minimum wage has benefited dishwashers, the job remains one of the most undesirable in the F&B industry, and cramped conditions in Hong Kong make the role particularly unattractive. “Dishwashing areas in Hong Kong restaurants are often very small, and the staff have many tasks to complete,” says Mr Au.

After experiencing difficulties in finding and retaining dishwashing staff, Mr Au was keen to make it an attractive proposition by putting worker satisfaction high on the agenda. Mr Au says turnover in Diwash’s factories, each of which are staffed by about 20 workers, is relatively low for several reasons.

“We try to create a pleasant environment for them to work in, so there’s air- conditioning and staff also have a 10-minute break every two hours. We also offer flexible schedules; some staff may only work in the morning so they can pick up their kids from school, for example.” Effective communication is also key. “Every time we get a new client, we have a meeting with all the staff and share with them what the client is looking for. This makes them feel important.”

Copycat Companies

Mr Au says Diwash has spawned many copycat firms since their business started. “Two years ago, about 50 dishwashing factories existed in Hong Kong, but now there’s only 15 to 20 left, as many have realised it’s tough to run such an operation successfully.”

Many failed to replicate the company’s success, he says, because they misunderstand the concept. “They set up by spending HK$100,000 on a small machine, but they didn't pay attention to details like logistics and customer service, so they ended up closing down very fast.”

While Mr Au concedes it’s easy to set up a factory cheaply, the running costs and day-to-day operations can pose many problems. “Many think running a dishwashing factory is an easy job, but in addition to the washing, you need to think about logistics, human resources, marketing, which are all difficult to handle. Logistics is in fact the most important because if we can’t deliver on time, that’s the end of our contract.”

Equipment Challenge

Mr Au says one of their greatest concerns is improving the quality of service. It has developed a specialised machine for cleaning cutlery, which is one of the dishwashing factory’s hardest jobs. After developing a prototype, the company collaborated with a mainland factory to build the machine for them.

Diwash also hopes to engage the services of engineering graduates to help develop new dishwashing machines to clean specific tableware and cutlery. “Every year, we work with PolyU (Hong Kong Polytechnic University), which sends engineering students to do R&D for us.”

With most of its business coming from restaurants, Mr Au says they want to target higher-end customers such as hotels. “The problem is transportation, as the glass gets broken when moved.”

Once the Yau Tong factory starts operation later this year, Mr Au wants to continue expanding to add one or two more factories in Hong Kong within the next two to three years. “It would be hard to take the concept to China as it already has its own system in place for more than 10 years,” says Mr Au. “But Macau is a place we’re also considering, as it’s close to Hong Kong.”

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