Irene Li, the owner and chef at Mei Mei’s, a Chinese restaurant located in Boston, and a finalist for Rising Star Chef at the James Beard Awards, is pulling every lever she can to keep it alive during the pandemic.
Located in the Audubon Circle neighborhood of Boston, in proximity to Fenway Park and Kenmore Square, Mei Mei started out as a food truck in 2013. It morphed into a brick and mortar restaurant with 36 seats in 2014, and became known for its double scallion pancake sandwich, cranberry sage pork dumplings and scallion pierogi dumplings.
In its inception, Mei Mei was a family affair, run by three siblings of the Li family, not just Irene. Andy Li was in management at several fine dining eateries, Margaret, whose nickname was Mei, was an entrepreneur and an MBA, and Irene, a graduate of Cornell University, had line cook experience. Together they established a formidable trio.
The three siblings raised the capital to launch Mei Mei. They bootstrapped it, borrowing money from friends and family, and generating $40,000 via Kickstarter.
But Andy left to get married and had children before opening Flora’s, a wine bar in nearby West Newton, and Mei got married and had children and concentrated on writing cookbooks, leaving Li, the youngest sister, as sole proprietor.
From early on, they opted to diversify and produce several revenue streams, not just the restaurant. For example, they created a sauce line in 2014, but that was discontinued two years later.
MORE FOR YOU
Li’s being nominated for a James Beard Award enhanced the restaurant’s recognition, extending its profile and brand.
The pandemic devastated its business. Li says that its revenue plummeted about 80%. She noted that prior to Covid’s striking, catering generated about 40% of its business and that vanished.
Creating new revenues was the only way to keep Mei Mei alive, during this crippling pandemic.
For example, it organizes virtual classes online, including dumpling-making, hand-pulled noodles, and wok dishes. Classes last 90 minutes and appeal to corporate clients, groups and friends, and individual online students.
It also sells its signature dumplings as a prepared food at both the restaurant and at farmer’s markets.
In addition, it offers delivery through DoorDash and its Toast service. Prior to Covid, it partnered with a variety of third-party vendors.
Currently, Li says its revenue is split by 33% each by the following: 1) restaurant sales from pick-up and delivery, 2) virtual classes and 3) farmer’s markets.
Though Boson permits indoor dining in a limited capacity with tables separated six feet apart, Li has opted not to restore it.
“We’re a small restaurant with an open kitchen and can’t modify our HVAC system. It doesn’t seem safe to me personally,” she says and doesn’t want to put her staff of eight employees (she once had 25 employees) at risk.
Being adaptive is critical to sustaining Mei Mei in some capacity. “We anticipate another closure. Everything is so unstable. We don’t want to put all of our eggs in one basket,” she says.
She envisions that producing packaged goods in its kitchen that sell in supermarkets is one way to keep the business alive in the future. Besides the steamed dumplings, it also offers thai-style curry meals and vegetarian beans.
Currently, the packaged goods can be purchased at Mei Mei’s and at several other eateries, through colleagues and friends, across the Boston area.
Keeping an independent eatery alive is no easy task. “We only have a couple of months of operating expenses in the bank at any given time,” she admits.
Though Mei Mei received Paycheck Protection Program funding, her landlord has not reduced its rent, and its lease lasts another two years.
In the next year, she expects that Mei Mei will continue to operate from the same address “but it’ll look more like a factory than a restaurant.”
Many customers know the brand and, she hopes, will be attracted to buying its products, either from the restaurant or farmer’s markets, and eventually supermarkets, taking out dinners, or attending its online classes.
She envisions the restaurant industry’s undergoing major upheaval. She sees it “being hollowed out. We’ll only have fine dining and chains, and we may lose the independents.”