Interview #7: Irene Li of Mei Mei
"People’s consumption habits are really changing, but they still want to eat dumplings, and we need to figure out how to take that to the bank."
About a decade ago, I was reporting a piece for Boston magazine about pork belly buns, and came across a soon-to-open food truck, Mei Mei, in my research. While I interviewed Irene Li’s sister Mei for the piece, I met Irene when the duo brought their pork buns to the accompanying photoshoot—along with cookies they’d baked as a treat for those on set.
As a food truck and later a restaurant, Mei Mei was a special place, combining the Chinese-American flavors that Irene (along with siblings and co-founders Mei and Andy) grew up with in Brookline with an outspoken mission of supporting area farmers. Over the years, I’ve eaten many of their “magical” kale salads—with its fried egg and crispy panko topping—their warming curried veggies, and, of course, dumplings, deep fried until golden and filled with everything from pork and cranberries to cheesy mashed potatoes.
Earlier this spring, Irene and her partners decided to transition Mei Mei away from a restaurant business and into a dumpling business—and after a successful fundraising campaign, have just launched national dumpling shipping (!!!!).
In the years since opening Mei Mei, Irene’s local food advocacy has expanded to encompass small business owners (she’s now the Program Manager of the Restaurant Resiliency Initiative at CommonWealth Kitchen), the Boston community (she helped found Project Restore Us, an incredible nonprofit that distributes culturally appropriate groceries to people facing food insecurity), and the restaurant industry writ large (see: her Medium piece 8 Totally Achievable Ways to Show Up for Racial Justice When You’re White and Own an Asian Restaurant). All this is to say, she was a vital influence as I shaped the mission of this newsletter.
I’m sharing our conversation below in an as-told-to format, in Irene’s words, as she had no shortage of insightful information to share. Learn about Mei Mei’s creative dumpling flavors, the importance of supporting other stuffed-food makers, and the reason that Mei Mei decided to double down on all things dumplings ahead—and if you find yourself wanting to eat some, head straight to Mei Mei’s new site and place an order.
Some of my earliest memories are of dim sum, of being out at Chinese restaurants, and making dumplings at home with my family. I don't think I was a picky kid, but I if I didn't really want to eat other stuff that was going on, there were always dumplings available to me. They're just something that have always been in my life—I suspect that I consumed many dumplings while in utero, so indirectly, at least since then.
Dumplings were part of Mei Mei from the very beginning. We wanted to avoid being a dumpling truck solely, because we felt like there was more that we were going to be able to do. But we definitely felt like dumplings were an easy way to get people's attention. You can put any number of things in a dumpling, and people are still really excited about it, just because it's a dumpling. Our farm-focused Chinese-American cuisine was not easily summed-up in a short phrase, but you can always end a sentence with, ‘…and we make lots of dumplings.’ And then people are like, ‘Okay, I'm on board now.’
In the beginning, I was pretty much heading up the kitchen side of things. So many of our ideas just came from having leftovers, and not a significant-enough amount to feed everyone another whole meal. But you can turn them into dumplings, and all of a sudden you have a lot more food for people. I think that's why the stuffed food is so ubiquitous across cultures, because it helps you create a lot out of a little.
The first flavor was the beef and blue cheese dumpling, which has made a few cameos over the years. We also had a smoked tofu dumpling, and that has morphed into some of our other tofu options. The cumin lamb dumplings are one of my all-time favorites, and they come back intermittently. We used to make a pork dumpling with fresh baby ginger from Allendale Farm. Those were a labor of love, and they were expensive because of the ginger. But I do remember those being so delicious and delicate.
The changes we’ve made over time were part creative choice, part operational choice. At first, we were making all of our dumplings completely from-scratch by hand. We were also really getting up and running as a catering business as well, and for catering, every client wanted dumplings. One of the things that influenced us to make the change to pre-made wrappers was that we found that the brand Twin Marquis made a thicker dumpling wrapper than what you would typically see in stores. I totally fell in love with that wrapper, and was like, ‘Okay, now that we have this, maybe we should make the change.’
Growing up, we have always had Chinese folks who helped my parents out around the house, either babysitting the kids, or later on when my dad was sick, after he developed Alzheimer's, as caretakers. Two of the women who work at Mei Mei right now started out with our family. And so at this point, I've known both of them for probably 10 to 15 years.
One of our team members, Hui Zhen Ni, used to make pasta at Shepherd1. She is very dextrous, and works really fast. And we actually just brought another person on, her name is Liping Yang, and she makes the brand Yang's Dumplings. They’re delicious. Prior to the pandemic she had a contract with the Encore casino to make dumplings—I’m not sure how long she’s going to be able to keep working with us, but in recognizing that, ‘Okay, here's another dumpling master, and we need the help,’ we brought her on as well, which has been really great.
Since the pandemic, we have basically trained everyone to make dumplings, so now, pretty much anyone can fold dumplings for Mei Mei. Right now we're making about 6,000 per week2 and have 10 people on the team, a mix of part-timers and full-timers, and we're hiring. There are some shapes that require a little bit more skill and experience, and some that are more forgiving.
I sometimes marvel at the fact that people will pay what we charge3 for the dumplings. But I've also made lots of dumplings, and I know how much work it is. So we're really trying to not undervalue this food.
There was an article about one of the dumpling places in Brooklyn's Chinatown, that sold five dumplings for $1.00. They did an interview with the owner, and basically, the owner was like, ‘What do you mean, I have 1,000 reviews on Yelp? I don't know what Yelp is.’ Then, ‘I don't know if I can charge more for my food, or if people only come here because it's five dumplings for $1.00.’
This person has basically lived hand-to-mouth because the food is so cheap. And I think that is a sad state of affairs, when you could get six ravioli at an Italian restaurant, that are smaller than that, and pay, I don't know, $24.00 or something like that. And so, this person is boxed in by the concept, and the level of value that we ascribe to this food. That makes me really sad. If charging more for them means that other people can charge more too, that would be a really great outcome, in my opinion.
When we started selling dumplings at farmers’ markets, we started noticing more and more vendors selling a stuffed food of some kind. In Wayland, for example, we were between an empanada company, a tamale company and a pierogi company. We would joke, ‘Oh, this is the stuffed foods alley over here.’ At the same time, it was also like, we could really just have one booth at the farmer's market, where we sold all these things, instead of having four booths, and paying four staff people, and paying four sets of market fees. But most markets don't allow people to share booths in quite that way. So we started thinking, ‘Okay, we still have the Mei Mei storefront in Boston. Maybe we can do something that aggregates and supports these other businesses straight from Park Drive.’
We also still have a really sizable social media following, and for a lot of new businesses, getting the tech and the digital marketing done is a big challenge. The idea that we could also leverage our community that we've already built was a huge win. So we're selling different stuffed foods from a variety of local makers and just testing the market [ed note: While these were originally sold as a “Filled With Love” bundle, they can now be purchased a la carte locally on Mei Mei’s site].
From a consumer perspective, if you are committed to buying local, to supporting small businesses, to supporting women and immigrant-owned businesses, there are just not a lot of places that have that kind of selection. The response has been awesome.
Through the pandemic, we had done a lot of different pivots, and nothing really took off. Most things just worked well enough, with the exception of classes, which did take off. Going to the farmers' market was a ray of sunshine after many, many months of clouds. At the farmers' markets, people were so happy to see us, and we sold out every single time.
It gives you a little bit of confidence in a time when everything is terrible, to know that as many dumplings as you can bring to Belmont, you're going to sell them all. As we started looking more strategically long-term at where we wanted Mei Mei to be, it made less and less sense for us to try to reopen the restaurant.
There was also part of me that didn't want to rebuild—I wanted to build something new. And my business partners and my team felt the same way. We felt like, ‘Okay. We don't want to lose what Mei Mei is, and we don't want to lose the platform we've built, and the community we have fostered.’ It became pretty obvious to us that people’s consumption habits are really changing, but they still want to eat dumplings, and we need to figure out how to take that to the bank.
We are creating a new legal entity for the dumpling company, and we are also buying a machine to help us with some of the production, which is very exciting. I would say it's more of an evolution than a closing shop and opening a different one. But at a certain point we're probably going to look for a new space, where we can produce more and store more.
We’ve tried to move relatively slowly in terms of making these changes, because we have a lot of loyal guests, and we want to let them down easy, if we can. And also, give them things to be excited about, like the Filled With Love bundles, which is not the same as old Mei Mei, but is maybe better in some ways.
—As told to Leah Mennies
The above interview was condensed and edited. Interview subjects are paid an honorarium for taking the time to share their knowledge and experience.
A very lovely Cambridge restaurant that closed in 2018
Thanks to a forthcoming dumpling machine, that number will be going up to around 12,000
$16 for a pack of 12; $48 for three 12-packs