Chef Irene Li of Boston-based Mei Mei shifted the business to dumpling making amid the pandemic; 10 years after founding it with her siblings, Li sees growth and recognition

Chef Irene Li’s Boston-based business Mei Mei — which means “little sister” in Mandarin Chinese — originally started out as a family-run restaurant 10 years ago where she and her two older siblings specialized in dining, catering and ran an Asian fusion food truck called Mei Mei Street Kitchen.

Now the youngest sister has come firmly to the helm of the business a decade later following her siblings’ departures, having shifted its focus amid the COVID-19 pandemic to dumpling making. The shift is proving successful, all while earning Li some impressive recognitions as the business of dumpling making continues to grow.

The three siblings grew up in Boston with Li’s brother coming up with the idea to jump on a food truck trend in 2011 that was also representative of the family’s Chinese-American heritage, Li said.

Li’s older brother asked his two younger sisters to join him in the venture, to which they agreed she added, so long as the company was named after them, hence “Mei Mei.”

By 2013 the siblings had opened their own restaurant — primarily out of a need to operate their own kitchen Li said — and expanded capacity more into catering. Catering came to represent 40% of their overall business prior to the pandemic, she added.

“In particular, our dumplings were super popular,” Li said in an interview with MassLive. “Everybody loves dumplings. Every culture has its own version of a dumpling. And so even as we were taking on all of this catering, we never had enough capacity for dumpling making.”

Li had been originally intending on opening two more restaurants in 2020, but pivoted amid the pandemic to refocus Mei Mei on its dumpling production.

One aspect that took off and helped the business weather the pandemic was its already popular dumpling making classes which were moved online and were “incredibly successful” according to Li, particularly among corporate clients.

For its virtual classes, Mei Mei ships kits across the country with all the ingredients and components one would need to use in their own kitchens while they follow along live, Li said.

While still mostly virtual, the dumpling making classes can accommodate up to a few hundred individuals at a time have returned to in person as well, Li said. Recent in person classes have taken place at breweries such as in Cambridge and Lowell she added.

Dumplings made by Boston-based Mei Mei

“It’s not a really hard dish to make,” Li said. “But it really helps to have someone who’s teaching you live. And so we feel like the goal of those classes is just to get people kind of having fun and being creative in the kitchen.”

At the height of the pandemic Li said Mei Mei couldn’t train enough instructors to meet demand for the classes popular with adults and children alike.

After having doubled down on dumpling making, Mei Mei intends to expand beyond its 506 Park Drive headquarters in Boston’s Fenway-Kenmore neighborhood with a new second location in South Boston later this year, Li said.

The South Boston location will have a wing dedicated to dumpling production further increasing the business’ output, she added.

While selling dumplings from its storefront, Mei Mei also plans to sell its dumplings in nearly three dozen farmer markets in and around Boston by this summer from Andover in the north to Hingham in the south and from Salem in the east to Westborough in the west.

Mei Mei is also looking toward the wholesale market to have its products appear in stores, Li added.

The business’s dumpling varieties include its most popular “lemongrass pork,” a more traditional kind of Asian flavor profile, Li said.

However, Mei Mei also branches out in its dumpling flavors too including a “cheddar scallion potato” dumpling — Mei Mei’s “love letter to the pierogi and the knish,” according to Li — in addition to its “curried sweet potato” flavor made with a French curry powder and its “cumin lamb dumpling.”

During the pandemic, Mei Mei also introduced “dessert dumplings,” consisting of a fruit-flavored pie filling pressed and sealed into a dumpling which Li described as “kind of like fancy toast strudels, they’re so good.”

“These are mostly not your grandma’s dumplings, not my grandma’s dumplings,” Li said, but added that Mei Mei’s flavor palate is really inspired by what there is available in New England, where growing seasons can be limited.

Mei Mei Dumpling Stand

A mobile stand for Boston-based Mei Mei.

The company is passionate about supporting local food infrastructure, Li said, whose business works with 20 to 40 farms over the course of the year.

“We really like supporting food hubs and aggregators that are trying to make local food accessible for not just chefs, but also schools, hospitals, community organizations, stuff like that,” Li said.

About 70% of Mei Mei’s produce is bought locally or regionally in New England or New York, Li said, adding that all of the company’s meat is regionally sourced and comes from animals that are raised on pasture as well.

Mei Mei’s success has not gone unnoticed by critics. Li has received six nominations for the “Rising Star Chef” award from the James Beard Foundation — considered one of the most prestigious awards in the world of food — as well as recently won a James Beard Leadership Award, becoming the youngest recipient, according to WBUR.

Li said the recognition is a “huge honor” not only for her but also for all of the employees of Mei Mei.

“For everyone who’s ever worked at Mei Mei, we’ve had almost 200 employees over 10 years, and I always feel like I can only do the stuff I do because I have so many amazing people who are on the team,” Li said .

While Li says she has enjoyed a lot of privilege in her life thanks to the support she has had, the significance of the recognition and hearing from experiences of others in the industry who have felt less welcome in the culinary world due their gender or background is not lost on her.

Boston Mayor Michelle Wu also gave Li a personal shoutout online following news of her award win, writing that Mei Mei is “a shining example of how delicious food can bring communities together—even in the face of tremendous uncertainty. Boston is so proud of you!”

“That was awesome,” Li said of Wu’s shoutout.

Li said she resonates with Wu’s personal story, especially given the mayor’s background in food and food service having previously run a tea shop and knowing much of the red tape involved for those who wish to operate a small business.

Dumpling Making

A photo from the book “Double Awesome Chinese Food” with Chef Irene Li of Boston. Photo by Michael Piazza.

Li took over the business from her siblings in 2018 now with new partners, but the Li siblings all remain in the world of food. Her brother Andrew now operates Flora’s Wine Bar in West Newton and her sister Margaret operates the website Food Waste Feast, to help consumers utilize the food they already have and reduce food waste.

Li said she was only 22 when Mei Mei first opened and had only worked in one kitchen at the time. The business she started with her siblings just marked its 10 year anniversary this April.

“They trusted me in a way that like no sane business owner ever would have,” Li said of her older siblings. “They really trusted me and gave me the chance to do something that a lot of people never have the chance to do.”

In addition to her work at Mei Mei, Li has been working on a digital tool currently in beta called Prepshift to help restaurant owners and workers stay on the same page, particularly amid onboarding, in an industry where turnover reaches 50 percent within the first two months of employment, Li said.

The service, which will be offered in free and paid versions Li said, is meant to allow owners to provide their employees with interactive reliable information that is easy to digest and remember, but also easy to refer back to — all in an effort to save time and reduce turnover — according to its website.

“The goal is to kind of empower business owners to be the kind of boss that they would love to have, and to give employees more opportunity to learn and develop and not just be kind of a cog inserted into the machine,” Li said.

Li added she works on the board of different anti-hunger and food organizations in Boston including Haley House, Lovin’ Spoonfuls and Project Bread and uses Mei Mei’s network to support legislation and organizations committed to feeding those in need.

Related Content:

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.