Part 1 of a three-part series by Emma James, a Mei Mei intern who spent the past month interviewing our staff, guests and suppliers on our people, food & culture.
From the beginning, Mei Mei’s first ambitious goal has been to support sustainable, responsible food-growing practices, but more recently, Mei Mei has been looking at human welfare in the food industry itself.
Emily Ko, Mei Mei’s sous-chef for six years, having just recently departed for California, pointed out that “people will go to a fancy restaurant and ask, ‘how was this cow raised before it became my burger?’ but nobody really asks, ‘how’s the dishwasher treated, what are they being paid, and what kind of crazy hours are they working?’” Business Manager Caden Salvata, who’s been with Mei Mei since July 2012, described a philosophical shift over the past few years, “yes, animal welfare is important, yes, the environment is important, but also, this is an industry that’s notoriously [challenging] for its employees, and human welfare is also something we should be striving towards.”
The living hourly wage for a single adult supporting him or herself in Boston is $14.11 as of today, but minimum wage is $11.00, and for tipped employees, as are common in the restaurant industry, the hourly minimum is $3.75. Restaurants often pay “back of house” positions, such as dishwashers, bussers, and even chefs, minimum wage with long, late hours, and rely on tips to pay “front of house” server positions -- a practice wrought with discrimination, harassment, and worker exploitation. The work, in the front and behind the scenes alike, is physically taxing and stressful, and restaurants often hire workers part-time or temporarily to avoid covering benefits. Furthermore, because the turnover rate in the industry is so high, overworked and underpaid employees usually face the my-way-or-the-highway norm, and in turn, might (and often, deserve to) hold embittered attitudes towards the work.
Mei Mei has approached this immensely-flawed industry with the focal question, “How do we make staff care because we care?” as co-founder and owner Irene Li shared in her keynote speech at an event called “Food For Thought” early in May this year. She described the Open-Book Management system at Mei Mei, introduced April 2017 in collaboration with ReThink Restaurants, in three key steps: educate all staff members in restaurant finance, speak openly about and solicit feedback on Mei Mei’s P&L (“profit and loss” statement), and reward staff with profit sharing and other team-challenge incentives. This progressive strategy helps retain staff, pay them better, and create a “culture to work hard and use our brains and be rewarded for it.” In even more recent, exciting news, Mei Mei will begin offering health insurance to staff who work at least 30 hours per week.
Aidan Dunbar, a full-time front-of-house server, describes himself as a “curious, nerdy dude,” but admits that “finances were never really [his] strong suit,” so he found the curriculum “fascinating,” and “like[s] working at the kind of place that would invest in its employees.” Aidan recalled when he’d just started, nearly a year ago, and was asked for feedback “immediately,” and initially replied, “I don’t know how to improve a business,” but reflected that he now “knows how to make suggestions that aren’t ridiculous,” and is encouraged to. He appreciates that management at Mei Mei is “open and transparent about how things are done, and showing me the whole picture, which makes everything just much clearer.”
Open-Book Management, groundbreaking for the industry, further supports Mei Mei’s culture of openness, honesty, feedback, and teamwork. Caden, a self-declared “champion of self-evaluation and reflection,” led a series of team challenges where staff played a direct role in improving the company. The first was to hit a 2% revenue increase in alcohol sales, the second was to cut down on COGS - “cost of goods sold,” a term that refers to the cost of ingredients as well as disposables needed to serve food - and the third, to get sixteen Yelp reviews above 4.25 stars within a four-week period. Not only did staff members brainstorm and apply strategic and creative ideas, but they were also rewarded with bonuses: for example, during the COGS challenge, all the money that the teams saved for the restaurant in that financial period of four weeks was given back to the staff who participated in the challenge.
Mei Mei’s emphasis on personal responsibility, teamwork, and feedback extends as far as its employee performance review program, which involves a “360-degree review,” a system of anonymous feedback from everyone in the company, supervisor or supervisee.
The Mei Mei profit sharing model divides the profit surpassing a predetermined threshold among staff members according to hours spent working, regardless of position, and “will help to give some extra compensation to our most full-time and dedicated employees, some of whom wouldn’t necessarily see some of those benefits,” Emily shared. In addition, Mei Mei recently transitioned to biweekly tip-pooling the front-of-house tips, in an effort to treat server labor hours more equally, and eventually eliminate the need for tipping altogether.
Moving forward, Irene spoke of her hope that “everyone can do everything” in the restaurant, from working directly with guests to helping with prep to checking the books. Although more employee training costs the restaurant more upfront, Mei Mei hopes this increased flexibility will further solidify mutual appreciation and broader thinking among the staff, as well as keep the job interesting! It’s ambitious, but the Mei Mei sense of teamwork and mutual-respect “originally comes from this being a family business, where we all care about each other and we know each other as people first and coworkers second, and we all want each other to succeed,” Irene shared. “Pretty much anyone in the restaurant will drop what they’re doing if you have something that needs to be finished urgently and you can’t do it.” Furthermore, because Mei Mei is a “really democratic organization where we’re not requiring you to have two years of experience,” Irene said, “ to be a great employee, you need the right tools and resources and training, and if you’re not doing your job, it probably means that we [the managers] are not doing our job.”
Mei Mei’s truly putting their money where their mouth is: “better food, better jobs.”
is a Mei Mei blog contributor interested in journalism and environmental law and equity. She recently graduated from Milton Academy in nearby Milton, Mass, and soon sets sail for Columbia University in NYC. Her favorite Mei Mei dishes are the Double Awesome, the Beef & Brocc, the Roasted Honey Carrots, and the Black Bean Broccoli!