Part two of a three-part series by Emma James, a Mei Mei intern who spent a month interviewing our staff, guests and suppliers on our people, food & culture.
From the beginning, it’s been about making people happy.
Liza Stone, Mei Mei’s front-of-house manager, describes the common characteristic among staff as “very gracious, generous, warm, casual, sincere,” adding that “we wouldn’t hire someone if we didn’t see it naturally in the interview.” The staff at Mei Mei keeps these happy spirits alive not only through smiles and good vibes, but also through a “Surprise and Delight” budget, which enables staff to send free food and drinks to guests to give them a joyful experience! Mei Mei has a “treat card” that staff members can give to a friend who hasn’t yet visited the restaurant, so when they do stop by, the servers know to send them something on the house. The tradition comes from the siblings’ mom, “one of our biggest advocates,” according to Irene Li, co-founder and owner at the restaurant, who would give her friends a Mei Mei business card, and write “drinks on me,” and sign her name on it. Since “word-of-mouth is the most powerful way for us to get ourselves out there" says Irene, "[the treat card] provides a personal connection between a guest that’s coming in and the restaurant.” It stuck! Even little things, like Mei Mei’s all-gender bathrooms work hard to make any guest feel 100% comfortable and at home.
“When you grow up in a Chinese family, respect for your elders is super important, and I think a lot of that translates to hospitality." -Irene Li, Co-Founder
Irene says hospitality “really has to do with making the guest feel comfortable, and making sure that you are on their side, that you can advocate for them and anticipate their needs so that they can have a worry-free experience because you’re taking care of everything for them.” Some of this understanding she attributed to her family’s heritage, because “when you grow up in a Chinese family, respect for your elders is super important, and I think a lot of that translates.”
Customer needs can range from dietary to emotional, even to things the restaurant doesn’t even have. Irene shared that Mei Mei has plenty of dishes distinctly marked “vegetarian,” “vegan,” “gluten-free,” but “we pretty much always provide any modification to whatever any guest wants, [because] the philosophy is, if we can do it and it is reasonable, then we should do it.” At a recent dumpling class, Irene ran over to the corner store to buy almond milk, even though the restaurant doesn’t keep milk alternatives in stock, because “the idea that you can provide a guest with something they want, even if its not making you money and even if you’re not selling it to them, is really important, the extra mile we want to go for people.” And more than food accessibility, in terms of quality and dietary needs, and a pervasive spirit of belonging, our front-of-house staff members speak a wide variety of languages -- Filipino, French, Creole, Chinese, and Spanish -- which effectively removes nearly any obstacle to good food and good vibes.
"...you don’t even realize you’re eating fancy because it’s at a price point you can afford.” - Emily Ko, FORMER MEI MEI sous-chef
The “Mei Mei customer” is anyone! For Emily Ko, Mei Mei’s sous-chef from April 2012 until the end of May 2018, “the most interesting part is taking this sourcing concept that’s often in the realm of really fancy, expensive restaurants, and making it accessible on a daily basis to all kinds of people.” Although she very recently made a big move to the West Coast with her partner, Emily “really hope[s] to see Mei Mei continue to be a part of the community that is very democratic in its reach and can turn what can be kind of a highbrow principle into an everyday lunch where maybe you don’t even realize you’re eating fancy [because] it’s at a price point you can afford.” Mei Mei’s mission to balance accessibility and quality supports food justice for growers and eaters, and everybody in between!
The restaurant's location in Boston University’s South Campus attracts plenty of students, professors, and scholars. Logen Zimmerman, the Operations Manager for the School of Visual Arts at Boston University, likes “having really high quality food and service in a more casual dining atmosphere,” where “it doesn’t feel pretentious [and] chefs care about what they’re doing, they put a lot of TLC (tender love and care) into it.” From Mei Mei’s Instagram and email newsletters, he follows the “really attractive company policies in terms of transparency and profit-sharing, which seems ethically-responsible,” and Mei Mei's work to “support neighborhood and area farms.” Logen, who lives in nearby Brookline, “see[s] this place as an anchor of the neighborhood, because when Mei Mei moved in, it made South Campus more of a destination for life and vitality.”
When the restaurant opened up, another customer, BU PhD student and MIT Lincoln Lab researcher Brent Parham “started coming for lunch and never stopped.” Over a few months, Brent went through the entire menu and sent pictures of each dish to his now-fiance whenever she couldn’t come, and now Mei Mei’s catering their wedding in the fall! Mei Mei meals “hit [his] taste buds right,” especially because Mei Mei will invite regulars to special menu tasting events to help provide feedback on new menu items.
Of course, some of the most dedicated members of the Mei Mei family have been with us since back at the truck’s humble beginnings. Mikael Bristow, who works as Operations Director for the Junior League of Boston and serves as treasurer for the Fenways Garden Society, first met the Mei Mei food truck back in 2012 when hungry at lunchtime near the Boston Public Library. “It was love at first Double Awesome!” Mikael remembers that “Irene would recognize me and would ring me by name,” and the “friendliness, fantastic service, [and] amazing food was like seeing friends,” a “personal and beloved” culture from the family business she thinks Mei Mei has “brought to the restaurant and comes through.”
And if you can’t make it by the restaurant, Mei Mei also loves bringing cheer to all sorts of fun events, like weddings, business gatherings, parties, even dumpling classes! Catering Manager Olivia Dwan is confident that even outside the brick-and-mortar, Mei Mei “can definitely transfer that culture and what we’re all about in our staff and food to any event, they can really see the Mei Mei vibe.”
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!