Need someone to wash dishes for three hours on a weekday or plunge a toilet all while running a full-fledged business? Irene Li, Mei Mei co-founder and now one of Zagat’s National 30 Under 30 finalists, can do it.
On top of running the restaurant business side of Mei Mei, Li said she believes it’s equally important for her to be hands-on and helping her team whenever they need it.
“I make sure, if I can, I’m the person who is doing stuff like that,” Li said. “I really make a point of trying to be as proficient in every department as possible so that I could help out. That’s something that’s really important to me, to make sure that I can support the team and that I can tell them that I really know what the work is like.”
This can-do attitude and her team’s commitment, and dedication to locally sourcing food, has all cumulated to her name being included in Zagat’s National 30 Under 30 list. This year is the first time that the restaurant rating company has looked nationally for finalists, and the lineup includes some of the most talented millennials in the hospitality industry, according to a press release from Sept. 12.
Never “in a million years” did Li think Mei Mei would come to receive the recognition it has or that she would win this national honor, she said.
“I do this because I love my team and I love the food we make and I really think we can make a difference. To get recognized for it is just … an ancillary benefit,” Li said. “They hold down the fort to make me look good and they are all better at their jobs than I ever was at their jobs.”
Mei Mei, which means “little sister” in Chinese, is a Chinese-American fusion restaurant which began in Brookline where the Li family grew up. Li, along with her older brother Andy and her older sister Margaret, started their business back in 2012 with a food truck. Their need for a better kitchen and a desire to provide a better experience for their customers led to them opening their brick and mortar in 2013, which is located in Boston University’s South Campus.
Annabel Raby, a line cook at Mei Mei, said the way Li runs Mei Mei inspires her to rethink what it could be like to be a successful businessperson.
“Irene is very successful and powerful in the Boston community, but her shtick is to be as generous as possible,” Raby said. “That’s so the opposite of how the average business person thrives. It’s inspiring and I really try to emulate her level of generosity, both in the way she acts to people and just literally what she offers to people.”
Whether it’s supporting small businesses or supporting local farms, Li said it’s important to not only help the environment, but to help families around Boston. As an added bonus, the food tastes better when it is locally sourced, Li said.
“As a family business, I can definitely say when a small business gets enriched, it goes into the community, it goes into families, and that’s something that’s super important to me,” Li said. “Local food also tastes better and while I think all food is magical and makes you happy, when you have a connection to the food, it’s even better, the experience is just that much more exciting and personal.”
Jessica Coughlin, a close friend of Li’s and a regular at Mei Mei, wrote in an email that the ambience of the restaurant always draws her back – as well as her favorite items on the catering menu, lamb dumplings and the wheat berry salad.
“Their flavors are so satisfying and creative, vibrantly colored and sustainably sourced,” Coughlin said. “The people who own and work for the business are just awesome, fun and committed to the mission of using food for positive change.”
As Mei Mei grows a following and Li becomes more recognizable around the city, the pressure to maintain the restaurant’s, and her own, reputation can be stressful. Li said when dealing with this kind of stress it’s important to look to what you have.
“There are a lot of different ways to lose perspective when you are dealing with guests, when you’re dealing with employees [and] small problems can seem like big problems and big problems can seem like impossible, huge problems,” Li said. “It is really helpful to be able to take a step back and maybe to have someone in your organization who can tell you to take a step back.”