What It Means to Run a “Good” Food Business Plus Must-Haves Inspired by Mei Mei Street Kitchen and You

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When I think about how to grow in all the right ways and run a good-for-the-universe business, I quite often land on Mei Mei Boston. Started by some of my favorite siblings, Margaret, Irene, and Andy Li, Mei Mei Street Kitchen was (and continues to be) a food truck focused on locally sourced Chinese-American food. The food is wonderful, and the truck was a model for them to experiment with their kind of cuisine, one in which a humanely-raised pig turned into carefully-crafted hot dog sits snugly in a hot, crispy scallion pancake, topped with homemade kimchi — also known as, gimme gimme.

The path to their first brick-and-mortar space (opened in 2013, a year after the food truck) wasn’t without multiple work streams. In fact, I remember sitting in on one of their early pitch meetings — I was still working in technology, launching pop-up markets on the side while dreaming about a new way to food — where they were trying to raise some remaining funds to open their first brick and mortar space. Shortly after that, the Mei Mei team launched a Kickstarter to raise their last $28,000 to earn sustainable certification, making the restaurant as green as possible with energy-efficient lighting; low-flow plumbing; reclaimed floors, walls and counters; and a mini-herb garden. In case you missed it, that round was over-funded by 25% and they’ve been open three years now, wow.

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I can’t really imagine the Boston food scene before Mei Mei Restaurant, because they deliver the sort of hospitality I crave, in multiple ways, and I want to talk a little bit about how their business and way to food inspires me. Before we dig in, you should know that this is the second post in a series where I get to explore my inspirations, including the beauty of HP’s new laptop, the HP Spectre. HP has partnered with me and I’m excited to share a little about my loves (like Mei Mei), a little about the new laptop (which I fall more in love with each week), and a little about the new Eat Boutique space.

Like Tatte Bakery & Cafe, Mei Mei Boston is a business and food venture that energized me in all sorts of ways and stirred the gumption and imagination to ultimately do the real work I am meant to do, bringing the new Eat Boutique space to life. Their approach may seem innovative — and I would never want to downplay their ingenuity — but ultimately, their way to food is the sort of common sense that should spread like that weedy spearmint plant in your garden, taking over everything in a very good way. (You should all consider the HP Spectre too, since it’s sleek design fits into gardens, homes, offices, cafes, and beautifully designed Chinese-American restaurants.)

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First, the food served is (1) local, (2) seasonal, and (3) sustainably-raised. While many food spots lay claim to the first two, they don’t always deliver on the last and that last one matters, too. You see, I feel good when I eat at Mei Mei Restaurant and feel-good food is one part of delivering stellar hospitality. Not only do I want a friendly and generous reception from staff (which we’ll touch on in a second), but I want to feel good eating the dishes placed before me. Mei Mei offers humanely raised meats from antibiotic- and hormone-free farms, and is frequently called out for sourcing their meat from within 250 miles of Boston. When I support Mei Mei by eating their food, I’m also supporting thoughtful, good-for-the-universe farmers and gosh, that feels good (maybe great).

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The food is only one part of the overall hospitality equation and to say the welcome is warm would feel like an understatement. Every single time I visit Mei Mei, the staff acts like they really want me to be there.

“Hello!”
“Come on in.”
“I can’t wait to describe the special to you, it’s so good.”

I’ve heard them all and it always puts me in a good mood. When a team is so enthusiastic about the ethically-raised meats or the exciting Chinese-American comfort food or even the vast offerings for vegan/vegetarian/gluten-free food preferences, it’s contagious and, golly, I get enthusiastic, too. I’m equally enthusiastic about this new laptop because it’s so light and sits nicely in my handbag when I scurry out of the house to enjoy some of that pleasant Mei Mei service.

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Now, while the food is wonderful and the service is passionate, the real win for me lies in how they grew and continue to grow their business. Mei Mei Restaurant carries on a regular conversation with their consumer in a way that’s honest and actionable. Between their super successful Kickstarter campaign; the questions asked at the roving food truck during the first year and always; the new satellite operation based out of a shipping container in Boston’s Seaport where they serve different food to a unique consumer; and really meshing what diners prefer with what is best for their business and employees, that ongoing conversation is powerful. It’s shaped their business (and mine) and will continue to foster their growth. The more they gab it up with all their invested constituencies, the more they can apply those lessons to a super successful future.

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Now, I remember when Eater’s 2016 Young Gun Winner Irene Li, the youngest of the siblings, was interviewed by Eater in light of her award. She was quoted to say “… I love feeding people and I just want to make people happy.” It’s that line that resonates with me when I ask each of you a question on this blog or at my in-real-life pop-up markets. And during our most recent survey, conducted earlier this year, you spilled the beans on everything good, including how you finally want a permanent year-round Eat Boutique retail space — 90% of you said, please make it happen stat. (Side note: I’m working on it, promise.)

I learned a lot of other really great things from this year’s survey, including that 87% of you gift food (my Food-Gift-Loving heart adores you); 88% of you want to take classes with us (and that’s why our cooking and lifestyle workshops continually sell out); and 82% of you are really interested in recipes (that makes sense since 65% use recipes from our site regularly and about 30% of you cook five times per week.) By the way, I love that some of you cook that much — the more, the better, right?

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Why am I sharing all these statistics? I want you to know that what you do and say matters. I’ve listened and despite all the stuff I know and all the stuff I don’t know, opening the first permanent Eat Boutique space that offers a new way to food, just like Mei Mei Restaurant, is my ultimate goal.

Through our big surveys, the breakthrough attendance at our pop-up markets, and the little chats we have one-on-one, you motivate me to make it happen. I know the biggest challenge for you when preparing dishes or gifting food (or probably doing anything really) is time — you never have enough of it — so the fact that you took a few minutes to share your thoughts with me means mucho, gracias for that.

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All of this wouldn’t be possible without the HP Spectre, in more ways than one. It’s super easy-to-use, making it so I can whip up surveys, emails, and questions to friends, readers, colleagues, and mentors (you know who you are!) quickly. I easily navigate between survey creation tools, story writing software, and retail space designs with a simply click or a scroll. And between all the various gadgets I use to get through those busy days, the learning curve for the HP Spectre laptop was short and actually not a curve at all — direct and momentary — so I can get onto all the other important things in my life, like eating one more scallion pancake, please.

I’m always on the look out for inspiration for Eat Boutique’s first retail space, and Mei Mei Restaurant is full of it — just look at that space. I also have a stylish machine that can help me keep talking with you, my customers, and I’m super grateful for the HP Spectre’s ability to help us keep the good talks flowing.

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Where do you find inspiration? I’d love to hear more about those places, moments, dishes that drive you creatively.

Like I said, this is the second post in a series where I get to explore my inspirations (okay, let’s admit it, my obsessions), including the beauty of the HP Spectre. HP has partnered with me but all my opinions remain my own, naturally. Thank you Mei Mei Restaurant for letting us hang out this week and all the time!

Next month: We visit Juliet Restaurant. Last month: We visited Tatte Bakery & Cafe. #ReinventObsession #partner

Photos taken by Heidi Murphy/White Loft Studio

Eat Boutique was an award-winning shop and story-driven recipe site created by Maggie Battista – an author, business guide and alignment seeker. After hosting retail markets for 25,000+ guests, Maggie now supports entrepreneurs as they create values-based businesses through We Are Magic StudioFollow Maggie Battista on Instagram.

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