By Diana Leane
BU News Service
Several tamales lay on a tray as Alyssa Lee and Ana Grettenberger decided how to cook their lunch — in the end, steaming and then pan-searing. At 1:10 p.m. on a Saturday in late October, the two stood in an empty kitchen in the Chinese-American restaurant, Mei Mei, located in the Fenway-Kenmore neighborhood of Boston.
Behind the front counter, Walter, an employee who declined to give his last name, laminated instruction sheets for customers to use at home during an online Mei Mei cooking class. The dining room’s lights were turned off. Metal shelving filled with paper bags, cups and other supplies replaced tables on one side while boxes filled the other.
Seven months ago, seven people would have darted throughout the kitchen on a Saturday, scrambling to keep up with the hot food orders coming in from diners seated at tables during the lunch rush.
Now lunchtime is a break from the onslaught of administrative tasks and miscellaneous jobs that kept the restaurant running throughout the pandemic.
The coronavirus crisis forced restaurants to close down in March and April. Many businesses adapted and found other revenue streams, but COVID-19 cases are surging throughout the country once again, posing another existential threat to the restaurant and hospitality industries.
Nearly one in six restaurants in the United States closed permanently or long-term since the coronavirus crisis began, the National Restaurant Association reported in September, amounting to nearly 100,000 restaurants in total. Lee, the kitchen and operations manager, said she and the owner, Irene Li, feel confident they can keep the doors open at this time, but the future is still uncertain.
Lee said Mei Mei completely changed its business model in order to survive. The restaurant closed its dining room and no longer sells hot food. Customers can order cold food, including frozen dumplings, online to pick up at Mei Mei or a location that carries their food. They also rely on revenue from online cooking classes they host.
Walter arrived as he often does at 9 a.m. and began preparing the kitchen. He has worked at Mei Mei since the business opened in 2012 as a food truck.
The staff followed a protocol to maintain their health and safety. They entered through the back door, where they immediately signed in on a sheet and marked that they had no symptoms, and they hadn’t been exposed to anyone with COVID-19. They couldn’t use public transportation to travel to Mei Mei, and they had to wear a mask at all times.
They hung coats and bags on hooks. Then they immediately washed their hands at a designated sink.
The staff kept up with standard kitchen rules: wear closed-toed shoes and tie back long hair. That wasn’t a problem for Walter, who had short, black hair that matched his black shirt.
Alone in the restaurant, Walter cooked dishes and dumplings that were later stored in the fridges and freezers. A half hour later Lee arrived, wearing a purple mask and her dark hair pulled back in a ponytail. She wasn’t scheduled to come in on Saturday, but since Mei Mei had to reduce staff and hours, she and Li come in nearly every day.
Lee added the day’s tasks to a white board hanging on the wall next to the kitchen sink.
Dumpling kits: 35 cranberry, 15 shitake, 50 sheets. Soy aioli, 50 double awesome kits, two rice trays. Curry.
Adhesive marks on the tiled wall indicated where recipes used to hang. The staff stuck ingredients lists for their dishes to the wall as training material for new employees, but they took them down after eliminating hot food from the menu several weeks ago.
They kept the “double awesome” recipe up as a nostalgic decoration. They created the double awesome, a scallion pancake sandwich, in the food truck years ago when they’d run out of dumplings to sell. Since then, the dish has become a popular staple for Mei Mei’s customers.
Grettenberger checked in at 10 a.m. with her dark brown, shoulder-length hair in a low knot. At the front counter, Lee wrote customers’ names on the dumpling kits for a virtual class that night while she debriefed Ana on the food to cook that day.
At any point in time, Lee balanced two-to-three tasks at once. She directed the staff, answered phone calls, prepared kits and responded to emails.
“I’ve never been bored this entire pandemic,” she said.
Before March, Lee was overseeing Mei Mei’s expansion into two new restaurants, until they backed out when the pandemic hit. Since then, she has filled in wherever necessary.
“On the worst days, it feels like you’re putting out burning fires that might burn down your whole business — firefighting as we call it,” she said. “Then on the best days, you feel like an entrepreneur that is about to launch something great.”
Lee recited the business’s current and former profit margins, as well as weekly earnings, off the top of her head. She explained the restaurant’s current goal is to average $15,000 a week, which is about 60% of pre-pandemic sales.
Lee said the restaurant’s finances are shared with the staff. She and Li notified employees when they were looking at the worst-case scenario of shutting down.
After two hours of labeling, Lee took her first sip of water. Pulling up a stool to the counter, she moved on to what would occupy the rest of her time: emails and inventory.
Lee and Walter chatted intermittently. Lee spoke in English, and Walter often responded in Spanish.
The staff have always been a family at Mei Mei, she said. When the restaurant shut down in March for a few months after March, Lee said she and Li did everything they could to keep their staff. They received a Payroll Protection Program loan from the U.S. government that covered two months of wages.
The staff spent that time brainstorming ideas from home on how to earn revenue. On June 30, the loan ran out, and they had no choice but to lay off 60% of their staff, she said.
“It was really difficult for the folks being laid off, as well as the folks who stayed,” Lee said. “We were a very tight knit group of coworkers, and it was really hard to separate the financial business decisions and the reality of the pandemic.”
In the basement, Grettenberger spooned soy aioli into to-go containers and watched videos on a tablet. She went from working full-time to about 25 hours a week.
Grettenberger used to clean dishes and cook. Now she also labels the food and packages it. She went from working with five to six people at once to one or two, and people she celebrated Thanksgiving with suddenly disappeared from the kitchen.
“It sucked because we didn’t get to say goodbye,” Grettenberger said. “We still try to be a family, we still try to stick together, support each other, we do the best we can.”
After several hours of working with spreadsheets, emails and stock, Lee stopped for the only break of the day at 1 p.m. to eat her tamale lunch with Grettenberger and Walter. She headed home an hour later, and Grettenberger and Walter handled customers’ pick-ups and operations until close at 7 p.m.
What they’re doing works for now, Lee said, so she’ll continue coming in and devoting extra long hours to the business for as long as necessary.
“I hope in a year or so we’ve built our staff back up, probably not to the same levels of where we were at pre-pandemic, but close with a completely different model,” Lee said. “It’s become more and more apparent that we’re never reopening our restaurant as it was before.”