By Belle Fraser
Boston University News Service
Irene Li, the Cofounder of Mei Mei Dumplings, is making her mark in the food industry through innovative recipes and conscientious business practices. What started as a food truck with her two siblings in 2012 has budded into a company that is bringing new flavors to Boston.
Mei Mei, which means “little sister” in Mandarin, was the spontaneous venture of Li and her older siblings. While Li said she never had the intention of going into the restaurant world, the food truck’s success forged a new path for her career at 21-years-old.
“They really trusted me to create the menu and define our style as a business,” Li said. “And I know they only did that because they are my family and they believed in me. I think they gave me a kind of foundation I feel very privileged to have.”
Li eventually bought out her siblings as they started families and worked on other projects, but she said starting Mei Mei with family gave her the opportunity to grow as both a cook and an entrepreneur.
During the pandemic, Li had to rethink Mei Mei’s operations as they sold take-home meals, did virtual dumpling classes and set up at farmer’s markets. Mei Mei opened their new location at Iron Works South Boston on Jan. 21 after the pandemic closed the doors of their first restaurant in 2020.
Now on the other side of it, Mei Mei’s sun-soaked South Boston dining space has attracted old and new customers. Their in-person cooking classes have also been a big part of this new chapter by creating community over mouth-watering dumplings.
“It has been really cool to see customers who have kind of followed us since 2012,” Li said. “I do always kind of have that amazement and feel that honor that people want to come eat here and that’s such a gift to be able to cook for people.”
Li puts a lot of thought into the types of ingredients Mei Mei uses and is intentional with where she sources them from. This effort, in turn, has strengthened the product.
Mei Mei Dumplings has demanded the attention of Boston foodies for the past couple of years and Li said they’re hoping to grow in the future. While they still sell take-home dumpling packs in-store, Mei Mei aims to wholesale their products to grocery stores this year.
With the extra factory space at their new location, Li said they’re focusing on scaling up production from making 15,000 dumplings a week to double or triple that. In only a month since their grand opening, Mei Mei’s return has been a hit.
“It’s been incredible. It’s so nice to have a home that we can invite people into,” Li said. “On some level –– even though we’ve been doing this for a long time –– I’m just like I can’t believe anybody wants to eat what we cook! Like that’s so cool.”
The Mei Mei menu, built off of the fresh produce from a dozen local and regional farms, offers twists on traditional dumpling options. Li has leaned on her Chinese background while also honoring the place she grew up, Boston, when creating the culinary combinations.
“I really love our cheddar scallion potato dumplings. I like to call them our love letter to the pierogi,” she said. “It kind of expresses those combined roots of being American and being Chinese, so I like that about them too.”
Li’s grandparents opened their New York restaurant “China Garden” in the 1940s after leaving China. That legacy has informed some core aspects of the Mei Mei culture.
“You know, when you go to someone’s grandma’s house, she’s always like ‘Have you eaten anything? Let me feed you!’” Li said. “That’s kind of the spirit we want to bring to serving guests as well.”