The Mei Mei Group: a Family affair in Boston
Many consider family-owned businesses the backbone of American business. “Mei Mei” translates to “little sister” in Chinese, and its name aptly represents a family business of three siblings, Andy, Margaret (Mei), and Irene Li. When Andy, the oldest sibling, formed the Mei Mei Group, it was only appropriate to name it after his two little sisters, Margaret and Irene. Together as the Mei Mei Group, the Lis operate Mei Mei Street Kitchen, a food truck on the streets of Boston, and more recently, Mei Mei restaurant near the Boston University campus. When the siblings decided to go into business together, they realized that despite their distinctly different backgrounds, what they have all shared since childhood was a love of food.
With a passion for food instilled in them by their parents, the Li siblings began brainstorming about how to utilize their complimentary skills to create a family business. With restaurant management experience, Andy oversees the restaurant. Mei studied social entrepreneurship in London. While in London, she created a number of pop-up restaurants in unique locations, including one underneath the railway arches of the Thames River. Mei also attended business school, so she focuses on finances, marketing, business development, and the company’s social media platform. Irene, the youngest sibling, attended Cornell University and has worked and lived on organic farms. Her experience helps the company ethically source food ingredients from local vendors. While in college Irene also began her own pop-up restaurant. The siblings were unanimous in their goal to bring authentic Chinese dishes with an American twist to Boston consumers, using seasonal, locally sourced ingredients.
One impressive contribution of small businesses like the Mei Mei Group is its creation of jobs in the local Boston area. Between its food truck and restaurant, the Mei Mei Group now employs more than 35 workers. In addition, the Lis firmly believe that supporting the local food system and area farms provides fresher products to its customers. As a result, they are able to create jobs and provide revenue to the local Boston area economy.
The Mei Mei Group is an example of a small business that has provided an outlet for creative new ideas as business and consumers recognize a need for change. In this case, making a difference in the local food system is part of Mei Mei’s core values. Since opening less than five years ago, the Mei Mei Group has brought 120,000 pounds of local and regional food from nearby farms in the Northeast to the consumers of Boston.
Menu items begin with traditional Chinese cuisine, and based on the supply of produce from local growers, menus are constantly changed and updated. Dumplings, for example, might be filled with sweet potato and sage, based on what’s local and in season. With hundreds sold daily, Mei Mei’s signature Double Awesome is an egg sandwich with pesto made from local growers and Vermont cheese on a scallion pancake. All eggs are purchased from a local free-range farm in nearby Providence, Rhode Island, and after a few years in business, the Lis are beginning to realize the impact of local sourcing on the local economy and the Boston food scene.
Although it may feel like David versus Goliath, the Mei Mei Group wants to do its part to innovate by working with local and regional growers to change the startling statistic that only 1 percent of food consumed is grown locally. Most food is produced on a massive or industrialized scale, which includes growing food on farms as cheaply as possible, many times resulting in the inhumane treatment of animals solely for profit. The Lis’ business model has proved that providing healthy, locally grown food and meats to customers is both responsible and financially sustainable.
The growth of the Mei Mei Group has had a direct impact on the prosperity of the 40 local farmers with whom they work. Irene has built strong and enduring partnerships” with their suppliers who range from pig, poultry, and beef farmers to local and regional growers. One farmer is building two new chicken coops for the Mei Mei Group, which purchased every one of his chickens last year. Since the demand for greens like kale and swiss chard remains strong, Mei Mei Group’s suppliers are working on ways to continue greenhouse operations during winter months.
The Lis wrote a business plan, which was a helpful way for them to learn more about the industry and to think about the different aspects of their business, from marketing, to finance, to operations. Knowing very well that industries and markets continually change, the Lis used the business plan as a dynamic and changing road map. In addition, the Lis decided to create their form of ownership as an S corporation. This decision was made to avoid double taxation of business income while minimizing financial liability for the siblings.
The challenge of financing remains an obstacle for many small businesses and without adequate funds generated from initial sales, failure can occur. Through personal loans and some help from family members, the Lis launched their first venture, the food truck, a little more than three years ago. Partial financing for their restaurant came in the form of donations of $35,000 from Kickstarter, a crowdsourcing website.
Some of the biggest challenges faced by the Mei Mei Group are regulatory in nature. The city of Boston has many food truck regulations that Mei Mei and other businesses must follow. Issues range from the threat of fewer public parking spaces, truck hours and locations, and the types of food and meals the trucks are allowed to serve. In addition, the Mei Mei Group has been persistent about trying to obtain a liquor license for its restaurant operation.
Without thinking too much about future plans, the siblings are enjoying their firm’s success and the fruits of their labor. Unsure of just exactly how, the siblings know the Mei Mei Group will continue to grow. While there’s always the possibility of opening more restaurants, the company’s core value of making a difference in the local food system may take them in a different direction that could involve farming. For now, the Li siblings are sure of one business goal: continuing to bring good food to the people of Boston.
Questions for Critical Thinking
1. Discuss and outline the unique ways the Mei Mei Group contributes to the local Boston area economy. Provide additional ideas and examples of how the Mei Mei Group can continue making a contribution to the local food scene in Boston.
2. Only a small number of family businesses survive into the second or third generation. What factors do you think contribute to this statistic? How might this impact succession planning for the Mei Mei Group?
3. Small businesses contribute to the economy by creating new jobs and industries and providing innovation. Provide examples of how the Mei Mei Group has achieved each of the contribu- tions typically made by small businesses.
4. Discuss some of the biggest challenges for the Mei Mei Group as a small business. How do these challenges differ from other types of small businesses?”