Irene Li, 29, owns Chinese-American restaurant Mei Mei near Fenway Park, as well as its sister food truck — known for a gloriously oozy Double Awesome egg and cheddar sandwich. Right now, she’s sticking to bulk takeout: dumplings, ssam feasts. But she’s been going above and beyond by peddling toilet paper and, until recently, groceries. She also started a fund-raiser to donate money to unheralded, mom-and-pop restaurants that could use a higher-profile boost.
You’re currently selling toilet paper. Toilet paper! How?
Four weeks ago, I ordered two cases from W.B. Mason. The supply chain has to adapt from pooping at work to pooping at home. At a certain point, they came in! We’re not open, so we may as well help people access it.
You were selling groceries, too. What happened?
We had been selling groceries: raw meats, produce, eggs, things like that — basics. We were retailing through our online portal. The health department got in touch with us and said we didn’t have the right permit. We needed to discontinue selling groceries immediately, I guess because there is a risk to public health. You know, I drive by Trader Joe’s every morning and see 20 people in line, and it’s hard to think that going to the grocery store is not also a risk. We’re keeping an eye out to see what happens there. We heard from the Massachusetts Restaurant Association that we should be allowed to sell certain groceries under our common victualler license. . . . We’ve reached back out to the health department about FDA and MRA guidelines.
Why is shopping with you guys safer than going to a store?
We’re not in a super-high-traffic location. Typically, we do a couple hours of pickup, and we almost never have more than one person show up at a time. We couldn’t do the scale of a grocery store — but if we can take some pressure off, that would be nice. As food service workers, we think of ourselves as spiritual kin to grocery store workers, and it’s really scary. We have a lot of regulars who work at Whole Foods around the corner. They were buying takeout all the time. They would say, ‘I’m not going to come inside because someone at our location was diagnosed with COVID-19.’ It’s hard to think they still have to go into work every day and face the public.
I’m going to be curious to see what happens. For now, we have stopped selling anything raw that we think the health department would object to, but I’m hoping there will be some relaxation of restrictions. In L.A., for example, the health department was cracking down and then published new guidelines.
For me, personally, it feels like we have access to all this food through our distributors, and it’s on demand. I can order 20 dozen eggs to show up the next day, so it seems crazy to not try to leverage that to reach more people.
You’re also fund-raising for “unsung” restaurants. Why?
This as a little project that I put together with a dear friend who used to work at Toast who was laid off recently. Seeing people rally to donate to GoFundMe for some of Boston’s top restaurants is great, but it makes you wonder: OK, if Le Bernardin has a GoFundMe, who is going to help everyone else? What if we created a fund and said, we know you love that restaurant around the corner. Maybe you don’t speak the same language. Whatever the barriers may be, if you donate, we’ll make sure the money goes to them. Unfortunately, there has been some fraud. It’s frustrating, and we felt as if, maybe if we said it was from me and not an anonymous person, people would get on board and make sure we’re not forgetting there are people out there who don’t have the traditional access other folks have. We wanted to make it open to any restaurant and not have it reliant on people’s preexisting networks. You can write in the restaurant, and we’ll figure out how to contact them. We have a small group of people helping us with translation.
How much have you raised?
It’s going amazing. I think our goal is $10,000, and we hit $5,000 yesterday. I am of two minds on it. 10k is not a lot of money, but on the other hand, it’s $400 you didn’t have yesterday. Every little bit helps. Even if these restaurants can’t stay open, even if we can help them with bills and supporting their employees, it’s worth the investment of our time. I’ve applied for all the loans out there. I am a native English speaker and college-educated, and it’s so hard to navigate this paperwork. It’s hard to imagine the resources and stress and everything else that folks with less access have to go through in order to apply to any of these funds.
Are you binge-watching anything right now?
My spouse and I have been watching “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” We ran up against the wall of season six on Hulu. Since then, we’ve gone back to “Bob’s Burgers.” It’s such a jokey show but, yeah, that’s small business life.