When this Examiner met Mei Li at a food truck panel in April, her reputation preceded her. Mei Mei is on the tip of most tongues when Bostonians talk about local food trucks. Here Mei shares just some of her infectious energy, insight, wisdom, and vision.
This interview is the 10th in the series 10 questions for a food entrepreneur for Examiner.
Q: What was the seed for what is now Mei Mei?
A: We're a sibling-run company. My brother Andrew has worked in the restaurant industry for about a decade and my sister and I both love cooking and learning about food. In fact, we co-authored a food blog for a few years to stay in touch while she lived on an organic farm and I ran a pop-up restaurant in London. Realizing how much we all love food and hospitality, we decided to go into business together! The food truck industry was just getting started in Boston and we thought it would be a great way to test our market and develop a fun and exciting new venture with lower investment.
Q: What was the biggest hurdle you had to overcome?
A: When we opened in 2012, the food truck industry was still pretty new. Cities were still figuring out how exactly to manage food truck programs, and I think everyone was learning as they went. So, the launch, I’d say: finding and building the truck; raising the money; finding a commissary; the whole permitting and licensing process. All in, it took about seven months.
Q: How do you define success?
A: I look at success in small pieces: seeing someone really happy when they're eating our food; making connections and building relationships with other people in our food system; having a busy shift either on the truck or in the restaurant where the staff are energized and proud of the work they've done. People think of success as something you've either achieved or not. I try not to get bogged down in that. To me, success is learning something every day, feeling happy when we do good work as a team, and watching us make progress.
Q: How do you manage failure?
A: I try not to look at failure as a state of being. I think it’s more like a point of breakdown that offers you an opportunity to improve. We all make mistakes and I think it's important to take those moments as a chance to learn and fix things. We try our best to make people happy and serve a great product that we're proud of. If that ever doesn't happen, it's my goal to make sure our guests walk away knowing we tried our hardest to give them a great experience.
Q: How do you cope with pressure? (Any secret recipes for taking care of yourself?)
A: I think this is a constant challenge for any entrepreneur! I try to make time away from the food truck and the restaurant to put my phone down and focus on the people I love. Entrepreneurship, especially in the food industry, is hard physical work and it's important to take care of yourself. Right now my goal is to get back into yoga and maybe even some meditation. Work your hardest and put lots of energy into what you're doing, but make sure to step away from it sometimes too.
Q: What are you going to do next?
A: We finally got a beer and wine license for our restaurant, which was a long and complex process. So next I'm focused on making the restaurant the best place it can be, which will include new systems, lots of training and learning. Before we opened the restaurant, one of our goals was to involve more partners like farmers and brewers in fun events. So we'd like to make good on that.
Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received in the past year?
A: Work is important, but relationships and people should come first.
Q: Give us your advice for aspiring food entrepreneurs in six words or less.
A: Build relationships. Be authentic. Get sleep!
Q: You win the Oscar equivalent for your industry. When you take the stage, who will you thank and for what?
A: Thanks, Mom and Dad, for helping us get here. We could never have done this without you.
Q: What about Mei Mei most feeds your soul?
A: Sharing food, being creative, making friends, solving problems, implementing ideas, making people happy.