In March 2020, Irene Li, chef of Mei Mei, a modern Chinese restaurant and food truck in Boston, and program manager of CommonWealth Kitchen, was spending most of her time thinking about how to keep her restaurant running in a way that made employees and customers feel good. She opened up the restaurant’s books, talking to Eater about profit and loss statements and the importance of making restaurant financials available for her employees and customers. “The lack of willingness to talk about finances in this industry is holding us back,” she said at the time. “I feel like that is the last barrier that we have to break down in order to really all get on the same page and all figure out how to do a better job.”
Just days later, the restaurant industry was thrown into a tailspin as the pandemic forced businesses to shutter or temporarily shut down. In response to where she felt she saw much of the early attention and support heading, Li started the Unsung Restaurants Fund, essentially acting as a middleman to get donations into the coffers of small, often immigrant-owned restaurants. As Li and fund co-founder Jessica Coughlin wrote at the time, “Immigrant-owned and other small restaurants are largely absent from social media campaigns and online fundraising. Arguably, these are the businesses in most dire need of support for themselves and their staff.” Here, Li talks about the past year and the incalculable loss the pandemic imposed upon America’s restaurant community, especially among those mom-and-pops that are the backbone of our communities.
I called Li in March to talk about how she and Mei Mei are faring; we ended up discussing a devastating year for America’s restaurants and what we hope is on the other side. I’ve edited and condensed her thoughts below. — Korsha Wilson
Seeing the push to “save Chinatown” or small restaurants during the early days of the pandemic was so interesting because these same restaurants weren’t treated as the mainstream prior to this. These restaurants play an important role in immigration stories, as the foundation on which parents are allowed some mobility to provide for future generations.
I started the Unsung Restaurants Fund when I noticed that a lot of higher-end restaurants were leveraging social media to start GoFundMes to support staff as people lost hours in March when the pandemic hit. It made me wonder who’s getting left out of that. We know that the immigrant-owned mom-and-pop restaurants hold just as precious and important a place in people’s hearts as the high-end, more visible ones, so we started thinking, “How do we remind people that even though the roti shop doesn’t have an Instagram, they’re still here, they still need your support?” It was about creating a connection there, aggregating funds and creating space to be generative for these restaurants in some way. These restaurants don’t have the access to the formal structures that businesses had to suddenly navigate like unemployment and grants or loans, and if English is your second language, it’s even harder. Personally, navigating the PPP (Paycheck Protection Program) paperwork almost killed me.
While the money that we raised wasn’t going to save anyone or save any businesses, I think the feeling that someone out there was thinking of them and trying to look out for them means something. It was sometimes hard and confusing to get in contact: Some of the restaurants that were named by donors have little or no tech infrastructure, or maybe shut down right at the beginning of the pandemic. Even in crisis there are all these barriers for different groups of people to be in contact with each other, and we wanted to be mindful of that.
I think about what happened at Mei Mei — as an employer, I worked really hard to earn trust from my team over the years, and sometimes it feels like that work and trust was all just wiped out by the pandemic — and just multiplying that out to the restaurant community is overwhelming. We have to remember that restaurant owners come from different situations. For me, owning a restaurant was a dream, but for many people running a food business is a necessity. For almost all people who own restaurants, it becomes your whole life. When we were shut down it was a lot of, “What do I do now? Who am I now?” For a long time I’ve judged myself based on my ability to take care of the team, and I had to take a big step back from that because it was so far out of my control. For a lot of people who work in restaurants or who are at the ownership level, taking care of the team, it’s a point of pride, and to have that taken away sucks. Thinking about all of us restaurant owners, it’s incalculable, essentially, to think about how we’ve been impacted.
A lot of people (owners and workers alike) are leaving the restaurant industry, and they’re probably never going to come back. They’re going to make the transition to landscaping or construction or tech or something else. I’ve been thinking about the restaurants where people really loved working. They still had to let people go: For some of our staff, given how much they cared about the business and how much it felt like a community, it felt like even more of a betrayal to be laid off. At every level, no matter what kind of employer, there’s this feeling of being bereft. We never thought this would happen at Mei Mei because I love my workplace and our team was so special, yet we still had to lay people off. There’s a huge sense of loss.
I want the restaurant community to create restorative work environments where everyone feels heard and like they can contribute. The opposite of a restorative atmosphere is one that denies everyone the option or the opportunity to get on the same page or hear each other out, and I think that’s where we are. No one runs a restaurant with a mindset of having to deal with a closure, so we’ve had to adopt new models of doing things. Mei Mei has been engaged in a couple of different mutual aid projects because I think we’re all realizing we have to take care of one another. That’s something historically marginalized groups have always known how to do. Some of us are learning it for the first time. All of this is of course predicated on the fact that the government isn’t taking care of us and that’s why we need these systems.
There’s also a sense of grief over the potential that was lost and that we’ll never know. A chef friend, Alex Saenz, who had to close his small restaurant in nearby Cambridge, really sums it up best when he asks, “What would have been?” Alex and I talk all the time about how those people, owners/workers/chefs, had a dream, and how they might never try again. They might not have the means to give that idea a shot again. That trickle effect is pushing many out, and other businesses that may be in close proximity to our restaurants, where our survival is mutually beneficial, are not coming back either. Those neighborhoods will change because it might not make sense for someone to keep their restaurant open anymore. Businesses need other businesses. We support each other.
I think we’ve crossed a line, and hopefully on the other side of that line we’re realistic about what our elected officials can actually do — then maybe we get to a better place. But we should also rethink the restaurant community. At Mei Mei, we had to very intentionally look at our community as not just people who can afford to pay for our food. It’s farmers, it’s neighbors, it’s other restaurants, it’s employees. I think the pandemic really forced a lot of us to think about that. And so how does a restaurant that relies on people’s goodwill and disposable income learn how to serve people who don’t fall into that category? It requires a shift on the part of the restaurant operator to say my community is not just my customers. Hopefully the swell of enthusiasm for mutual aid will kind of weave its way back into business as usual.
Lately I’ve been thinking about the Stacey Abrams quote, “I am not optimistic or pessimistic. I am determined.” I’ve stopped asking myself if I’m hopeful. Instead I focus on what I can do. That’s how I’m getting through day to day.
Korsha Wilson is a food writer and host of the upcoming limited-series podcast A Hungry Society presents Boundless Horizon, exploring Black contributions to America’s culinary landscape. Vivian Shih is a Taiwanese-American illustrator and art director living in Brooklyn.