Three years after graduating Cornell, Irene Li ’15 has already made it onto Forbes’ 30 Under 30.
Li operates Street Kitchen, a food truck, and Mei Mei restaurant. Both business ventures are located in Boston and have an emphasis on sustainability and transparency. According to her Forbes profile, Li’s focus on transparency and sustainability in terms of food sourcing and employment using an open book program — which involves the entire staff in a weekly discussion of the performance of the business — earned her a spot on the list.
Li spoke to students and faculty on Wednesday and hosted a dinner following her talk. She also will lead a Lunch and Learn and interactive cooking demo on Thursday.
Li opened the food truck with her brother and sister in 2012 and quickly discovered that buying locally sourced meat in bulk helps the restaurant cut down its expenses. At the same time, realizing that purchasing locally-sourced ingredients helps local farmers, Li made sure that a majority of the ingredients — such as eggs and flour — in Mei Mei’s kitchen come from local producers.
While at Cornell, Li worked with the Cornell Prison Education Program and advocated for increasing the minimum wage. After opening the food truck and experiencing difficulties with not being able to give employees better wages, she realized that social justice inequalities were present in the food industry as well.
This year, with the help of a grant from the State of Massachusetts, Mei Mei launched an open book, profit sharing program. Each week, the entire staff sits down and assesses the financial performance of the restaurant. They also go through training classes where they learn how to complete tasks like managing profits, so that they may eventually go solo and open their own business.
Li, who is interested in sustainability beyond her restaurants, also reached out to local farms and distributors and connected them with other small businesses. These businesses include other restaurants as well as aggregators, who act as middlemen between farmers, restaurants and local communities. These aggregators offer restaurants an array of food items from local producers that might be hard for them to get otherwise.
Growing up, Li was raised in an English-speaking American household, but starting a business helped her learn about Chinese culture and language through food.
Li described her family life as one “that revolved around the dinner table,” though she did not get into cooking until opening the food truck. When people ask if she cooked when she was little, Li responds, “No, I was mostly focused on eating.”
She describes Mei Mei as “creative Chinese-American food” with a menu boasting items like scallion pancake sandwiches, smoked bluefish fritters and an assortment of dumplings.
Mei Mei has won countless awards and features in sources like The New York Times, Food & Wine, and Eater Boston & National.
With a driven attitude mindset focused on social justice and sustainable food, Li sets up her employees for the future and business so that it is built to last. After all, she said, “being connected to your food makes the food tastes better.”