Fighting Food Insecurity in the Restaurant Industry

Irene Li, Project Bread Board of Directors

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So many small business owners have been faced with terrible choices: close and risk their livelihoods, or remain open and risk the safety of their staff.

As a restaurateur in Boston, I’ve been on a rollercoaster for the last two years, dealing with closures, supply chain crises, decreased staff capacity, and changing policies around the COVID-19 response. My restaurant Mei Mei was fortunate to be able to leverage our community, especially online, to pivot our way through the pandemic.

We doubled down on charitable and community work so that our staff could have meaningful projects to work on. In response to the pandemic, I launched Unsung Restaurants, a campaign to raise money for under-the-radar, mom and pop and immigrant-owned businesses; partnered with Off Their Plate to lead a grocery program for hospital workers; and co-founded Project Restore Us, which provides affordable and free culturally relevant groceries to working immigrant families. In particular, Project Restore Us served many restaurant workers who were newly unemployed, many who had been struggling with food insecurity even before the pandemic. Because so many restaurant workers are ineligible for unemployment benefits and were already facing food insecurity, these resources were critical while the restaurant industry was at a standstill.

Irene Li sitting hands folded at a counter

In restaurants, our business is hospitality, and the best operators know that hospitality starts from within. “Internal hospitality” refers to the way we treat and lead our teams, and it’s established well before any guests walk in the door. I saw many colleagues take major initiatives to keep internal hospitality alive during the pandemic - sending workers home with surplus ingredients, taking on emergency feeding to provide work hours, driving employee carpools to protect staff from COVID risk on public transit, and more.

In many ways, things can feel like they’re returning to normal, as mask restrictions loosen across the country, vaccinations are no longer needed to enter restaurants and bars, and people return to their usual daily activities. However, there’s still a long way to go in our industry before every worker can thrive.

How you can help

Ways you can fight food insecurity in the restaurant industry

  1. Support restaurants that have alternative wage models or include fees to support wage parity across all departments.
  2. Order directly from restaurants, or use apps like Toast Take Out or ChowNow that charge restaurants via a flat fee rather than a big percentage-based commission. Third party delivery systems like UberEats and GrubHub charge both diners and restaurants to make their profit.

  3. Try new restaurants, especially under-the-radar or immigrant owned restaurants. Mom and pop shops without major social media presence have been hit extra hard by the pandemic. 

  4. Have a favorite restaurant? Tell your friends, write a Yelp review, just don’t keep it to yourself! Word of mouth and online reviews are incredibly powerful in the restaurant business.

About Irene Li

Irene Li (she/hers) opened Mei Mei Restaurant in Boston in 2013 and has spent the years since driving the industry forward in ethical sourcing and fair and transparent employment practices, including open book management. Now, Irene and her team are evolving Mei Mei into a packaged dumpling company.

A Boston native and Cornell University graduate, Irene has worked on farms, taught in prisons, and watched perhaps hundreds of hours of YouTube videos on food and cooking.  Irene is a recent recipient of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce’s 2022 Pinnacle Award and the James Beard Foundation’s 2022 Leadership Award. Originally from Boston, Irene sits on the boards at Project Bread, The Food Project, and the Haley House.

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