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Ingredients of success

Dorchester firm helps foodies scale up retail operations

Martin Desmarais
Ingredients of success
Two of three sauces Mei Mei Street Kitchen manufactures at CommonWealth Kitchen are Apple Hoisin and Smoked Maple Ginger. (Photo: Photo courtesy of Mei Mei Street Kitchen)

Author: Photo courtesy of Mei Mei Street KitchenSiblings (clockwise from left) Margaret “Mei” Li, Andrew Li and Irene Li, founders of Mei Mei Street Kitchen.

Food startup incubator CommonWealth Kitchen can already be credited with helping cook up some of the most creative and popular small food businesses in Boston — from food trucks to catering services to online retail brands — but now the organization has jumped into small-scale manufacturing in an attempt to further help the city’s burgeoning small business food sector.

Its first manufacturing deal has helped Mei Mei Street Kitchen, a sibling-run food truck and restaurant serving Chinese-American cuisine, launch its first line of specialty products, as well as an entirely new business arm. With first manufacturing done in December and subsequent production in January, the company’s “Pantry at Mei Mei” line has now launched three sauces for sale online and at some local grocery stores.

The sauces — Apple Hoisin, Cranberry Sweet & Sour and Smoked Maple Ginger — are derived from the sauces used in the making of Mei Mei’s cuisine. The food company has a small restaurant on Park Drive between Fenway and Boston University, a container food kiosk at the Innovation & Design Building in the Seaport District and a food truck that travels around Boston.

Mei Mei was launched with its food truck service out of Gourmet Caterers in Roslindale in 2012. A year later, the company opened its restaurant. Last fall, it opened the container location.

The sauce line is the next step in the company’s expansion.

“We had a lot of people ask could we get this sauce to take home and that kind of spurred us into thinking it would be great for people to be able to buy this that couldn’t get into the restaurant and also expand to a wider audience and expand our brand and our reach,” said Margaret “Mei” Li, who handles Me Mei Street Kitchen’s business development. She started the business along with her brother Andrew and sister Irene. Andrew runs the restaurant and events and Irene runs the kitchen and back of the house operations.

Author: Photo courtesy of Mei Mei Street KitchenApple Hoisin and Smoked Maple Ginger are two sauces offered by Mei Mei Street Kitchen.

Kitchen help

But as is the case with many small-businesses with aspirations for growth along the retail lines there is always one big problem — not enough resources or expertise to handle the actual manufacturing of products.

This is where CommonWealth Kitchen wants to step in for Boston’s small food businesses, and Mei Mei has proved the perfect case in point.

Small manufacturing facilities often need to run thousands of products at a time to make it profitable on their end.

A business like Mei Mei, hoping to run off a couple hundred bottled sauces to test and launch the product, has no real place to turn. Although there are small-scale manufacturing facilities out there, locally there are not many options.

“Mei” Li said it wasn’t hard for her company to come up with the products for their first sauce line or even to have confidence that there was a demand, but how to manufacture a line of products was not something any of the sibling co-founders understood.

“What is great is that CommonWealth Kitchen has the expertise to actually produce it,” said Li. “It would have been very difficult for us to start without CommonWealth Kitchen. … We couldn’t handle it.”

CommonWealth Kitchen Executive Director Jen Faigel acknowledges the difficulty of scaling up food production.

“In the food industry a lot of businesses don’t actually make their product. They hire someone to do it for them,” Faigel said. “They may want to, but they realize they don’t have the licenses, they don’t have the equipment or the expertise.”

The contract with Mei Mei shows how CommonWealth Kitchen can help a business develop a retail product and take it to market and keep producing the product for sales.

Author: Photo courtesy of Mei Mei Street KitchenThe sauce used on this Maple Noodle dish, served at Mei Mei Street Kitchen’s restaurant, is an example of what inspired its new sauce line.

CommonWealth Kitchen has one kitchen facility in Dorchester and one in Jamaica Plain for a combined 40,000 square feet of cooking, prepping, storing and packaging space to offer a small food business looking to get off the ground. At any given time, CommonWealth Kitchen has about 40 different small food businesses using their facilities.

The advantage for the small businesses is that they can rent the facilities only when they need them to cook, bake or prepare food and not have to pay for rental space or kitchens not in use. CommonWealth Kitchen also has the most advanced food cooking, prepping and storage equipment — the kind of stuff that a small business could never afford to just buy at startup.

Well over 25 different small food businesses have “graduated” from CommonWealth Kitchen and are now off with their own locations and facilities.

The other key factor is that CommonWealth Kitchen also has experienced food staff that can

be hired as needed. This staff plays a big role in manufacturing work as well.

For CommonWealth Kitchen the goal is to have its staff manufacturing products for all different companies and create fulltime jobs for these workers.

“One day a week they might work for one food business and the next day work for another,” said Faigel. “We can aggregate contracts. It is part of our job strategy for us as an organization.”

Author: Photo courtesy of Mei Mei Street KitchenThe Mei Mei Street Kitchen food truck.

According to Faigel, the deal with Mei Mei Street Kitchen is just the start of the manufacturing work.

CommonWealth Kitchen produced 350 bottles of sauces for Mei Mei in December and in January produced another 500 bottles that the food business is selling online and in local specialty food stores.

According to Faigel, her organization has about 20 other such contracts in the works and hopes to continue to ramp up its small-scale manufacturing work. As another example, CommonWealth Kitchen is helping Island Creek Oysters manufacture its own cocktail sauce line.

“Lots of different companies come to us and say we need help to do this,” Faigel said. “This is a great way to create jobs but also help businesses scale as well.”