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Mei Mei in Old City to reopen after deal was reached to end restaurant lockout

City Councilman Allan Domb, who has personal restaurant and real estate interests, was credited for brokering the agreement.

Mei Mei owner and executive chef Jay Ho stands in front of his shuttered Old City restaurant and lounge on Monday, December 28, 2020.
Mei Mei owner and executive chef Jay Ho stands in front of his shuttered Old City restaurant and lounge on Monday, December 28, 2020.Read moreYONG KIM / Staff Photographer

Mei Mei, an Asian restaurant in Old City that was shuttered mysteriously Thanksgiving weekend, will reopen in late January after a deal was reached Wednesday between the owner and the company that operates its building.

Attorneys credited City Councilmember Allan Domb with brokering the agreement between Mei Mei’s owner, Hsiang “Jay” Ho, and Old City Pretzel Co., the corporation that oversees the operation of 33 S. Second St.

Domb, who with his personal real estate and restaurant holdings in the city has taken a keen interest in small businesses during the pandemic, reached out to both parties on Christmas Day after Ho took to Instagram to contend that he was locked out in violation of his lease.

Old City Pretzel countered that Ho was operating the restaurant and its liquor license under a management agreement, not a lease.

The terms of the settlement, reached after seven hours of discussions over two days, were not disclosed. Neither lawyer would address the dispute to The Inquirer in a joint phone call.

“We’ve set aside our differences,” said Michael Adler, who represents Ho.

“Allan’s experience as an investor, restaurateur, and landlord was invaluable,” said Joseph Rutala, representing Old City Pretzel.

“I’m just happy to help,” Domb said. “Every resident’s and business’ success in this city is our success, too.” Domb said he had mediated other disputes this year but declined to identify the parties.

The agreement allows Ho to get back in business. He had high hopes for his first solo venture, apart from his family. His parents are Taiwanese immigrants who own restaurants in Allentown.

Ho opened Mei Mei on March 12, with what he intended as a big-city look: cherry blossoms, velvet wall panels, hues of pink and purple, and a wall of lucky cats. Downstairs is a low-lit grotto serving as a lounge.

Then came the pandemic. Four days later, the city and state shuttered dining rooms. Mei Mei remained open for takeout and delivery, and briefly for in-person dining, which yielded a fraction of his projected sales volume.

On Nov. 29, a Mei Mei employee who lives across the street said he saw the façade being boarded and a padlock being installed on the door.

In his Instagram post, Ho said that when he arrived in the alley behind the restaurant, security guards barred him from entering.

He was mystified at the lockout. Philadelphia court records show no record of a lawsuit, which would precede an eviction. (The city instituted a moratorium on commercial evictions, effective Dec. 9 — but that was after the lockout.)

Both Old City Pretzel and the building’s owner, 33 South Investor Group, have some common members, according to public records. Old City Pretzel also controls the restaurant’s liquor license.

Ho said late Wednesday that he needed to gain access to the restaurant, clean out spoiled food, straighten up, and rehire staff. His reopening target is mid- to late January, given that Philadelphia is showing signs of allowing restaurants to reopen for indoor dining on Jan. 15.