TUPELO – In 1991, Taiwan resident Mei-Huei Wu answered a call from a cousin who had opened a restaurant inside Tupelo, Mississippi's, new shopping complex, The Mall at Barnes Crossing.
That restaurant was Magic Wok, and Wu's cousin needed her help to run it. Wu agreed, and she flew the 20-plus hours to Tupelo, a place she had never seen.
"My cousin was here way back, probably 50 years ago, and she opened Magic Wok here and asked me to come, and that's why I'm here," said Wu, who most people know as Jessie. "It ended up, she left, and I stayed. She opened up another store in Memphis, and she went there and left it to me to take care of. I said, 'OK.'"
In August 2020, Magic Wok was sold, and a month later, Jessie took over The Pretzel Twister.
It has been a transition she's been happy to make. Running a restaurant is a lot more work, she said. There's the prep work involved with chicken, beef, vegetables, etc., that includes hours of cutting, slicing, dicing and marinating, plus the cooking necessary to keep food on the line throughout the day.
Making pretzels is a little less work, but Jessie still gets to her shop early in the mornings before the mall opens. It's not as much prep work, but she still has to get the dough ready to create fresh pretzels, something that's done every morning and throughout the day.
Judging by the long lines often seen at store, it's clear the pretzels, pretzel bites, Icees and other favorites are popular with customers of all ages.
Another generation of customers
Jessie, along with her husband and two children, have been fixtures at the mall, so much so that they're now seeing a new generation of customers come through.
"I didn't think I'd be here this long," she said with a laugh. "I had customers who were teenagers who came with their parents. Suddenly, they're now coming here with their own kids. But some of them move away come back and say, 'You're still here!'"
When her cousin originally asked her to help run her restaurant, Wu had planned to stay just a short time before returning to Taiwan. Instead, the work kept her here, and she quickly grew to love the area.
"I really like it here," she said. "The people are so friendly and nice."
Over the years, family and friends have asked why she hasn't returned to her native Taiwan. While she does miss seeing them on a daily basis, her roots are now firmly planted in Mississippi.
"I've gone back to Taiwan to visit, and we'll stay a few weeks," she said. "I mean, I like to see everybody. But to live there? I don't know. I've been living here for 30-something years and I'm used to it. I'm used to the weather, the way of life, everything. I'll go visit Taiwan for 30 days but at the end of that, I'm ready to come back to Mississippi."
As for how she's managed to be a successful businesswoman for so many years, Jessie said there are no secrets to tell.
"You just take care of the customers," she said. "You provide them fresh food, friendly service, and they'll come back. And you also have to work hard."
Hard work is nothing unusual for Jessie's family. Her father is 87 and still farms in Taiwan, growing oranges. He starts work at 5 a.m.
"He said he wouldn't know what else to do if he retired so he just keeps working," she said.
As for her own retirement, Jessie said it's far too early to think about it. When she does, her husband has suggested they move back to Taiwan.
"I don't know about that," she said with a smile.
So with 32 years invested here, Jessie likely has many more years to go, which is a good thing for The Pretzel Twister fans.
"It's too early to talk about retiring," she said. "We work every day, all the time, and I don't know what we would do if we retired. I probably couldn't stand it."
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