In the days before a gentrified Fishtown, when Old City was Center City’s furthest frontier, Ellen Yin opened Fork at 306 Market Street. It was 1997, and not many restaurants could be found between Broad Street and the waterfront. Yin’s goal was just to stay open for a year. Today, Fork is critically acclaimed, and Yin is the founder and co–owner of High Street Hospitality Group, which manages five successful restaurants.
She was drawn to restaurants from a young age, inspired by her mother’s entertaining at home. Her first job was working at a local Chinese restaurant near her hometown of Robson, New Jersey. Upon feeling that she had mastered her work there, she took her next step up the ladder at a French restaurant just around the corner.
For Yin, a restaurant is more than a place to clock in and clock out, aimlessly fulfilling her duties. It's an enticing performance:
“I kind of had this feeling that a restaurant is like a show,” she says. “I always felt like I was meeting new people from different walks of life and different socioeconomic backgrounds. There was something about that which appealed to me.”
Enamored with restaurants, Yin began dreaming about one day owning her own. So, when the time came for her to go to college, Yin chose Penn for two reasons: First, if she would one day would go on to own a restaurant, she thought a Wharton education might prove helpful in understanding business. And second, Penn was close enough to home that she could easily commute back to work at the French restaurant.
While pursuing her degree in management, she found work as a server and bartender at University City’s La Terrasse. Her three days a week there exposed her to a Philadelphia community she’d come to love.
When Yin graduated, she knew she didn’t want to leave Philadelphia. “There’s something about the community here that I really liked,” she recalls. “ All of my friends from the restaurant lived in Philly, so that social component was important for me.”
Though the thought of opening a restaurant remained in the back of her mind, she took a job at a local advertising agency. Quickly dismayed after learning “what the advertising agency was all about,” she took a sales job at the American Heart Association. Eventually she returned to Penn’s campus to pursue her masters degree in Healthcare Administration all the while thinking to herself: Is this really what I want to do, or would I rather just open a restaurant?
Many a dream has been deferred for a consulting job, and Yin’s case was no different. “Everyone’s going into consulting and investment banking,” she remembers herself thinking. “I might as well try it.” She started out working for Coopers & Lybrand but found the bureaucracy inherent to large corporations unappealing. She knew she “didn’t fit into this large company mold,” so she would move on to work for Thomas Jefferson University Hospital. Still, she wasn’t satisfied.
Fortunately for Philadelphia, Yin’s dream of owning a restaurant never died. In her early thirties, she and her Wharton classmate, Roberto Sella (WG'93), made the decision to open Fork in Old City. At the time, the neighborhood was just beginning to gain traction. Some might’ve considered it a bold move to open a restaurant in Old City, but Yin saw the empty space as an opportunity.
“There was not much competition there,” she says. “You could walk from City Hall to the riverfront and there were maybe three restaurants until you’d get to Old City.”
Yin recalls that after eight months, Fork started to become a destination. Exceeding her expectations, Fork celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2017 and remains a staple of Philadelphia dining today. But Yin has contributed more than one restaurant to the Philly food scene. The way Yin sees it, “entrepreneurs always have an itch to expand.” She’d go on to open Fork:etc, a bakery and prepared foods store, in 2004. Though she decided to close Fork:etc in 2013, Yin converted the space into High Street on Market, a restaurant and bakery that prides itself on serving delicious meals all day. Her impetus for founding High Street Hospitality Group, an executive search firm specializing in the hospitality industry, was an offer to take over a.kitchen in Rittenhouse. Now HSHG manages five restaurants, including High Street Provisions at Franklin’s Table.
Though the success she’s had over the years is more than apparent—she was nominated for the James Beard restaurateur of the year award in 2018—she’s quick to deflect praise towards those whom she works with: “Really, the people on our team are what have made me successful,” she says. “So for them, these types of awards really give focus, direction, and recognition so that they know their work is acknowledged.”