In 1997, before Fishtown was full of the hustle and bustle that we know it to be and Old City was Center City’s furthest frontier, Ellen Yin (W '87) opened Fork at 306 Market St., one of the only restaurants that stood facing the waterfront at the time. Her goal was to keep the business afloat, but over 20 years later, Fork is not only still standing, but also critically acclaimed.
Much has changed both for Yin and the restaurant industry since Fork’s opening. Yin is the founder and co–owner of High Street Hospitality Group, which includes Fork Restaurant, High Street Philly, a.kitchen + bar, High Street on Hudson (their first outpost in New York) and High Street Provisions at Franklin’s Table—a Penn favorite.
“When I started, the restaurant scene was just starting to revive itself from the recession in the late eighties,” says Yin. “Things like outdoor dining and higher end restaurants weren’t very prevalent.” Through her experiences working at both White Dog Café and La Terrasse as a student before opening Fork, Yin experienced the growth of the city alongside her own growth. “We had something new and different,” says Yin about the success of Fork. “We were doing farm–to–table food before farm–to–table was even really a widely–used term.”
But Yin has contributed more than just great restaurants to Philadelphia's food scene. This past year has been hard on the restaurant industry, with shutdowns resulting in what is projected to be years of repercussions. “I don’t think ever in my career I’ve felt like I’ve wanted to cry, but having to lay off so many people was really heartbreaking,” says Yin. “I tried to keep on the team those who were most vulnerable.”
Looking back over the year, Yin admits her initial naiveté, saying, “at first, I thought it was just temporary, at that point, I never thought that it would be a year full of trying to navigate through all of the restrictions.” Fork had to adapt from catering to a handful of people at the restaurant to making meals for essential workers, including doctors, nurses and other hospital staff. “[We made sure] that the people who needed food got food.” The pandemic also drove Yin and her team to pivot to a model that relied on outdoor dining as well as providing more takeout options, like many other restaurants in the area.
Despite all of the obstacles that the pandemic has thrown her way, Yin has been able to find a silver lining. “At the beginning of this pandemic, a lot of flaws in the restaurant industry became exposed,” said Yin when asked about the impetus behind amplifying the voices of women in the restaurant industry. One such effort was Let’s Talk, an action–led movement driven by women restaurateurs to provide industry–wide tools and resources. Yin became involved with the organization by attending a similar meeting for women restaurateurs in Chicago. The participants talked about their challenges, both personal and professional, and shared advice and support.
“Although I am experienced, I have never experienced a pandemic,” Yin said jokingly, “having other people that you have something in common to and can relate to … I think everybody needs that.” Following the Chicago event, Yin saw the potential of establishing such a group in Philadelphia. “[My friend] asked whether I’d be interested in starting something similar in Philadelphia and I said, ‘absolutely.’”
Beyond that, recognizing that talk without action can become tiresome, the organizers of Let’s Talk created the Sisterly Love Food Fair, a pop–up market filled with women–led businesses. While Let’s Talk is more geared towards female restaurateurs, Sisterly Love engages a variety of professions, including but not limited to local makers, entrepreneurs, and anyone working in the hospitality industry. “There are more small businesses run by women than there are female executives and [therefore,] women are disproportionately affected by this pandemic,” she says while stressing the need for events such as the fair, businesses, which she calls “the fabric of our community.”
In honor of International Women’s Day on March 8th, Let’s Talk hosted a virtual event moderated by Angela Duckworth, well–known Penn professor and author. The event was paired with a multi–restaurant tasting dinner, curated by 19 women in the industry. The group sold over 275 dinners. However, this is not the last of what Yin has planned.
“We have several panels with the Wharton school coming up … virtually at Penn through Wharton Women in Business,” says Yin. Alongside the panels in partnership with Wharton, Yin has helped to organize upcoming events in partnership with 100 Women in Finance, as well as panels in partnership with the Philadelphia city government. However, she stressed that supporting your local female business can be as easy as choosing to buy lunch there instead of a fast–food chain, or by simply tagging them on social media.
For those interested in working in the food industry, Yin’s advice is that “[although] it may seem like a glamorous business, remember you’re working holidays … and sometimes you’re the one cleaning the bathroom or you have to run to the store," she recommends that “the best thing is to get some hands–on experience.” Yin also stressed the importance of perseverance in order to keep small businesses afloat: “The longer you stay alive, the longer you are able to be inventive and creative.”