Ellen Yin: ‘The story of women during this pandemic is one of resiliency’

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Ellen Yin is involved with Women Changing the City, a series of noteworthy panels featuring accomplished women from the business community.

What a wild ride the past year has been.

The restaurant industry has been hit hard by the pandemic with shutdowns and projected years of repercussions. But, even through the obstacles that COVID-19 and beyond have caused, restauranteur Ellen Yin is able to see a silver lining.

“I personally feel that the story of women during this pandemic, especially in the hospitality industry, is one of resiliency and flexibility and collaboration—and that’s a lesson that anyone can take away in any business.”

Yin is a well-known hospitality veteran in the city, and if you haven’t heard her name personally, chances are you know of her spots.

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 City) and High Street Provisions. The culinary group has had major success, and Yin truly knows her stuff—in fact, she literally wrote the book on it (her 2015 publication “Forklore: Recipes and Tales from an American Bistro.”) But what many people may not know is just how involved Yin is with amplifying success in the restaurant and hospitality business, especially with women when she’s not on the clock.

Ellen Yin is the founder and co-owner of High Street Hospitality Group, which includes Fork Restaurant in Old City. Provided

One of those involvements is Let’s Talk, a national contingency of female independent restaurant operators who work collectively to provide and amplify industry-wide tools and resources. Yin became part of the organization through a friend that she knew from the James Beard Foundation and jumped at the chance to hop on a call with other women in the industry from Chicago.

“I always like to learn from other cities and other people, so I got on it, and I was really inspired by how honest the conversation and how supportive it felt,” explains Yin. “[My friend] asked, would you want to start one in Philadelphia? I said yes, absolutely. I think this is something that women in Philly would benefit from— just having that comradery and support, especially now during the pandemic… Because no one knows what the answer is.”

Some answers have come. One, in particular, is the response to how to get attention to these women-owned businesses. The solution is through a traveling pop-up food fair presented by top female chefs, restaurateurs and entrepreneurs. The Sisterly Love Citywide Food Fair is a women-led initiative to promote Philadelphia-based and female-run hospitality business affected by the pandemic by way of traveling food markets. For National Women’s History Month, the food fair has decided to celebrate with the special  pop-ups heading to all corners of the region for four consecutive weekends.

“The Sisterly Love Food Fair came out of Lets Talk,” says Yin. “Bridget Foy, who’s one of the members and host, brought this idea to the table when she was going to bring a market to her restaurant. It evolved to these revolving locations where it could be at numerous places in the city and it would be a way during the holiday season to get attention to these women-owned businesses.”

Yin also explains that although the Sisterly Love Food Fair came out of Let’s Talk, the latter is for brick and mortar venues while the Food Fair is more for starting entrepreneurs and people who are at different levels in their career. The restauranteur also noted that women probably comprise the largest component of small businesses and also why there are so many reasons women in general are more severely affected by this pandemic.

“When the shutdown came, as a business person, you had to have very deep pockets to keep it going, because most businesses are 15 to 30 days cash flow. [And now] women are caretakers or homeschool their children or have to take care of the elderly,” says Yin. “It’s not possible for restaurant people to work remotely from home. With access to capital, women traditionally have not had the same resources and that’s why PPP and some of these grant programs are targeted to women and BIPOC, because those populations have not had the opportunities to access [that type of money.] Or they’re not technically familiar with what’s available and out there.”

To help support women locally, Yin approached the Center City Proprietors Association, which is comprised of downtown Philadelphia business owners along with Tess Hart, Michelle Nelson, Bridget Foy and Jezebel Careaga. In a piece about supporting other women, Yin did not hold back either. Most of the interview with the hospitality maven was filled with her support for fellow females in the restaurant industry. She explained how Hart hires second chance employees to get them working again, and that Nelson owns Mama Tees Fridges, an organization of community fridges with sustenance to help feed the food insecure. She also went into how Careaga won an award from Ford Motor Company as one of the top 10 Latina-owned businesses, and how Foy has had to rebuild everything through hard work ad perseverance after a fire blazed through her restaurant in 2018.

Yin, along with the women above, are involved with Women Changing the City, a series of noteworthy panels featuring accomplished women from the business community. The panel takes place on March 10 and will be moderated by the Inquirer’s Jamila Robinson. “I think these are stories that anybody can learn something from, myself included. Jamila will do an incredible job of telling the story,” notes Yin.

Yin is also working on an event with the Wharton Women of business (her alma mater) collaborating with the Alliance of Women Entrepreneurs and with The Walnut Club, which is a networking group for women.

a.kitchen is part of High Street Hospitality Group. Provided

Lastly, for International Women’s Day on March 8, Yin and the Philadelphia Women in Food group are hosting a surprise multi-restaurant tasting dinner and virtual conversation moderated by New York Times Best Selling Author Angela Duckworth. Those who pre-ordered for the event will be enjoying four course meals with dishes from women-led restaurants including Fork, Vernick, Kalaya and Cry Baby Pasta.

“In terms of supporting other women: Shop female, go to your favorite woman-owned restaurant or get take-out from them, get cards, and support them in whatever way you can because obviously we want the restaurant industry in general to survive this. That would be a huge part of everybody’s success once the economy restarts,” says Yin.

With Women’s History Month in full swing, Yin also left with another piece of advice for females in any career:

“Find yourself in as many places as you can listening, because listening can give you a lot of ideas,” she says. “I’ve learned so much from being in this collaborative group and listening to other women in other cities. Sometimes when you feel like you’ve hit rock bottom and you’re opening yourself up to be vulnerable to what other people have to say, it inspires you to come up with new ideas.”

For more information on Ellen Yin and High Street Hospitality Group, visit highsthospitality.com

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