As the founder and co-owner of High Street Hospitality Group, restaurateur Ellen Yin operates five of the country’s most noteworthy restaurants and bars: Fork, High Street on Market, High Street Provisions, and a.kitchen+bar in Philadelphia, and High Street on Hudson in Manhattan.
Here is what Ellen had to say when we asked her about creating a recipe for success:
What does the process of opening a restaurant look like from conception to completion?
It is a long process. Restaurants are a location, so first you find a space that you will either rent or own. Then you need to create a business plan because it is a major task turning a space into an experience. Your business plan creates a roadmap for you to follow that addresses all of the questions you will need to answer in order to operate. Some questions you need to answer include: What kind of food will I serve? Is it quick service? What should the space look like? What is the management style? Will you have a partner? How will people be paid? Once you answer all of your operational questions, you have to look at your financial projections. Opening a restaurant can cost $15,000 to $15 million, and usually takes at least one year to do.
What are the two most important skills you need to succeed in the hospitality industry?
One, you have to be an excellent negotiator. When it comes to hospitality, there are so many players involved ranging from contractors to co-workers to consumers. You need to be an expert at communicating what you want, while also having the empathy to understand where others are coming from. Two, you must have perseverance. It is really hard to enter the hospitality industry and move up within it. Whether you are a chef or restaurateur, it is challenging. Leverage your network, put yourself in a position to succeed, and work hard.
How do you develop a loyal customer base and adapt to new industry trends?
In the restaurant industry, your customer base is constantly evolving. Loyal customers are a fleeting moment. Customers move away, get sick of you, and change their diet. All of these people need to be replaced constantly. The best thing you can do is understand what customers are looking for. For example, my restaurant, Fork, started out as a neighborhood bistro, but has become more sophisticated because that is what people want.
How do you manage a large team working across different restaurants and cities to uphold the High Street Hospitality Group brand?
Sometimes you cannot make the culture the exact same; however, you can make sure all of your restaurants have positive cultures that uphold your core values. You do have to give your leadership teams the freedom to make decisions and mistakes and grow. When we opened in New York City, we brought our Philly team there to show them the ways. The New York workers followed these practices initially, but had to make changes that worked best for their location.
What steps should people take if they are interested in pursuing a career as a restauranteur?
It never hurts to work in a restaurant. If you want to work in hospitality, get a job where you can observe what people do. Work in coat check, so you can learn the business. I know a lot of people who work as a stagiaire (an unpaid kitchen intern). This gives you a way to learn without assuming any risk. Life changes all the time, and when one door closes another opens. If you think you want to work in one area that is great. However, if you have multiple interests dabble in all of them and be fluid. You never know what will come to fruition.
What is the most important lesson you have learned throughout your career journey?
There are no mistakes. Only lessons that can be learned. We sometimes strive for perfection and want to be right all the time. You cannot get better or evolve if you never get any feedback (whether it is positive or negative). Feedback is extremely valuable. Do not harp on mistakes. I have made tons of mistakes in my career and got better because of them.
As the founder and co-owner of High Street Hospitality Group, restaurateur Ellen Yin operates five of the country’s most noteworthy restaurants and bars: Fork, High Street on Market, High Street Provisions, and a.kitchen+bar in Philadelphia, and High Street on Hudson in Manhattan. Yin was nominated “Outstanding Restaurateur” by the James Beard Foundation in 2018 and 2019, and was the 2019 Honoree of the Philadelphia Chapter of Les Dames d’Escoffier International. Fork was named one of the “20 Best Restaurants in Philadelphia” by Conde Nast Traveler in 2019, and the publication also named High Street on Market on their list of the “11 Best Brunch Places in Philadelphia.” High Street on Market was awarded The Inquirer’s “Restaurant of the Year” in 2014, and Bon Appetit named it number two in the country in their annual “America’s Best New Restaurants” issue in 2014. Likewise, Travel + Leisure named High Street on Market one of the best new restaurants in the world in 2015. High Street on Hudson earned a coveted “Two Stars” review from The New York Times’ Pete Wells, and the New York Post called it the best new restaurant of the year. Food & Wine included it among their 10 best of the year as well. Since she debuted Fork in 1997, Yin’s leadership has included overseeing a team of talented professionals in all areas of the restaurant, from the award-winning chefs to the gracious and hospitable managers and front-of-house staff. Yin fosters a creative and welcoming environment in her restaurants, and alums frequently credit her with mentoring them. Yin is also the author of Forklore: Recipes and Tales from an American Bistro (Temple University Press, 2007), a thoughtful chronicle of her ongoing success at creating and maintaining a definitive American bistro in Philadelphia’s historic Old City, and served as the keynote speaker for graduation ceremonies at the Culinary Institute of America. Over the years, she has partnered with a number of dynamic chefs to keep Fork’s menu and concept fresh; since bringing Chef Eli Kulp to Philadelphia in late 2012 (Chef Kulp is now Yin’s business partner in High Street Hospitality Group), Yin has expanded her smartly built family of restaurants to include more top locations and exciting talent. She is a graduate of the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, and currently serves on the board of the Delaware River Waterfront Corporation, the Arden Theater Company, and the Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center at Jefferson Hospital.