Ellen Yin is not going to let coronavirus stop her and her staff from serving the area in which her restaurants Fork, and its next-door neighbor High Street on Market, dwell – Old City – or those regulars looking to keep their culinary chops sharpened during a pandemic. Though Fork’s new Executive Chef Jeremy Hansen is currently on COVID-19 furlough, Christina McKeough, the CDC of High Street on Market, and Yin are keeping the lights on, the pots boiling and the pans sizzling with a full menu for take-out or delivery from High Street, as well as a rotating, daily “Family Meal” inspired by the restaurant tradition of eating a staff meal together. The Staff meal is announced daily on their Instagram account. Orders can also be placed online via sister restaurant High Street on Market (see link above) and can be picked up from there as well between 4-8 p.m.
Yin spoke to me while preparing for another day in the trenches.
A.D. Amorosi: First and foremost how are you holding up – physically and professionally – health-wise? And how much do you just feel like throwing off the shackles of face masks?
Ellen Yin: We are holding up. There are so many things to juggle – beyond the day to day operations albeit small, grocery shopping for our families, making sure we are protecting our families, filling out SBA forms, participating in many Zoom conferences with legislative folks through the PRLA, trying to get something going with meals for front line hospital workers through Fuel the Fight and making sure all our team members are in touch and feeling OK. Now that we are past the filling of the forms, I feel much better.
A.D. Amorosi: So many restaurants and bars are doing take-out, but, Fork and High Street seem to have devoted diners, especially within the Old City area. What has it meant, to Fork/High Street fans for you to keep your restaurants open for take-out?
Ellen Yin: Fork is closed to the public. Other than the staff meals, it would not be possible to translate what we were doing to take out. We are trying to figure out what it will be when things get better. High Street is still offering delivery and pick up for brunch on the weekends, daily lunch, our new sourdough pizzas that were inspired by our monthly pizza nights, homemade pasta and our new dinner menu. That menu is an abbreviated version of the High Street menu, so not too far from what we do normally. We need to keep it simple in line with the amount of labor we have. Breads have been flying out the door – we have been selling out frequently, so we recommend pre-ordering so we can gauge our customers’ needs. Guests are generally extremely appreciative that we are open. We’re operating on a skeleton crew, so a special thanks to our team members. We have incredible camaraderie right now – everyone trusts each other – which is essential for the safety of the team.
A.D. Amorosi: What was the decision to do take-out like in regard to helping workers purses? For bringing in necessary cash flow for both spaces?
Ellen Yin: The past month has been fraught with so much uncertainty. Fortunately, we have been baking bread and selling to Heirloom Markets for the past year, and when the shelter in place regulations were announced, the grocery doubled all their orders. They have been incredible partners and so keeping the bakery open was a no brainer – but they are only one part of the equation. Since High Street has been doing take out for 5 years, I didn’t think it would be a huge departure from what we were doing. Quite honestly though with all the uncertainty, part of my decision to stay open was fear of the unknown. Fear of closing and not being able to re-open. Fear of running out of money. Fear of losing the momentum of our core group and of course protecting the jobs of whomever possible.
A.D. Amorosi: What was the decision like in terms of what both restaurants would offer?
Ellen Yin: Trying to keep it streamlined, but attractive to customers. What do people want to eat during these trying times?
A.D. Amorosi: Doing the full menu from High Street on Market sounds ambitious – bread program and new pizza items, and all.
Ellen Yin: The bakery was continuing due to our partnership with Heirloom. We were also working with Giordano’s with their grocery boxes, but now that everything has to be individually wrapped, it puts a huge additional labor factor in so that was short-lived. We are hunkering down on what we do best – which for High Street starts with the bread. Pizza is a natural extension for us – as a bakery, we are already making dough. We had been testing the waters of a pizza concept monthly and this was a perfect opportunity to test the waters. My favorite is the fennel sausage with Calabrian peppers. We also added phenomenal bagels – everything bagel has caraway and a little spice – which I am addicted to.
A.D. Amorosi: Fork is offering a daily “Family Meal” inspired by the restaurant tradition of eating a staff meal together. That too sounds crazy ambitious… 40 meals daily – 30 at $20 per person and 10 are offered free for anyone in a difficult position. How did you come to the “Staff Meal” idea?
Ellen Yin: I think during these times, people are craving comfort style food. No one needs an elaborate plating which might never translate in a to-go box, or anything experimental. Right now people are seeking simple delicious satisfying meals. Every day our team sits down to a family meal – it comprises of something healthy with protein, vegetables, starch, salad. Usually, it is rustic and often braised because it is the easiest and fastest way to feed 50 people. We had to move through a lot of products that we had in house and the spontaneity and rustic-ness of family meal made it a perfect translation for not only what our task at hand was, but what customers were craving.
A.D. Amorosi: What have some of the packages included in Staff Meal? What have been the most rewarding items to cook?
Ellen Yin: It is always rewarding to cook food that people want to eat. Ragus, stews are some of my favorites to cook, but it is more exciting when guests respond positively and order more. The most popular items have been steak which quite frankly was a no brainer. That opened the door to people seeing that there was real value in what we were doing. We have transitioned a little away from what we were previously doing. We noticed that the simpler the entrée, the more interested guests were. So we have evolved this into the choice of salmon, braised short rib or duck breast and choice of sides: grilled Caesar, warm grains with wild mushrooms, roasted carrots with citrus butter, white bean and herb salad. $25. For an additional $5, you can have chocolate cake or lemon tart.
A.D. Amorosi: I’ll do an extra $10 dollars and have both the cake and the tart. What does it mean to change your culinary mindset to include delivery?
Ellen Yin: Everything has to translate from the store to home – including being able to sustain the trip, looking delicious and ready to eat. That isn’t easy when you are used to assembling everything a la minute. It means looking at every step of the process and asking whether it is making the food better. That includes packaging, saucing, temperatures, etc.
A.D. Amorosi: Not asking you to give specific dollar amounts, but, how many items have you been selling daily?
Ellen Yin: Last week looks like about 1,300 items so roughly 150 to 200 items a day including bread, beer, pastries, sandwiches, salads, dinner, gift cards etc.
A.D. Amorosi: So how long can Fork and High Street – any of the independent Philly restaurants and bars – hang on in your humble opinion?
Ellen Yin: Without government support – it can’t. Take out business is generating 20% of what we need to survive.