An exclusive first interview with the Old City Philly restauranteur Ellen Yin on what it means to have the wool yanked from under you, and to find new footing.
When Monday’s statement about High Street on Market hit – that after 16 years in Old City, the neighboring sister space to Fork would have to leave its current location at 308 Market Street due to an incredibly increasing rent increase of 50 plus percent in the past year – it was a genuine punch to the gut. Along with its baled goods and dynamic early morning meal entries, High Street on Market became very much an independent force from its neighbor, High Street owner Ellen Yin’s original eatery, Fork. To be clear, Fork remains in service as it operates under a separate lease with a different landlord. Fork’s private dining room, though, within the current High Street on Market space, will cease to operate, Fork is also renovating its main dining room.
Though High Street on Market will leave its current location at 308 Market Street, it is currently still open and serving at least through mid-September, as the lease expires September 30th. Better news still is that High Street will re-locate and start fresh. So this is not a permanent closure, but a bump in the road – but a really unnecessary bump considering how all restaurants and landlords are getting slammed by COVID-19 troubles and should be in this together.
In her first Q+A interview since the statement, Yin tells me about what happened and what lies ahead in her own words.
A.D. Amorosi: I spoke with you very early on in the C-19 closure/high-end restaurant takeout new world order. How has that process been for Fork and High Street? It sounds as if you were making inroads and selling a lot (as much as you could) meals.
Ellen Yin: When the shutdown orders took place, we kept High Street open because the demand for our breads was so high. During that time, we worked very hard to make High Street translate to a “to-go” option. We have developed some amazing pizzas which were an offshoot of our evening pizza nights over the past year, continued our house-made pasta, sandwiches, salads which could all stand up to being transported and eaten immediately or later. During that time, Fork was serving front line workers as you know, and then over Mother’s Day, we started doing dinner to go. To make Fork as user-friendly as possible, we created some tasty but approachable and very seasonal menu items and also created grill boxes and graduation boxes for people to enjoy.
A.D. Amorosi: What did the PPE loans do for you? How did it help both places?
Ellen Yin: We have about 30 full-time employees. That is only half of what we had in the past, but given that we only have very limited outside seating, it is needed given that we had no rent relief.”
A.D. Amorosi: When and how did you begin to see that things might not last with High Street?
Ellen Yin: Last year was the end of all our options for both restaurants, and we had to renegotiate. High Street is a very large space – almost 4,000 square feet. It includes the private room, the bakery and our offices. Knowing that a 50% increase rent would be very difficult, but not finding any other spaces last spring, I renewed for one year, followed by two 3-year options. Given that there will be a much-reduced private event business, outdoor dining winding down when the weather becomes colder and remote working by our administrative staff, reduced capacity at High Street would never be able to carry the burden of the rent.
A.D. Amorosi: What were the rate increases like? Over 50 percent of a hike seems borderline crazy?
Ellen Yin: There are small real estate owners who feel that market rent for Market Street is over $45 a square foot. Meanwhile, neither could be considered a Class-A property. All the improvements that have been made were made by us. Unfortunately, that is the risk you take over a long term lease, and they also feel that they could have gotten more.
A.D. Amorosi: What were conversations like with High Street’s landlord about possible hold or reduction of rent? I mean why the rush? Does she or he have another tenant lined up?
Ellen Yin: No reduction in rent, not a penny. Everyone has bills to pay. The best that could be done was not to apply the 3 percent increase they would have gotten if we renewed. The lease ends September 30th. Holding over would be at 150 percent of the daily rate.
A.D. Amorosi: Say something please about the very best and unique things that High Street on Market offered the dining community… alone and as an ancillary aspect of and sister to Fork.
Ellen Yin: High Street on Market was truly a collaborative effort between our chefs, local purveyors, industry colleagues and our service team. The many events that were held from Sandwich Battles to our Blue Moon dinners to pizza nights all were determined to foster a community of people who care about where their food comes from and the people who make it, grow it and love it. The fact that it was adjacent to Fork allowed for a lot of internal collaboration and sharing of resources, created more space to let the Fork breathe and have space as well. When it was Fork, etc before High Street, much of the food was prepared by the Fork chefs.
A.D. Amorosi: So, you are saying “relocation,” not closure in relation to High Street’s finale in Old City – and possibly by mid-September… Is this because you have a new space picked out?
Ellen Yin: We are looking to make an immediate, but temporary move to a space that can house our bakery. There is so much unknown about the future, it is unlikely to be as large as space as our 308 footprint. But High Street itself will probably remain about the same size.”
A.D. Amorosi: What is the cautionary tale to be told here? You are an excellent business person, and your insight into this is key.
Ellen Yin: Nothing is forever! Be prepared with an exit strategy!