As part of my series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Ellen Yin.
As the founder and co-owner of High Street Hospitality Group (HSHG), 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.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
Like so many people in the industry, I got my start when I was in high school working at a neighborhood restaurant. In my case, the neighborhood restaurant happened to be a French restaurant considered by many at the time to be one of the best in New Jersey. I remember walking into the vestibule and seeing tons of glassware and wondering whether my clumsiness would survive this job. Quickly, I overcame that fear and fell in love with the diversity, pace and energy of the restaurant scene. From that point forward, I’ve been singularly focused on making a mark on the hospitality industry by creating innovative, equitable and sustainable concepts that keep the industry moving forward.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
I’ve made so many mistakes. But I would say that one of my biggest mistakes is waiting for someone else, to the point where I didn’t go on vacation numerous times because I was waiting for XYZ to happen. That isn’t really funny, but when your significant other is calling you from vacation and telling you they are extending and extending and extending, you start to wonder!!! Meanwhile, I’m waiting and waiting and waiting! Everyone needs a vacation, don’t wait!
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I have had so much help along the way! Although hospitality was in my blood, I really had no idea how I was going to be able to fund a restaurant. I went to college and grad school at Penn and among the really great friends I made was my business partner of over 23 years Roberto Sella. Post-graduation many people would leave Philadelphia for New York City or elsewhere for finance jobs. Roberto ended up staying in Philly and I learned quickly how much he loved wine and entertaining as well. Many dinner parties and bottles of wine later, we agreed that Roberto needed a restaurant to drink his own wine- and a restaurant with a seasonally changing menu that was delicious, warm and welcoming. With about $40,000 from each of us, we found a building in Old City Philadelphia that was wide and had high ceilings. I fell in love with the vacant shell. Our chef partner Anne-Marie Lasher put in $10,000 and we were able to borrow the rest to create an environment that was Fork; a warm neighborhoody New American bistro in 1997.
That was just the beginning. We have had so many friends and family throughout the year who have contributed to making Fork and its subsequent restaurants vibrant neighborhood spots. We couldn’t be more grateful for our talented staff throughout the years — so many people have contributed to the growth and improvement of each of our concepts.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
In so many words, our mission was and will always be, feeding people exceptional food responsibly and equitably. But in the very beginning, our mission was very simple to help grow the local economy by supporting regional farms and serving the freshest most delicious food in Philadelphia. To achieve that, we wanted to create a team with similar views about food and service, and to attract the best, we made it a goal to ensure that our team have traditional benefits like health care, 401K, cafeteria plan which we have offered since 1998. Recently, we partnered with A Better Life Therapy to provide free mental health initiatives for those in the restaurant industry as well as an employee assistance program for our staff that includes telemedicine and other wellness benefits.
This all preceded the term “farm-to-table”, but over the past twenty years, we have modified our mission to be a sustainable business, which entails buying even more product from local farms, reducing waste, and being an active member of the local ecosystem.
In the wake of COVID-19, how we go about that mission has changed a little bit. While we have adapted most of our restaurants to offer takeout and delivery during the stay at home order, we have also been heavily involved in feeding frontline workers, the food insecure and those who were negatively impacted by the racial protests.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
In my 20-plus years of owning and operating restaurants, the vast majority of that time has been difficult and uncertain — that’s just how the industry is. Something I never dreamed possible happened 5 years ago. Our Chef partner, Eli Kulp, who was at the top of his career and had contributed so much to the development of our restaurant group, was on Amtrak 188, the train that derailed from Philadelphia to New York. Many people, including Eli, were injured and there were fatalities, too. We were planning High Street on Hudson, and Eli had been commuting back and forth. He came to Philadelphia in 2012 as a young, talented chef to take over the kitchen at Fork. The next year, we launched High Street on Market next door and things progressed from there. Eli became my partner to form High Street Hospitality Group comprised of Fork, High Street on Market, High Street Provisions and a.kitchen+bar in Philadelphia and High Street on Hudson in NYC.
I remember receiving the call from his wife who believed Eli was on the train. He had just literally left my office, rushing off to catch the train, it seemed impossible that he could be on it. I immediately started calling the local hospitals and located him. That night I knew Eli had suffered a spinal cord injury, how severe, I wasn’t sure. No one knew because Eli was a monthly pass holder, so he wasn’t on the manifest. A few days later, Eli recorded one of the most heart wrenching messages to our staff. We knew at that point, he would be in recovery for months. But on top of that, Eli would need to be able to cover his medical bills, sustain his family, etc.
So many decisions had to be made. Should we proceed with the restaurant in NYC? How would we cover his absence?
Trying to be as transparent as possible about Eli’s prognosis while still remaining hopeful for physical improvement and his return to the business in whatever capacity that might be became the focal point of the next few months. Focus, hope, positivity and creating a collaborative environment enabled us to achieve some of our teamwork ever. More than ever before, front and back were unified, Fork and High Street were unified, and High Street on Hudson opened with amazing anticipation and reviews. Throughout that period Eli’s resilience and creativity throughout his recovery were indelibly inspiring to me.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
Maybe for 5 minutes, but not ever for very long (LOL). As a leader, giving up can have serious implications for everyone else involved in your business. Because I value my staff so much and know that most of them depend on their job with us, I am all too aware of what giving up could do to the very people that make it all possible.
I would say that the prospect of what COVID-19 would mean for the industry was probably a worry to me even from the beginning when I started seeing revenues falling, parties cancelling and increasing discussion about a shutdown prior to mid-March. I was increasingly worried about how we would be able to survive even without the government shut down. Thoughts of bankruptcy, eviction, having to lay people off, people who hadn’t saved for a rainy day and the undocumented workers who depend on our industry, all kept me up at night. Then I realized that we were indeed all in the same boat. Like everyone else we had to lay off a large portion of the team quite quickly. There was no quitting. If we closed down the restaurant, it might never re-open, so we kept High Street open serving take out as an essential business. My thinking was that by being open, we would learn how to transition, to pivot into whatever we would need to be. By the time the federal government released the PPP program, I had already applied for city loans, SBA disaster loans, etc., because I knew to survive. I would have no choice. So, just keep going — taking one day at a time.
In addition to COVID, we had an untenable rent increase last October. Knowing that this could be too large of an increase to sustain, I negotiated terms to be one year, three and three. Unfortunately, our landlord was unable to give any concessions, so we made the difficult decision to relocate High Street on Market. The same worry that kept me up at night in March now somehow creeped back into my mind again. When I finally realized that to keep as many of our team employed until this all passes, I decided that I was wishful for the impossible. High Street housed our bakery, private room and dining room and with the prospect of only 25% dining which only just got approved, it was unlikely that the revenue we were generating could sustain the rent. Fortunately, we have a temporary location which will enable us to operate in a footprint that is ⅓ of the size and for a quarter of the rent plus a percentage of sales. Of course, it is possible that we won’t be able to bring back everyone, but it will give us the greatest chance of long-term survival which ultimately benefits the team.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
I think being an advocate is hugely important. Being an advocate for your industry, an advocate for your business and an advocate for your staff is crucial.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
To be honest, it is really difficult to boost morale right now — there is a lot of business and social uncertainty. Staff are also concerned for their safety and strapped with having to enforce a slew of ever-changing protocols. That said, it is important to keep the mood upbeat, to make sure our safety procedures allow the staff to focus on what they do best, to be creative in recognizing staff. We’ve been ordering from other restaurants for staff meal, or trading with other restaurants. Our kegerator will soon have nitro brew from our partners at Rival Brothers.
We also try to keep things engaging with our new streeteries at Fork and a.kitchen, which provide extended outdoor seating. Also, charitable giving has always been part of our DNA and we are fortunate to be able to continue that, which allows our staff (I hope) to feel good about themselves and their work.
Finally, this is an incredible opportunity to really get closer to our team members and understand what their personal goals are. This is a major reset period, and everyone can have a significant voice in how the business moves forward.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
As I mentioned, I always try to do this in person and sometimes even individually. That said, social distancing has made this difficult. Despite that barrier I try to be direct and honest above all. When in the unfortunate situation of High Street’s relocation, I made it clear that we will try to provide them work elsewhere in the company if they want it.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
This is certainly difficult, but I find that being connected to and involved with the local industry leaders quite helpful. For example, I have been involved with the Independent Restaurant Coalition and all its members are incredibly supportive and going through similar situations around the corner. This past month, I connected with many women across the country through re-FAB, which held 7 weeks of industry topics and discussions via Zoom. Locally, I am involved with our Chamber of Commerce and City in brainstorming ideas for recovery. In all of these groups, we bounce ideas off of each other and, together, have greater influence on a local level. For example, many of my peers and I are thinking about winter/the colder months and how that will work logistically.
Of course, it is also helpful to be able to roll with the punches and act swiftly when need be.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Staying true to your value system will always help you keep your north star in perspective, even when there’s a lot to distract you from it. For us, I mentioned, that’s feeding people good food. As long as we are able to do that, I know we’re on the right track.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
I am sure I am equally guilty of making these mistakes:
- Over-reacting: Maybe take a “wait and see” attitude versus hanging your hat on what everyone else is doing.
- Assuming things are just going return to normal. If they do, that’s great, but if they don’t, you may have wasted a lot of time.
- Assuming that debt is a bad thing. If you need cash flow, this might enable you to try something new which allows you to be profitable.
Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?
I think not going it alone is important. Collaboration is something that is essential for growth. We have collaborated with AKA, a luxury long term stay residences with a.kitchen and a.bar. But in NYC we delivered pastries and bread.
Be open to different collaborations. I was approached by a women’s club house regarding catering which might generate a substantial amount of catering.
Right now, more than ever, trying something new or doing things a new way is mandatory, not optional. That will be the only way to gain more opportunities which ultimately is how growth happens.
Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Listen and be empathetic to your team. They are going through a lot and may not be comfortable sharing their concerns.
- Take personal feedback and readjust.
- Be consistent. Making sure we are consistent in applying all our policies and procedures with regard to customers and staff helps people know what to expect and create less opportunity for misunderstanding.
- Be transparent. Get your team on the same page so they know how to help, what to do, how to make their input even more valuable.
- Be authentic. People can see through if you are inauthentic.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Keep going. That was our mantra for a while. Eli and I would say this to each other all the time. Of course, there were many dark times after his accident, but I now see an incredibly strong person reinventing himself. I’m so proud of what he is doing because he keeps trying and sees what sticks. Most recently he has created “Chef Radio Podcast” which allows him to talk with other chefs and industry leaders about leadership, resilience and what it takes. Otherwise, what choice do you have?
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