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Ellen Yin On Collaboration As Pandemic Survival Strategy

Zagat Stories presents Restaurants 21/22, a collection of interviews with leading voices in dining, hospitality, food, tech, politics and more. Each story takes the turning of the calendar as an inflection point to consider what happened in 2021, or what’s likely to happen in 2022, in the world of restaurants and food. See all stories here. And feel free to check out last year’s collection as well.

Ellen Yin is cofounder and owner of High Street Hospitality Group, which operates six restaurants in Philadelphia.

Women were one of the largest groups impacted by COVID in many industries. So it’s no surprise they’ve been disproportionately impacted in the hospitality industry. Prior to the pandemic, I was involved in the community, but not as much as I am now. I started joining the Independent Restaurant Coalition calls. Although I knew my local representatives, I hadn’t been calling them so aggressively to ask for help. That’s something I learned. I didn’t really have that kind of experience before.

Throughout the pandemic, there have been lots of opportunities that have arisen to help women. It’s been great for me to be part of Let’s Talk Womxn, a national organization in 14 cities started by restaurateur Rohini Dey to help women to take those opportunities and grow.

That starts with people who maybe didn’t even realize they wanted to be in the food industry. When things hit rock bottom, so many times that’s when the most creativity comes out. You see people who maybe lost their brick-and-mortar spot, or didn’t know that they wanted to be in the food industry, changing and trying to develop new ideas and create new paths. I’m seeing bakers doing all different types of collaborations, baking from their own homes, just trying to survive.

Our Philadelphia chapter of Let’s Talk grew into a traveling food fair called Sisterly Love Food Fair. Over the past year, it’s developed into a larger organization where we’re doing way more collaborative work. The pandemic enabled that collaboration because everybody was looking for a solution, and everybody was more open than ever to working together and trying to figure it out.

Ellen Yin. Photo: Emily Schindler.

I’ve learned so much by being on calls with people in other cities. Sometimes you hear something out of context that strikes a note and is a great way to move forward. For example, women in Chicago were getting their food out to the suburbs by scheduling through a home-repair app, an Angie’s List type thing. So my group did something similar, where we partnered with somebody who was coordinating food for people in the suburbs, trying to curate great brands together and have them all hooked up 10 to 15 miles outside of Philadelphia.

In terms of people who have really turned themselves around, the perfect example is Kiki Aranita. She lost her Philadelphia brick-and-mortar restaurant Poi Dog early in the pandemic. She worked with the Drexel Food Lab and created her own line of sauces, and really focused and dialed in on her writing talents. She’s also doing these chef-in-residence events at Volvér, which is a Jose Garces restaurant.

Another example of something really great that came out of the pandemic was Everybody Eats Philly. A group of chefs started collecting donations from other restaurants during the social unrest in Philadelphia, where some neighborhoods were severely impacted and damaged, and they were able to bring food to their communities. That was really inspiring.

After I got involved with Let’s Talk Womxn last year, I worked on International Women’s Day setting up panels with every single women’s group to show them that the restaurant and hospitality industry was going to be transformed. We showed the resiliency of all these women who had been pivoting and changing. Then our Sisterly Love organization got a ton of attention, and people were really wanting to support us financially or with resources. We had to figure that out, because we were just a bunch of businesses who weren’t actually associated in any way. We didn’t have an EIN. We didn’t have nonprofit status. We are invited to be part of the Philadelphia Flower Show, but because we didn’t have any of that set up, they said at first that we couldn’t participate.

So we ended up collaborating with Les Dames d’Escoffier and using them to help us get it going. We didn’t just collect $4,000 and then submit it to the city. We had to spend time getting that together, then we had to get the health inspections and all that. And then from there, we realized how much more we could do.

The dining room at Fork, one of the High Street Hospitality restaurants in Philadelphia. Photo: Emily Schindler.

Then we rolled into the Sisterly Love Sunday Suppers, and collaborated with Lisa Donovan from Nashville, and doing a fundraiser for Women Against Abuse. The more we collaborated, the more these opportunities presented themselves. Now we’re looking into doing a popup with a bunch of other retailers, and trying to do something fun for the city. One of the biggest initiatives of most major cities is trying to get people back to work and excited about coming back into the city. That’s something that we really hope will be transformative.

Back in 2020, I was devastated. I was consulting bankruptcy attorneys. Just like everybody else, I was like, “What the hell are we doing?” Now I feel really invigorated and really hopeful for the future. In terms of running my own businesses, because we’re all limited in our own personal time, I have to count on my team. Maybe that’s something that gives them more room for growth as well. I think it’s transformed the way I look at my organization from a management perspective and holding people more accountable. We’re a small restaurant group. We don’t have layers of corporate management. So we’re just trying to grow that core.

I’ve been so lucky because I have an amazing core group of people. I feel stronger than ever in that regard. I’m surrounded by people who really care and are committed. I’ve been in the industry a long time, and it does sometimes feel like you’re repeating yourself, even if you’re opening a new business. But your professional and creative growth doesn’t always come from opening more and more and more. It can come from a deeper relationship with your team and the community.