For locals, High Street on Market quickly cemented itself as a staple of Philly's food scene when it debuted just over one year ago. And it hardly went unnoticed: From early raves by local critics to this summer's inclusion on Bon Appetit's influential Best New Restaurants list, the buzz around the place has been virtually inescapable ever since.
Formerly the takeout arm of sibling restaurant Fork, owner Ellen Yin and chef Eli Kulp built a new identity for the space in a matter of weeks last fall. Next-level High Street made its ambition clear from the jump, centering around conspicuously excellent breads and pastries.
But for all its success as a bakery and casual daytime eatery, High Street struggled to connect with the dinner crowd for the better part of the past year, and has run into its share of growing pains. Here, Yin and Kulp talk to us about choreographing a major rebrand, building customer trust, launching a bona fide hospitality group, and convincing Philly to eat kale chips.
Eater Philly: Usually I'd start off by asking what you remember about the craziness of your first dinner service. But here, you started with breakfast and lunch, the opposite of most places.
Ellen Yin: Our thought was that we would start with breakfast and lunch because Fork etc. had been open as a daytime place, so it would be an easy transition for our customers into High Street. Then, we would start dinner a month or so later.
Eli Kulp: As far as memorable or tragic experiences for me, I just blocked them out, because those first days are so crazy. It was just the usual opening craziness — you're cooking while there are still Skil saws cutting wood, you're getting blinded by the welders, and just normal last-minute stuff like that.
Was it easier for you guys to start with breakfast and lunch, too, or was it more to ease customers in?
Eli: Well, it just gave us more time to focus on one part of it, and then move into the rest.
Ellen: But no, not easier, because we completely changed the style of service. So we had to retrain everybody. Fork etc. was a little more help-yourself in concept.
Eli: Right, there was zero familiarity. We had staff left over from Fork etc. But it was a gut renovation, and everything was different.
The turnaround was pretty quick. How long did the actual renovation end up taking?
Eli: As far as actual downtime, three weeks?
We wanted it to be its own distinct restaurant, and not just a continuation of Fork.Ellen: But it was really well planned. Because we have an entire operation, we were able to transition different parts of it at different times without affecting the customer service component. The benefit of having another restaurant right here is that a lot of the research and development could be done while we were dealing with everything else. When you're opening brand-new, you might not have that luxury.
Eli: In the weeks before, we had people in here on the roof, working with the hood system, installing ductwork, things that didn't disrupt any of the service. All the cabinetry, the wainscoting, and everything — that was all done off-site, so they could just come in and spend two days piecing it all together. But still, things do go wrong. An inch here, two inches there, can literally set you a day back.
What was the impetus to completely rebrand as a new restaurant, rather than just improving on what you had with Fork etc.? When did that conversation start to take place?
Ellen: It started when Eli came down for the very first time. He was really excited by the potential for a brand-new space that had no preconceived notions. I think we were really clear that we wanted it to be its own distinct restaurant, and not just a continuation of Fork. Fork etc. was doing fine; it just didn't do much business at night. The whole idea was to do something a little bit edgy, but not so far out there, to get people in for dinner. There wasn't really anything that we had to turn back on, I would say, because we put a lot of realistic thought into it in advance.
Eli: Seeing this space sitting empty at nighttime, unless there was a private dining event or something, I just thought something had to happen. So we talked about many different things. We weren't sure that we wanted to put in a full-service kitchen — we went through a lot of different ideas and concepts. And we were trying not to invest more than we absolutely had to. Finally we just bit the bullet. If we did it halfway, it was never going to be able to find its own voice. So eventually we just decided to go for it, and it proved to be the right choice.
Did any major changes have to be made to the concept? Was there anything you really wanted to do over there that you just couldn't, that wasn't going to be plausible from the early plans?
Eli: The biggest thing for me was just figuring out how to make that space different at night, yet still blend in enough to feel like there's an attachment to the daytime component. A three-service restaurant, outside of a hotel concept — well, you don't really see them. They don't exist. You don't see a restaurant that can be ambitious for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and be a relevant restaurant. When I came down here, I was just coming off of Torrisi, where we were doing like 22-course tasting menus at a really high level. Initially that was the idea, to do something super high-end, to have total separation between lunch and dinner. But I just realized that I didn't have the time and the energy for that. And Fork kind of evolved into that anyway, so it was going to be redundant.
I'm really interested in the rebranding because. like you said, Fork etc. was already good, and then you shut it down for a couple of weeks and suddenly we have this next-level thing. And some of that has to do with all the talent you acquired — head baker Alex Bois, pastry chef Sam Kincaid, former sous Jon Nodler...
Ellen: That all starts with Eli. But they really found us.
Eli: That's true — Sam and Jon (who's now chef de cuisine at A.Kitchen) came in for dinner one night, and two months later they were both working here. They realized this was something different and unique, that they weren't going to find in other restaurants. Alex, serendipitously, was just doing a search about bread in Philadelphia, because he was looking to come down here. He came across an article about Fork's bread program and wanted to see what we were up to. So he comes in with, like, kombuchas and bread he just baked, like he's literally opening his bag and laying this out on the table. At that point, we didn't need anybody — Sam was actually my baker at that point, and we had another pastry chef. But I told him we're opening this other restaurant, and I could really use him for R&D. So we agreed for him to come on simply in a consultant role and do R&D for a few months. At that point, Jon started doing R&D as well, which is another reason why we could, sort of overnight almost, have a completely brand-new restaurant. We had three months of myself and two other people doing round-the-clock R&D, so we had that menu sort of ready to go by that time. So when Alex came in, he was essentially running the bread program, and our pastry chef just happened to be leaving. Sam was more than happy to go into pastry, that's more in her wheelhouse, so everything just sort of fell into place.
That's more than lucky, because I can't think of many places where everyone seems to contribute so strongly to the identity of the place. We talk about restaurants being "chef-driven," but here it seems like it's chef-driven on multiple levels. You said Alex came in with all different kinds of ferments, which is such a big part of what you do here; to what extent did he influence that?
Eli: We were already doing that over at Fork, but while I know a decent amount about ferments, it's a more practical knowledge, you know what I mean? Whereas Alex knows the specific bacteria, the specific sugar structure; he studied that stuff in biochem. He's just so smart with that kind of stuff, and I was obviously highly impressed with that. And I know that I cannot keep talent like those guys if I don't allow them to bring something to the table, and allow them to take a real leading step in development. And also giving credit to them, as well, and I'm pretty good about that I think — getting their names out there. Because there's no way that High Street would be as good as it is if it was simply me just dictating everything. And then, I have other restaurants to run as well, so there has to be a good balance for that reason.
Nighttime business was really bad for a long time. Like, it was slow.
So after a few weeks, you added dinner service. Was it successful right away?
Eli: Dinner was a tricky one. Like I said, we wanted to keep that common thread somehow to connect with daytime. And we decided we'd do this concept that was really focused on pasta, as sort of the main showcase of the menu. We felt that incorporating the local grains into the pasta really fed into what we were doing in the daytime, with the breads. I think, at first, the food was pretty edgy. And we had to dial it back a little bit, because our goal was really to run a neighborhood restaurant that was also a destination, which is tricky to do. So you have food that people can come in and eat once a week or every other week, and just spend thirty bucks and have great pasta, an app, a glass of wine. And then there's also food that takes a little bit of a risk. But the nighttime was really bad for a long time. Like, it was slow.
Ellen: We were surprised, I think.
Eli: We were shocked at how slow it was.
For how long?
Eli: Even after getting reviewed — and everybody gave us great reviews — I think it was hard for people to start to associate that space with being a nighttime space. And then, I think, the food over here is hard to explain on paper. The esoteric nature of it. It was sort of tough. People want to make sure that they're going to get a value for their dollar. We had to convince them of that. And then, slowly but surely, I think around May we started to see our numbers be around where we thought they were kind of
Sorry, Brad —OK.
whoever you are.
Ellen: When you first look at the menu, maybe it's not obvious how to order. While our staff is well-trained in how to describe the menu, you know how Philadelphians are — it has to be their idea, you know? People want to order the way they order, and then when they feel comfortable, then they're willing to experiment a little bit. I think of Mike's kale chips, for example: the menu is very playful, that was kind of like a spoof on Brad's kale chips.
Eli: Which are horrible. I'll go on the record with that. Sorry, Brad — whoever you are.
Ellen: But the ones here were amazing. I mean, I still think of eating those chips at the beginning of the meal when I go over there. But they had nutritional yeast on them, and people are initially like, what the heck is nutritional yeast? Maybe it's not immediately comfortable, but then they'd try it and realize, oh my god, these things are addictive. Eventually we added the "leave it to us" option, which is really popular with a lot of people because they get to taste around the whole menu.
Eli: It's an extreme value, too. It's a restaurant that is not expensive. And we don't want it to be.
Did you find that contributed to why people were a little less immediately receptive? At Fork, you also do some things that aren't necessarily what you'd expect — for example, you say lasagna but it's not really "lasagna" that comes out. Are people more willing to give you that freedom because they think of Fork as more of a fine-dining event, whereas High Street makes people think accessibility, sandwiches?
Eli: Well, this is also a year ago that we're talking about. And I think even after a year [at Fork], people didn't trust me yet.
Ellen: Can I just say, the Fork lasagna thing cracks me up. Because it says "Birchrun Hills Red Cat." So at first, people were like "...is it cat?" So we finally added the word "cheese" to the end of it, and people are still like, "what do you mean, red cat?"
Eli: It's cheese from cats. We milk cats.
Do you feel like dinner at High Street has really gotten its due? Even with all the positive press, so much of it has been about the bread or daytime stuff.
Eli: No, that's the thing. The morning component is so good and so unique, and people have really grasped onto that. Nighttime is sort of the forgotten period. But, it has benefited from the national press, for sure. People visit from out of town, and they want to go somewhere they've read about, and they'll stop in at dinner. They might not get the sandwich they were expecting, but in general people are really thrilled. My goal right now is making dinner as hyped-up, if you want to call it that, as lunch. Because the morning components get written so much about, it just doesn't get the same amount of play. Still, we're in a good spot now.
And despite those months of slow dinner services, it's been an incredible year for this restaurant. You've gotten pretty much every accolade a place could hope for in year one.
Eli: Still waiting for a James Beard award!
Can you pick a favorite moment from this year?
Eli: Well, for me, personally, Food & Wine Best New Chef was a dream come true. That was something I'd worked toward for years. But that was really more for Fork — I don't think they even ate at High Street when they were down. That affected all of our restaurants, though, in a positive way.
Ellen: That had the most impact on business. When I met Eli, he said to me, "that's one of my dreams, and I want to be in a place where I have the potential to be able to achieve that." And even though that's really his award, I feel like it's an award for the entire restaurant and has a major impact on all we do. A James Beard semi-finalist? I mean, not in my wildest dreams when I opened Fork did I ever think that would be possible.
It took me until two days after we got the top ten to realize that that bread story wasn't even going to happen.
And then, Bon Appetit's Best New Restaurants — we were totally shocked, because they came in very innocently saying, "Oh, we're doing a story on bread!" They were so low-key about it, we had no idea that we were up for this. We only knew that Andrew Knowlton had been down because we saw it on Instagram. But, even in August, when the top 50 came out, we still thought there was a possibility that it was just a bread story in October, which is what they told us.
Eli: I was literally saying, like, "There's no way they're going to write that bread story and give us top ten." It took me until two days after we got the top ten to realize that that bread story wasn't even going to happen.
Ellen: Our whole staff was on vacation! Including Eli — he was on a working field trip. The day the top ten came out, nighttime business tripled.
What about initial reviews? They were pretty positive. Did anything come out in reviews that made an impact?
Eli: We just kept hearing the word esoteric, esoteric, esoteric... everywhere.
Ellen: I'm thinking, like, I'm not even sure what it means!
Eli: Is that a good thing or a bad thing? I never heard the word so many times in my life.
As a writer, I think it means we couldn't figure out a better word, either.
Eli: I was coming from Torrisi, where everything was extremely thought-out and not what you thought it was going to be, full of smoke and mirrors and all that stuff. So for me, I thought this was pretty simple food. Sure, we're using techniques like fermentation, but that didn't seem that different to me than what I had been doing for a long time. I mean, I was doing fermentation at Del Posto in 2006. We shouldn't think of it as wacky mad-scientist stuff — it's actually quite the opposite, we just happened to forget about it for essentially a century. And now, it's coming back into play. The thing is, the first three months of a restaurant are when we get reviewed, and while there's a need for that in a lot of ways, it typically shows a very small snapshot of what that restaurant's potential can be some day.
Do all of the raves and all the press about specific dishes constrain you at all with regards to the menu?
Eli: It actually really frees us up, I think. I think with Food & Wine, and Bon Appetit, and the continued support of all the local guys, I think in general people really respect what we do. Because we do take a little bit of risk. And now, we're seeing the rewards of that. From a customer standpoint, they've been almost beaten over the head with positive reviews of this place. People come in with a magazine in hand, a smile on their face, and they're excited to be here. Before it was like: open the door, look in like what's going on here, and you'd have to bring them in and explain the menu. Something like the BonApp thing is a really special opportunity, because it completely changes people's outlooks. Like, it breaks a barrier down for them. And you're getting everybody that's coming from outside the city that's read that magazine.
But they've also read 30 different times, from Bill Addison and others that, like, you need to get the duck meatball sandwich. What if you ever want to take that off the menu?
Ellen: When Craig LaBan reviewed Fork, we had the duck feast and the short rib feast, and right now we're not doing the short ribs. Well, over time, people just get over it.
Eli: I built the sandwiches here specifically not to rely too heavily on seasonality. If there's any item on it that comes and goes, we can adjust it — like, with the grilled cheese, in the summer we offer tomato. Well, now they're going out of season, so we're not offering them much longer. But most of the items are so well tweaked at this point, that I don't feel the need. I have four other menus that are seasonal that I can focus on. Even here at lunch, the salads, soups, pizzas — those things are seasonal. But for the sandwiches, we did such an immense amount of research before we opened, so those are set for now. But yeah, if I took one of those off the menu, I'd definitely hear about it. I'm sure we'd put something else on that was good and eventually they'd forget about it.
There's been so much growth in this past year for you guys, not just opening this one place but really forming a restaurant group. Can you talk a little bit about how you balance that?
Ellen: That's really in large part thanks to Eli building such an amazing team. Each place has a very strong leader, all working with Eli. If it wasn't for them, there'd be no way Eli could balance all those menus and maintain consistency at four places. Jon, Sam, Alex, Jon Patterson at Fork, Melissa at High Street: Without all of them being a part of the equation, we wouldn't be able to do it.
Logistically, how much time do you spend at each place? How much bouncing around it is for you?
Eli: Ideally I'd be able to spread it relatively evenly, but in this business, nothing ever goes as planned. So, it comes down to where I'm needed the most at that moment. At High Street, like I said, we're really pushing on the dinner menu right now, to get that up to the point where I want it, so that's where a lot of my energy is going right now.
With all of your success and with so much restaurant growth all over the city, are you getting to the point where you're worried about starting to lose people, who might want to go out and make more of a name for themselves?
It's been an extremely good year, but there's also been so much effort, so much stress, and so much sacrifice. Eli: I can't say it hasn't happened at all. I think we're going to see the influence of High Street more a lot in the next year, as people who don't have a unique thought or a unique brain cell in their head will just start looking for simply what the trend is. We've started to see a little bit of that. So that's a huge challenge, and that's probably one of my number one things that keep me up at night. Could any of these guys walk out and do something relatively well on their own? Of course, but hopefully we can create a culture in our restaurant that shows that there is better potential if you stay with us and make it sort of like a family atmosphere.
You know, all of my people appreciate what's happened, too. This is big for them. In general, I think we do a good job of bringing people in that are not selfish by nature. If they were selfish by nature, they would not have lasted through all of this. It's been an extremely good year, but there's also been so much effort, so much stress, and so much sacrifice, that all of them have put in an immense amount of time and effort. They want to be a part of it too, they want to see it through, you know? For us, it's about focusing on giving people room to grow. If someone were to walk out on their own, they might not understand the support they have here, the infrastructure — that is a huge component. It's easy to say you're going to do something; it's much harder to go do it. But ultimately, people can do what they want. I'm probably as much as a coach as I am a chef, and I only mean that because communication is key as far as understanding what people need. But they understand the potential that's here, and I think everyone's in it for the long haul.
So looking into the future, do you have any changes or additions planned for High Street?
Eli: We're both opportunists, so we want to make sure that we're always looking ahead, as long as we can also retain the talent that we have, making sure that we can fulfill the needs for everybody. There's nothing really official happening, but I think we're definitely always keeping our eye on the horizon.
Ellen: We have, in 2014, exploded. Think about it: Fork, High Street, A.Kitchen, A.Bar — and A.Bar still hasn't even hit its target yet — plus Rival Bros., we're doing pastries for them.
Eli: They're going through so much, like, they're selling almost as much bread as we are.
Ellen: In all that, we want to make sure that we're serving a really high-quality product and that we're building a really strong base of our team as well as customer base.
You've been posting on social media asking for votes for a Main Street Grant. What would that be earmarked for?
Ellen: Well, Fork etc. bought a German Wachtel oven in 2004. We've been making all the bread for both restaurants for ten years, with just that and a Hobart mixer. And now we've tripled the volume. And that poor thing — for whatever it's worth, maybe over the years it wasn't properly maintained or properly used — but now, if we are pushed, we could potentially be in a position where we can't produce the bread. So there's a lot of infrastructure development that we need, improvements to support our existing base and to allow for growth. Hypothetically, if Rival Bros. ever wanted to open another cafe and would be looking to us, we don't have the capacity right now to meet that. We're at about 90% capacity of baking time alone. So somehow, through equipment, we need to be able to create some slack.
Nothing's out of the question.But you would be able to increase that capacity within the space you have right now?
Eli: Yeah, and we do have a lot of people asking us to do wholesale for them. We know the demand is there, if we wanted to grow it.
I know you said there's nothing official yet, but are you looking at New York? You told Eater earlier this year that something might be going on there; would that be a possibility for High Street?
Eli: I don't know where that came from.
Ellen: When we formed High Street Hospitality Group, Eli and I asked ourselves, "what's our vision for our management company, five years from now, three years from now, ten years from now?" Our goal as a management company is not to be Starr or Garces, you know. I think we would be happy with five unique concepts —I don't want to say exactly five and that's it, or maybe we never even get to five, I don't know — but I think that for us, we really want to present unique, quality concepts that stand out. And if an opportunity presents itself, we're definitely going to consider it. But are we actively seeking anything right now? We have a lot going on.
Eli: Nothing's out of the question. I think for us it's about growing intelligently, growing only as fast as we can maintain quality at our other locations. I think we've all seen groups that have a little success, then they expand and they fall on their face, so we don't want to do that. We want to make sure that we are strategic and that we plan well. And with a team like this, we can do that.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.