When Ellen Yin made the jump from healthcare management into restaurant ownership in 1997, she turned to fellow women leaders in hospitality to learn the tricks of the trade. Helene Weinberg of Rose Tattoo Cafe helped with her business plan for Fork in Old City. Kathleen Mulhern, of the Garden, Bernadette Foy of neighborhood mainstay Bridget Foy’s, and Janet Meeker, a longtime Philly and South Jersey restaurateur, also jumped in with guidance along the way.
Having worked at the White Dog Cafe and La Terrasse while in college at Penn, Yin also looked up to owner Judy Wicks. “She incorporated her personal values and beliefs into her business,” Yin says. When Yin and opening chef Anne-Marie Lasher started Fork, they decided to do the same.
This year may seem like the hardest one yet to commit to a high personal and professional standard, but with her participation in the Sisterly Love Food Fair and a new organizing group of women restaurateurs called Let’s Talk Philly, Yin continues to lead the way in making Philly a better place for women in hospitality.
Fork opened nearly 25 years ago, but since then, many Philly women have started their own restaurants — from Marcie Turney and Valerie Safran’s strip of hip eateries on 13th Street to Nicole Marquis’ vegan destinations to Cristina Martinez’s celebrated Mexican establishments. Several Fork alumni — including pastry chef Sam Kincaid of Cadence, Klancy Miller of For the Culture magazine, and Ana Caballero who created COVID hospitality fundraiser Proyecto Tamal — have also started their own businesses.
When Caballero moved on from her sous chef and sustainability manager position at Fork, she knew Yin “was always there to support me in any way I needed.” When she started Proyecto Tamal, her former boss was “immediately super supportive” and has continued to share business advice. “Ellen understands that I need to find my path,” Caballero says. “She’s my mentor, but she feels like my peer, too.”
Yin sees nurturing talent in the people who work for her as part of the job. And when it comes time for employees to leave the nest, she says: “I’m a realist. You can’t hold them back. It would be doing them a huge disservice. When I see talent and a bright future, I have to let them pursue their dreams.”
Yin says she keeps her door open to mentor alumni to help sort through business problems or share resources. Yin describes it simply as “normal human stuff.” During the pandemic, she’s been sharing grant and loan news with the people in her network.
“She’s a master figure-it-outer,” Caballero says.
It’s a skill that’s proven crucial as the pandemic continues to threaten the viability of local restaurants, especially those owned by women. In trying to figure out the current situation, Yin has been seeking guidance from others. “Learning from people in other cities is vital,” she says. “Especially right now when nobody has the answer.”
A few months into the pandemic, she joined a virtual meeting for Chicago women in hospitality led by Vermilion owner Rohini Dey. Yin then hosted one for Philadelphia women. Participants talked about their challenges, both personal and professional. They shared advice and support.
The group kept meeting over Zoom and recently formalized as Let’s Talk Philly, an affiliate of Let’s Talk Womxn, a nationwide network of similar groups in a dozen cities. “Camaraderie creates the drive to want to accomplish something,” Yin says.
Recognizing that without action talk can get exhausting, Bridget Foy — owner of Bridget Foy’s on South Street — started the Sisterly Love Food Fair, a traveling pop-up market of women-led businesses, and has continued to organize the event with help from Yin and the other women. While Let’s Talk Philly is geared toward owners, Sisterly Love engages local makers, entrepreneurs, and hospitality businesses of any size. Since the holidays, the event has been popping up at locations all around Philly.
“The Sisterly Love Food Fair has been amazing for me — as a new avenue for sales, increase in brand recognition, and the overall support of a badass group of women,” says Katie Clark Legazpi, who started her cake delivery business, Feel Goodies, in the middle of the pandemic.
Niki Toscani, co-founder of Fishtown Pickle Project, joined the food fair “not just for the income, but for the meaningful engagements with customers and fellow makers.”
For Yin, the food fairs are “mentally invigorating.” She misses seeing guests and the buzz of a busy restaurant. And “if it helps sales a little bit, that’s great.”
In honor of International Women’s Day on Monday, March 8, Let’s Talk Philly hosted a virtual conversation moderated by author Angela Duckworth and paired it with a multi-restaurant tasting dinner, created by 19 women in the industry. The group sold 275 dinners for the event. Along with Yin, Bridget Foy, Jen Carroll, Jezabel Careaga, and Jill Weber have taken leadership roles in the group; its members are a diverse who’s-who of Philly chefs and hospitality entrepreneurs.
Never one to let grass grow under her feet, Yin also serves on the Philadelphia Regional Recharge and Recovery Task Force, the Small Business Ecosystem Advisory Council, and the Restaurant Advisory Committee to the City of Philadelphia. Through these groups, she has the opportunity to advocate on behalf of struggling independent restaurants.
“Businesses owned by women and people of color help create the fabric of character, our community. We need them to survive,” she says. “Philadelphia is a city of small businesses and if they fail, this is going to be a challenging place.”
Her pandemic-era efforts, she says, come down to some key takeaways: preparedness and community. “Everybody realizes that we’re all vulnerable and we can’t be unprepared for something like this in the future.” Whether it’s a recession, a tragedy, or disruptive technology, Yin says, “if we can all stick together moving forward it will help. A rising tide lifts all boats.”
The next Sisterly Love Food Fair is on Saturday, March 13 at Hudson Table, located at 1001 North 2nd Street, from 12 p.m. to 2 p.m.