It should be news to no one, but the restaurant industry has been among the hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. As 2020 stretched on with little to no relief in the form of aid, a group of Philadelphia entrepreneurs banded together, under the belief that women creators are stronger together.
“Rohini Dey in Chicago started a national collaborative of women in this industry, to help us survive the pandemic,” says Ellen Yin, co-owner of High Street Hospitality Group. “We were all at rock bottom, and she thought there was a way to help each other recover.”
That national initiative, dubbed Let’s Talk Womxn, helped local business owners meet with city representatives to navigate regulations, PPE, and streeteries. After those talks, the local contingent of food entrepreneurs started growing, with monthly Zoom meetings, providing support and community for the business leaders. Around the same time, restaurant veteran Bridget Foy launched the Sisterly Love Food Fair, a collaborative and roaming food event that tapped women-run food makers and businesses around the city. Other events have included a picnic, happy hours, and tastings.
The next will be the group’s first charity event, the Sisterly Love Sunday Supper, a cocktail party and sit-down, open-air dinner at the Cherry Street Pier’s garden on Oct. 3. The event will be cohosted with Lisa Donovan, a nationally recognized pastry chef, James Beard Award-winning essayist, and author of the book Our Lady of Perpetual Hunger, which Yin says partly inspired Sunday’s event. Proceeds from ticket sales will benefit Women Against Abuse, a group dedicated to ending domestic violence through advocacy and community education.
“We realized we were growing, but then we were a group of 22 people,” so organizing would be easier if the participants came together under a unified banner, says Yin. So Sisterly Love evolved even further, by partnering with the Les Dames d’Escoffier organization. “It’s harder to ‘create’ your own 501(c)(3) organization,” says Yin, “but our mission overlapped with Les Dames, and it was a natural fit.”
“The mission of Les Dames has been to celebrate and promote women, and mentor people entering the culinary field,” says Jill Weber, owner of Jet Wine Bar and president of Les Dames’ Philadelphia chapter. “Partnering with Sisterly Love means we can build bigger programs and more visibility by supporting their events, with a goal of mentoring and supporting other women in this industry.”
Domestic violence is an issue that affects one in three women globally (per the World Health Organization), something Donovan herself survived and details in her memoir about cooking, survival, and reclaiming the stories of women.
“October happens to be Domestic Violence Awareness Month,” says Donovan. “Sisterly Love reached out to me to partner for an event, and I think we put together something really remarkable — I was looking to help organizations that benefit women’s health, and women and children’s safety. Women Against Abuse was the right fit.”
More than a dozen chefs, including Foy, Ana Caballero of Proyecto Tamal, Jezabel Careaga of Jezabel’s Café, Jennifer Carroll of Spice Finch and Carroll Couture Cuisine, and Stephanie Willis of Everyone Eats, will serve food. Expect an eclectic menu of Sweet Amalia Oyster Farm oysters, black-eyed pea fritters, two versions of Filipino adobo, and tea-smoked salmon, among others. Mixologist Resa Mueller of R&D will preside over the bar, with a bevy of seasonal cocktails. Tickets start at $150 for the cocktail party, or $300 for both dinner and drinks, available for purchase on Tock.
The goal, says Weber, had always been to grow Sisterly Love into a group that could give back to the communities it serves. “I know that when it first launched, this group had this [charity] goal,” she says, “but we can now do this on a larger scale, thanks to the Les Dames network. We plan to continue by partnering with different charities,” particularly fighting food insecurity, getting women back to work, and highlighting causes where food and women intersect.
The Sunday Supper series will feature prominently in those future plans, says Weber and Yin, but Sisterly Love is still focused on helping its members develop and grow their businesses, pandemic or not. “We want to be a vehicle for supporting women’s businesses in Philadelphia, whether they’re a start-up or a longtime restaurant going through hard times,” says Yin.
Weber agrees, noting that any woman entrepreneur is eligible to join Sisterly Love and its roaming street fair events. “The whole point is to keep costs down and letting more people participate, which lessens the risk.” Compared to other vendor events, Weber says that Sisterly Love only charges participants $25 to set up a booth and allows them to keep their proceeds.
“Watching women build community infrastructures together in the public forum, instead of whispering in the backroom as we did in kitchens of the past — it’s a testament to what women are capable of,” says Donovan. “There are ways women protect each other in secret, and Sisterly Love is the perfect name, because there’s power in numbers. We’ll step out of the background, together.”