Despite his reputation as a master of notoriety, Tommy Up says he’s bewildered by the attention his Fishtown tiki bar is getting.
The Yachtsman shut its doors after three years in business on Frankford Avenue last week. Foobooz reported the closure, then followed up with two additional posts on the topic within 48 hours. (Long and the short: Up, full name Updegrove, owes his landlord $42k in back rent, and his operating company, which also owes $48k in liquor taxes, has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.)
Yet “it’s such a small little bar,” Up said, pointing out that it takes up no more than 1,500 square feet of a narrow building on the edge of Fishtown’s hot zone.
“Why aren’t people writing about the dry cleaner in the Piazza that shut down six months ago, or the Pink Dolphin [deli] that closed, or I Heart Radio and how there’s no way they’ll be able to sustain their huge debt load?” he asked. “No, they care about my fucking little tiki bar.”
A dry cleaner? Yeah, that industry doesn’t have quite the same cachet, not in Philadelphia or any American city. But being part of the food and drink scene here isn’t the only reason Up’s activity draws eyes. The 45-year-old, who grew up in Atlantic City but moved back to family in Philly after realizing the casino industry wasn’t for him, has an uncanny ability to corral public attention.
It’s basically what launched his career — and the most successful of his efforts, virally speaking, came right before things appeared to start to fall apart.
In September 2014, then-Eagles running back LeSean McCoy left a 20 cent tip on a $60 check at Up’s Northern Liberties burger joint, PYT. Up posted a photo of the receipt online, calling out the sports star for his stinginess. Responses were varied, with some taking offense at Up’s “customer shaming,” but most people were on his side. The story spread far and wide, and garnered PYT a second boost of international fame when Charlie Sheen pledged (and delivered) $1,000 to the server McCoy had stiffed.
But within a year of that splash, the original location of PYT shut down for good. An outpost in New York launched later that month lasted a very short time — “I’m gonna say maybe 99 days,” Up said. A replacement Philly spot planned for the Fillmore entertainment complex fell through. So Up was left with just The Yachtsman. And now that spot’s shut down, too.
Straight outta Atlantic City
“Being a restaurateur was the last thing I wanted to do,” Up told Billy Penn.
He’d worked in the biz all his life, he said, starting during high school on the AC boardwalk at a corn dog stand called Dipsticks. When he moved to Philly, he fell into bartending, and quickly realized he had a knack for promoting club events. He founded a nightlife events company called PaperStreet, and started setting up parties. He drew 1,600 people to the first open-air dance night on the Moshulu on the Delaware, and turned the upstairs Absinthe Bar at Time into a must-hit weekend scene.
After a while, he joked, “It got too easy, so I decided to torture myself and open a restaurant.”
PYT came into existence after he met and started working with developer Bart Blatstein (“a crazy man”). Up took the lead in helping show and get tenants for the under-construction Piazza at Schmidt’s. In his words: “We did all the stuff to make Northern Liberties popular when there was nothing but people hitting each other in the head with bricks.”
During the buildout, Up said, he came up with the idea for a burger place. Something that was more like a bar, but had cool burgers too. At first Blatstein shot him down: “Wait…you’re not gonna do a burger place, I’m gonna do it.” But eventually Up won out, and wedged his way into becoming the Piazza patty purveyor. They weren’t partners; Up maintains he came up with the funds and opened on his own. “Alright, good luck!” Blatstein reportedly told him.
And he did have luck. When PYT opened in summer 2009, it was a hit. Unappreciative critical reviews did nothing to stem the social media capital Up created for the spot, with its wall-sized photos of sexy women dripping mayo off their burger-stained lips, and high-octane boozy shakes. It became the most-checked-into joint on Foursquare, and even hosted a “Super Swarm” meetup to get a whole 250 people checking in at once. (I was there, and have the T-shirt to prove it.)
Beneath the success, Up was a bit freaked out. “Holy shit, I have 15 employees, this is terrible,” he remembered thinking.
A berth for The Yachtsman
In 2012, he got sick of cleaning up puke from PYT’s back room where he hosted private parties, and decided to turn it into a vaguely French-themed cocktail bar. He enlisted drink mavens Phoebe Esmon and Christian Gaal to create the menu, revamped the room, somewhat illegally created a new entrance for it on the outside of the Piazza — the complex was already beginning to lose its luster — and opened a second bar called Emmanuelle.
He channeled the relationship with Esmon and Gaal into a second bar on Frankford Avenue, some of the funding for which he crowdsourced. The Yachtsman launched in August 2014 — and almost immediately was more popular than the spot in the Piazza.
“Emmanuelle was fun,” Up said, “but we weren’t able to nail down the demographic” that liked high-end cocktails.
Really, the decline of the Piazza was just getting started. In 2013, Bart Blatstein sold his controlling interest in the development to Jared Kushner (yes that Jared Kushner). “He warned me he was selling it,” Up said. Then Blatstein dropped another bomb: He was also bringing in a direct PYT competitor: Wahlburgers.
Wahlburgers didn’t open until three years later, but Up calls what happened to the Piazza after Kushner took over “one colossally bad idea after another.”
Things came to a head when the Piazza scored a big Forbes 30 Under 30 Summit party in 2015. “I thought, great, maybe they’re finally catching a wave, this will bring us all some business,” Up recalled. But in order to stay open during that Saturday night shindig, Piazza management demanded $10,000 in cash. “They obviously don’t understand how much a restaurant has to take in to make that kind of money,” Up said. “I put together a potential revenue sharing plan, and got back a ‘fuck you.’”
Instead, management erected a tarp around PYT to make it impossible for partygoers to attend. Per Up, “That’s when I knew the writing was on the wall.” That fall, in October 2015, he walked away from the property — with six figures of debt hanging over his head.
The Big Apple beckoned
How is it, then, that he managed to open an NYC outpost of the burger joint a month later? “I did it on a whim,” Up said. “On an indie film budget.”
Essentially, it was Up working 120 hours a week with a skeleton crew. His Chinatown landlord liked him, and came to the spot often to eat with his wife, Up said. But when the landlord offered the chance to renew the initial trial lease for something longterm, the deal came with stricter terms: Take the whole space, don’t share it with a pizzeria, and pay me $35,000 a month.
Up slept in the burger joint for a night to think about his options. In the end, he realized he couldn’t handle it. “I was physically and emotionally broken,” he said. “I knew I needed some kind of break. I had no life and it would have killed me.” He shut the place down, along with all of his communications.
“I knew there would be some chaotic insanity,” Up admitted. “I basically unplugged my cell phone for like two months.”
He doesn’t regret opening the restaurants — “I met lifelong friends you can only make through hard work and tears” — but it made him hate the industry. However, after he slowly returned to society, and enlisted a corporate lawyer to help deal with his debt, he began investing his energy in The Yachtsman.
“That tiki bar is sort of what brought me back out from my cave of pain,” he said. “I started to pour my heart into that bar. I was beginning to love working again.”
And now, it’s closed.
Up said he’s ready to do everything he can to reopen, despite reports that another bar called Churchkey is already planned for the space. He won’t discuss the particulars of how his lawyer might resolve the current Yachtsman situation — “I’ve seen enough Law & Order TV shows to know better” — but he isn’t ready to give up on it.
“If I do somehow get the bar back open,” Up said, “all this is gonna look like my biggest PR stunt yet.”