Each month, Billy Penn highlights up-and-coming Philadelphians under the age of 40 as part of our Who’s Next series sponsored by the Knight Foundation.
The short bios we write about each person are a great way to get to know the rising stars in the city’s various industries, and find out how they got where they are. But obviously — by nature of being impressive enough to land on the list in the first place — these people don’t stop making waves after we feature them. So we’re introducing a new segment. In Who’s Next Catch Up, we’ll return to various honorees and find out what they’ve been up to since we first wrote about them.
Our first edition brings us back to Federal Donuts chef Matt Fein. Turns out the 30-year-old has had quite a year since we shone the spotlight on him in May 2016.
Has your position, employer or business changed since we featured you?
I’m still chef at Federal Donuts, but my position has changed a lot. I’ve basically taken on the role of being the CookNSolo commissary chef — there’s no official title, I just made that up. But at [FedNuts] Seventh Street, we’re now making the soups for Rooster Soup Co. and also doing prep work for Dizengoff and Goldie.
We decided to make the soup for Rooster at Federal Donuts because of the model, where we use the leftover chicken parts to make the stock. We realized it would be much cleaner and safer to not try and transport raw chicken bones. So we got a big soup kettle and installed it at Seventh Street. And with the departure of [former Rooster Soup chef] Erin O’Shea, I’m now helping come up with the soups. The two co-chefs there, Jarrett [O’Hara] and Mike [Ran], design the rest of the menu and I do the soup.
For Dizengoff, we prepare the tehina [the sesame seed paste that’s the base for hummus] and the pita dough. It gets delivered every morning in time for service. Same for Goldie.
I think one reason they wanted me to take that on is they saw the way I was able to make the commissary model work for Federal Donuts — which has six locations in the summer, counting the Phillies and Spruce Street Harbor park — and how I was able to streamline everything. They figured if I could do it for Federal, I could do it for Dizengoff.
My days have gotten longer by maybe an hour or so — I work 6:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., five days a week — but it’s all happening at the same time under one roof. So it’s just more for me to handle during the day. I oversee around 15 kitchen staff now. I’m definitely getting paid more because of it. It’s one of the things I love about CookNSolo, and Mike [Solomonov] and Steve [Cook] and Tom [Henneman — whose story Billy Penn told a year ago yesterday]. They’re really good with compensation, with taking care of their employees.
What’s the most exciting thing you’ve done, or proudest accomplishment, since we last talked?
Well, I got married. That was Memorial Day weekend 2016, so right after our previous interview. And I bought a house in Cherry Hill. That was probably my biggest accomplishment. Showing myself that all the hard work I put in with the company since I started at Zahav in 2012, that it paid off. The house is 15 minutes away from the Seventh Street FedNuts. It’s actually quicker for me to get there now than from where I was living in Center City.
Have you faced any big challenges since we featured you?
Getting ready for Federal Donuts expansion, opening a new store while still growing in Philly — we get busier every year — has definitely been challenging. We’re very close to opening in Miami, I’m actually on call to go down there as soon as we have a few more inspections, which hopefully will happen this week. Originally we thought of developing a whole new menu for Miami, and we started on that, but then decided not to. Because if we’re successful with this menu here, why change it.
Summer is especially challenging because, where other city restaurants slow down, we have two additional locations. Spruce Street Harbor Park is really a challenge, because business is so variable — it’s all weather based. It’s tough keeping costs where they should be.
Also it’s wedding season, and we do all those “donut wedding cakes.” The first one was done by [FedNuts opening chef] Zach Engel, right before I started, just as a favor to a friend. Then a photo was posted on Facebook, and it turned into a whole thing. We’ve already done 50 of them this year, and have 30 more on the books. Plus regular wedding catering.
How has the landscape of your industry in Philadelphia changed or evolved over the past year?
There’s a lot of quick-serve [aka fast casual] restaurants popping up everywhere. I mean, I recognize that CookNSolo is part of that. But everything that’s opening seems like it’s quick-serve, way outnumbering the amount of sit-down restaurants. You don’t see much fine dining opening in Philly, or really anywhere anymore.
I don’t mind quick-serve as long as the food is quality. Me personally, especially living in the suburbs now, if it’s time for dinner I just want something I can grab and then take home. And I feel like — I’m 30, so I’m one of them — but I feel like millennials don’t have the patience for a two- or three-hour meal. No one is patient enough to sit through it. I still enjoy it; for my one-year wedding anniversary we went to Marea in NYC. It was a two-and-a-half hour dinner and we loved every second of it.
It’s a really interesting time in the restaurant industry. It’s fun to watch.
What are your plans for the next year? What will you be doing five years from now?
Within the next year, I’ll be traveling to Miami and helping open that Federal Donuts. And then hopefully Nashville will also open within the year. And then…the idea is not to stop.
So in five years, I hope to be doing the same thing I’m doing now, just with an expanded role. It’s never really been talked about, but I envision myself as kind of a corporate chef — I hate the word corporate — but a corporate chef who travels around the country to other Federal Donuts. Help open them, make sure things are going well. Kind of like Mark Rosati of Shake Shack.
I really do love my job. I love Mike and Steve and Tom and the other partners, just great people And just to see the direction they want to take the company, keep growing it into something that’s hopefully nationwide.
Is there a person on one of our lists you’d like to connect with?
There’s two from the chefs list, actually. I follow both of them on Facebook, but haven’t really gotten to know them. Malik Ali, who just left Neuf [in the Italian Market], because it closed — I think he’s at The Dutch now. And Jesse Ito. What he’s doing with sushi [at Royal Izakaya in Queen Village] is just really cool. There wasn’t anyone in Philly doing sushi like that, or bringing in the variety of fish he seems to be able to get. I’ve eaten in the bar part of that restaurant, but really have to get in for Jesse’s omakase.