Tommy Up poses with his partner Sarah Brown and Katty the Mermaid at PYT in Northern Liberties. Credit: Charles Mostoller/METRO
Tommy Up is a provocative guy. When the savvy club-promoter-turned-restaurateur opened burger bar PYT burger bar in 2009 — while the Piazza in Northern Liberties was still new — Up figured he needed fries to go with that shake: interesting booze concoctions and conceptually goofy, yet remarkably tasty, hamburgers to gain attention in a then-unfamiliar location.
For that, Up and PYT were recently rewarded with the opportunity to go national by signing with Dan Rowe’s Fransmart, a franchise consulting/ development firm with big chains like Freshii and CaliBurger under their belt. Not content to rest on those laurels, Up is making more news by attempting to open The Yachtsman, Philly’s first nu-tiki bar, in Fishtown. And he's doing it controversially by using Kickstarter – a crowd-funding site geared toward the arts – for completion funds.
If nothing else, Up and his partner, Sarah Brown, know how to get your attention.
“When we opened PYT, the idea of having five more was in the back of my mind,” said Up, 42. “It was a pipedream opening just one.”
Up knew PYT had to be unique as a new restaurant in the middle of nowhere with no track record in “the shadow of Bart Blatstein’s crazy creation,” said Up, crediting that developer’s landmark.
Survive and thrive PYT did, due to its hilariously designed burgers (e.g. buns fashioned from fried Twinkies), pop art environment, dedication to social media and the critical response it received in Philly and NYC. Fransmart’s Rowe noticed, paid a call to PYT, and believed it could work as a larger brand. “Dan has franchisees that buy up territories, especially along the East Coast and overseas. Imagine a PYT Abu Dhabi.”
While the first franchise should land in Boston (“within several months”), there is interest in Washington and New York City. Also to come, without a definitive location, is a PYT University City Philly.
Before Rowe came to town flashing franchises, Up and Brown – a Miami expatriate who headed Electric Pickle there – took over a dive bar in Fishtown for their tiki bar The Yachtsman, a concept that had eluded Stephen Starr and the heads of Farmers' Cabinet, who each tried Hawaiian-themed saloons.
Funded from the pair’s own pockets (a business no-no) and traditional loans, a Kickstarter became reality when they realized how much money a 90-year-old building with structural issues could cost.
“We blew through our expectations of an opening budget, wished to stay independent and wanted to open by spring,” said Up. “We could open now to serve drinks, but we want to do it right.”
Up used Kickstarter as part of his usual conceit of weird ideas fueling his business éclat. Local media and Kickstarter purists didn’t appreciate Up’s take on the newest trick of the trade. How dare a civilian with cash flow use their cherished crowd-funding source.
“The thing is, I’m not rich,” said Up of his passion project. “We drained our bank accounts getting this far, Maybe, if this franchise makes out, there’ll be more money, but right now, we’re down to bone.”
The Yachtsman hasn’t met its goal yet, so a preview party/pig roast is planned — for June 5 at North Shore Beach Club — for new backers of the Yachtsman's Kickstarter with $17 to donate. What if Up doesn’t reach more than $36,000 by next week? “Yachtsman won’t open this summer, but rather, sometime before 2014’s end, probably November,” said Up, saddened perhaps by the prospect of a wintry tiki.
“I’ve waited for a Philly tiki bar for years,” he added. “I want to make it happen. Every great city should have one.”
By the numbers
Tommy Up and Sarah Brown’s The Yachtsman in Fishtown
1,000 square feet with a 15 year lease
$250,000 has already been invested in the project: liquor license purchase, building improvements, legal and professional fees and business purchase from previous tenant.
Kickstarter opened on April 22 with $36,700 needed by May 22