One of Us: Burger Guru Tommy Up

Tommy Up is expanding his PYT joint to New York and D.C., and this month debuts a Fishtown tiki bar. The 42-year-old talks Jay Z, Japanese-mafia tattoos, and the best beef in Philadelphia. (Shocker: It’s not his.)

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Illustration by Andy Friedman

My name is … Tommy Up. My real last name is Updegrove, but it’s really difficult for people to spell for some reason. So to eliminate thousands of wasted hours of my life, it’s just Tommy Up.

I was born in … Fishtown, way before it was cool. At Montgomery and Girard, which is about 10 blocks from where PYT is now.


The most famous person I’ve ever met … is Jay Z. I was standing on a chair in the front row at his concert, and he stopped and said, “Insurance requirements for this building say that no one can stand on a chair.” I took out dollar bills and started throwing them at him. He told me to save it for a cab. That is a 100 percent true story.

The last book I read cover to cover was … a classic from the ’90s, How to Drive Your Competition Crazy: Creating Disruption for Fun and Profit.

The thing most people get wrong about me … is that they think I can’t be serious. I do joke around a lot. But I like that. Being taken seriously all the time must be incredibly boring.

Ten years from now, I will be … on my yacht. I will name it The Yachtsman, which is the name of my tiki bar that will open this month.

For my last vacation, I went to … Costa Rica. I went by myself, lost my cell phone on the first day and learned how to surf.

I got my first tattoo … from a Japanese-speaking gentleman who does tattoos for the yakuza. He drew me a very special dragon on my arm, back and shoulder.

The biggest problem with Philadelphia … is that we don’t believe in ourselves enough. We always look to see what New York and other places are doing, but the reality is that we’re influencing the culture of food and drink more than New York is. We’re taking more chances. We don’t have to play it so safe because we’re not as “important.”

The first concert I ever went to … was on the beach in Atlantic City with New Kids on the Block and Debbie Gibson, back when Donnie was the dominant Wahlberg.

The second-best burger in Philadelphia … is at PYT. The first is at Village Whiskey.

My favorite Philadelphian of all time … is Ben Franklin. A classic. He did it all. He was the first American Renaissance man.

When I want to relax … I … oh, I can’t tell you. No comment.

My most prized material possession … is a fine screen print of Biggie Smalls that Shepard Fairey did. An ex-girlfriend left it with me. She didn’t know what it was.

The thing most people don’t understand about this business is … that it’s 99 percent work and no play. But if you’re lucky, sometimes the work can resemble play.

If I were mayor of Philadelphia … I would probably shoot myself.

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  • variable

    Edgy, yet uncondescending. Well played, Mr. Up.