LGBTQ&A: Sam Mink
We chat with the third-generation seafood restaurant owner on being out in the industry and supporting LGBTQ youth.
Sam Mink is the owner of the historic Oyster House. We spoke with the third-generation restaurant owner on continuing the family business, being out in the industry, and supporting LGBTQ youth.
Tell us a little bit about yourself.
I grew up just outside of Philadelphia in Cherry Hill, N.J. I wasn’t in love with my hometown, so I was ready to move away once college came. I was a pretty crunchy college kid and ended up graduating from the University of Vermont with a degree in natural resources. After graduation I moved to San Francisco to further explore my life. I received a teaching degree and taught second grade for five years in the SF public schools. By my fifth year teaching, my culinary interests grew stronger, and I left teaching and enrolled in a professional culinary school. I never planned on being a chef, but I knew if I was going to own my own restaurant someday that I’d better learn as much as I could about food. I worked in SF restaurants for only two years before making the move back to Philadelphia to take over Oyster House. I’ve been the owner of Oyster House for eight years now, and not only has it been a great experience, but it’s been a great success — I feel fortunate for the opportunity. Currently, I live in Center City with my husband, Anthony, and our three-year-old son, Asher.
You’re a third-generation restaurant owner. What has been your general experience so far continuing the family business at the Oyster House?
My family has been in the seafood restaurant business in Philadelphia since 1947. The Oyster House today doesn’t look much like my grandfather or father’s restaurant, but it still feels very much the same. (It received a complete renovation when I took over in 2009.) For three generations our mission has been to serve Philadelphians the freshest fish and oysters in a casual, approachable setting. I wanted to create a restaurant in which people from all backgrounds felt comfortable dining in, and I’m so proud of our diverse clientele at Oyster House and that many in Philadelphia consider us a staple in their lives and an institution. My grandfather died in 1969, but I feel he’d be very proud of how I’ve carried on the family business.
You came out before your culinary studies while living in San Francisco nearly two decades ago. How do you think inclusion and acceptance has changed within the competitive restaurant industry since then?
Professionally speaking, I’ve been very fortunate — I struggled more with coming to terms with my sexuality than any professional challenges being gay. My first job in SF was as a barista in a busy cafe a few blocks from the Castro. During the interview the owner/manager asked me if I was gay, which is totally illegal, and I quickly replied no without hesitation. I was so closeted and insecure I couldn’t even verbally say the words “I am gay” in one of the safest places for gays in our country — it took me two more months before I could muster up enough strength to finally share my true self to the world. As far as working in the restaurant industry, being gay has never created any obstacles or caused any challenges. I hope people judge me on how well I run a business rather than on my sexual orientation. I’m proud to say the Philadelphia restaurant community has always been accepting of me. Now if only all LGBTQ could be accepted in the workplace for who they are.
You’ve been on the board of the Attic Youth Center for many years and have been known to make your charitable giving more than just monetary. What made you specifically interested in the nonprofit, and what are some of the unique ways you have given back to the organization?
Four years ago I was invited by a friend to the Attic Youth Center’s gala event. The executive director spoke about the Attic’s mission, and I was so moved by their work that I ended up being the highest bidder during the live auction. I’m very grateful to come from a supportive and loving family, but many LGBTQ youth don’t have the love, support and safety at home to fully succeed in life. The Attic Youth center provides Philadelphia LGBTQ youth with a safe space and community to develop and thrive. I try to use Oyster House as a resource to support the organization — we’ve provided an internship program, cooking classes, weekly hot meals, and financial donations. I’m honored to work with The Attic and very proud of our partnership.
If you had only one frank piece of advice for those who want to enter Philly’s ever-expanding restaurant scene, what would it be and why?
If you really want to own your own restaurant, go work for someone else and learn as much as you possibly can. Try to work every position in the front of house and back of house. You’ll be so much more prepared when your time is ready.