"We started off with a small sandwich shop in the financial district 14 years ago..."
Upon graduating from Yale, Min Ye (SB '95) took a job in corporate finance. A few twists and turns later, she is now owner and operator of the gorgeous Blemneim Hill Farm in the Catskills, as well as two beloved restaurants in Manhattan, Blenheim and Smorgas. We asked Min to tell us about the journey that took her from the bank to the barn, and the many things currently on her plate (including but not limited to raw prime rib).
Tell us about your business!
I own and operate Blenheim Hill Farm – a 150-acre farm in the Catskills - with my husband and partner Morten Sohlberg. We raise heritage pigs, Iceland sheep, chickens, and grow sustainable produce in our state-of-the art hydroponic greenhouse. The farm is also a destination wedding venue with a private lake, rolling pastures, forest trails, and onsite lodging in the historic farm house. We own and operate 2 restaurants in Manhattan. Blenheim restaurant in the West Village was recommended by the Michelin guide for 2 years in a row, and features ingredients grown on our farm. Smorgas at Scandinavia House serves Nordic cuisine and does high-end catering, since my husband - a chef/farmer/designer - was born and raised in Norway.
What makes your idea unique?
Farming and restaurant industries alone are not unique. They are very much alike: the cost structure is high, it is very labor intensive, margins are nearly non-existent, and it is difficult to break even. But when you combine farming with hospitality and events like weddings, the concept becomes very powerful and financially sustainable. We are one of the very few restaurant groups who operate our own commercial farm. We are also one of the very few barn-wedding venues that serve Michelin-rated cuisine, where our guests see first-hand the salads moving from our greenhouse straight onto their plates minutes later. Guests are paying for that experience, on one of the most important days of their lives – they are no longer just paying for individual plates or bags of carrots. You all of a sudden have decent margins to work with, which enables you to invest in the infrastructure and create an even more spectacular experience.
Tell us about the journey from concept to execution.
We don’t take concept to execution in a traditional way. We spot opportunities along the way and build new business that will complement our core offerings. It is not a straightforward path, the concept continues to evolve, and it is still evolving. As an entrepreneur, you are always pondering what’s next and what will work better. You need to be in tune with where the market is and what your customers want, and adapt your concept accordingly. We started off with a small sandwich shop in the financial district 14 years ago, and we acquired a small plot of land of 6-acres upstate growing herbs and tomatoes. Even when we expanded to our current farm of 150-acres 7 years ago, we didn’t imagine we would be doing weddings. When the concept is ripe, you will need the infrastructure and operations to make it happen. Financial sustainability is important – so many great concepts fail because they run out of money before they take off, or they never reach breakeven. The team is important – they need to be as excited about the business as you are. You cannot do it alone and you will not grow unless you have the ability to inspire and motivate others.
Who was a notable mentor?
As business owner from very early on, I never had the privilege of a traditional long-term mentor; I had to rely on the expertise from those I hire and I work with. I was new to everything we embarked on, so I had to learn quickly at each turn in order to survive. I was always thirsty for information and never take anything for granted. I listen, and I ask questions. With everything I know, there’s always something else that I don’t know. People are very willing to teach and share their knowledge.
What experience at Yale most impacted where you are today?
Yale is a place that prepares you for whatever you end up pursuing in the future, no matter how unexpected it may turn out. It was the way of thinking and approaching things, and the community of people who were incredibly diverse, so that you knew from early on that anything is possible. I was an economics major at Yale, but now I’m a farmer/restaurateur. My own wedding ceremony to my husband was 5 minutes at City Hall 20 years ago, but today I’m hosting destination weddings as a profession at our own farm upstate for couples from all over the world.
What’s your favorite food, aside from what you can get at your own place?
My parents who live nearby cook Chinese food for my 3 boys for dinner whenever I have to work late at my own restaurants. And they save me leftovers. My favorites are the Chinese dumplings! No matter how full I am or how late it is in the night when I get home, I cannot resist trying some. It is simple home cooking and by no means glamorous. But it reminds me of my childhood years growing up in Shanghai.
How did you get started in the food industry? When did you know that you wanted to pursue your current career?
I had to sign a non-compete agreement when I sold the online education business I co-founded with my husband. I had to stay out of the internet space and could only do brick-and-mortar. Cooking, planting, and hosting parties for friends had always been a passion/hobby at the time. I went to the French Culinary Institute to learn how to cook better. My eldest of my 3 boys told me some of the most beautiful memories he had as a child were baking with me, making cakes, pies and desserts. We were living in a loft at the time in a historic Dutch row house in the financial district with a giant roof-top garden where we grew a lot of herbs and veggies. We cooked and invited friends over for dinner overlooking the Statue of Liberty. When the non-compete was signed, I decided to open a small sandwich shop in the financial district - Smorgas on Stone Street. It would incorporate everything I loved to do! Little did I know how complex and challenging the food industry was before I dived into it.
What is your favorite thing about the NY food scene?
Single-focus fast foods like dumpling shops or taquerias are great; I prefer that to long-and-winding fine-dining spots which are often more a showoff for chefs than a lovely meal.
What about the food/drink industry is exciting to you right now and why?
“Grown to order” – is a term we coined 7 years ago, when we founded Blenheim Hill Farm. It’s a trend that we have helped shape from the very beginning of our operation. The possibility of growing your own ingredients for the menus, both in the food and drinks we create for our guests. The Blenheim salad we serve contains a mix of 10 different types of greens, with varying shapes, colors and flavor profiles. Toss that along with the edible flowers we grow, the salad stands on its own with no dressing required (just olive oil and drops of lemon juice). We carefully compose the Blenheim seed mix and grow them in our greenhouse. We also grow ice plant – which is fantastic for cocktails. It’s a succulent plant that looks like it’s full of droplets of water over its leaves. Many chefs/restaurateurs in the industry are doing some sort of growing in their roof top gardens or backyards. We are just doing it on a much bigger scale.
What was your favorite eatery in New Haven?
It used to be Naples Pizza. I had wonderful memories of how yummy the pizzas were and the great conversations I had with friends. I recently tried Heirloom when I stayed at the Study, and that was nice.
What is your best advice for recent grads?
Find out soon what you are passionate about and what you are good at. With a degree from Yale, most of you will get multiple offers, and you will most likely start with a job because it’s prestigious, it pays well, or simply because your friends are doing the same thing. But over time, it’s important to discover what’s important to you. Some people thrive in a structured and established environment, whereas others do better striking out on their own and run their own business. I started my career in corporate finance, and learned a great deal, and made good money in my mid-twenties, but I quickly figured out I didn’t want to stay in banking and climbing the corporate ladder. But the skills I learned in my banking years were invaluable.