The Story Behind Rowhome's Unique Blend of Coffee and Pretzels
Now with two locations in the city, the masterminds behind the brand are set on making a bigger impact on the local coffee industry.
By Jensen Toussaint
In December 2020, longtime friends Hugh Morretta and Eli Shaika decided to take a leap of faith and launch an entrepreneurial venture.
This led to the opening of Rowhome Coffee in the Fitler Square neighborhood of Philadelphia.
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The pair wanted to set themselves apart from other coffee shops when it came to their food offerings. They had trouble sourcing bagels that could meet their needs, and as longtime Philadelphia residents, they thought about how prevalent pretzels were for them growing up in the area.
“I kind of thought, ‘there’s really not much of a difference between a bagel and a pretzel, to be perfectly honest,’” said Shaika.
From there, Shaika came to the conclusion that Rowhome could build their brand with pretzel breakfast sandwiches.
Customers can enjoy a number of different pretzel sandwiches — from bacon and pork roll, to roast beef and turkey, and grilled cheese — in addition to a wide selection of coffees, espresso, and tea.
However, it’s the pretzel sandwiches that make Rowhome stand out from the many other coffee shops throughout the area.
“We really embrace our real respect and love for historic Philly,” Shaika added. “We make that our calling card.”
The Road to Rowhome
Before collaborating on the new business venture, the two business partners followed rather different professional paths.
Morretta began his career in social work before making the switch to the coffee industry in 2012. He was hired as a barista at La Colombe in 2014, where he worked for about 7 years.
“I went through a whole program. I was managing departments and traveling to buy green coffee from the farms and the producers there,” Morretta said during a recent interview.
In addition to running the Rowhome business, he also works at Pete’s Coffee, where he is a quality manager.
Shaika, on the other hand, worked at a record label for over 16 years, primarily in sales and events.
The friends had long imagined going into business together. “We always were talking about doing our own thing … specifically in the food and service-related industry,” said Morretta. “It’s something that we always were interested in, something that we enjoy as a hobby.”
While Morretta was able to tap into nearly a decade of experience in the service industry, Shaika would be going into an entirely new one.
Nonetheless, they were both confident that it would work.
“I think we really kind of shared the same vision of what we wanted to do,” Shaika explained. “We took that big vision and we put it into the coffee space.”
To put it plainly, Shaika notes that Morretta was “the brains behind the initial operation” while he was the “elbow grease, boots-on-the-ground” person.
Expanding Beyond Fitler
Less than a year after opening the first location, Shaika and Morretta set their sights on opening a second.
In October 2022, they managed to officially open the doors to their second cafe at 2152 North Front Street. That location was previously a corner pharmacy that was established in the early 1900s.
In both locations, customers will notice historic and modern images and symbols that represent Philadelphia and its lore.
“It embodies the same architecture that we like, and that’s something that we really look for and value as part of our brand,” noted Morretta. “We want to represent Philly in that way.”
Making a Bigger Impact
Morretta and Shaika have big plans for the future. They’ve discussed a wide range of expansion plans, from adding new menu items to opening new locations in other parts of the city.
“We want to continue growing because [the shop] has a lot of potential,” said Morretta.
Their long-term vision is to compete with Boston-based Dunkin’ and other popular coffee franchises.
“We’ll be working hard to make sure that as many people know about us as possible, and [that they] can enjoy what we have a passion for,” said Shaika. “America runs on soft pretzels.”