Hugh Morretta, operations manager for La Colombe Coffee Roasters’ small-batch and single-origin-focused Workshop Program, has opened an independent coffee house in Philadelphia’s Fitler Square neighborhood called Rowhome Coffee.
The new shop serves sandwiches using locally-baked pretzels as bread alongside some of La Colombe’s more rare and distinct coffees.
“Rowhome is really about sharing some of the less-explored La Colombe coffees,” Morretta told Daily Coffee News. “Every year some of my favorite coffees aren’t purchased by wholesale accounts or aren’t served at La Colombe cafes due to either limited volume or price limitations… They’re coffees that usually see most of their volume go through the La Colombe website to individual customers since they may be a little too pricey or sometimes too ‘funky’ for a lot of wholesale accounts. I wanted to get these hidden gems out in the open and share them with people face to face.”
Morretta is continuing to oversee the La Colombe Workshop department, while partnering with longtime friend and fellow Philadelphian Eli Shaika for the Rowhome venture. Morretta sees his work at Rowhome as an opportunity to expertly complete the final link in the chain for some La Colombe coffees.
“Meeting the producers, seeing the actual cherries, visiting the mill, working with my roasters to get it just right, and then working with the baristas at Rowhome to get it into the customers hands in the best way possible is incredibly exciting for me,” said Morretta. “Rowhome really lets me take some of my favorite coffees and serve them in a way that I always hoped they would be. I want people to taste what I’m tasting when I’m nerding out in the lab and just nailed a brew of my favorite roast of a natural Pacamara.”
The coffee shop soft-opened last December, offering an filled with detailed woodwork that creates a sense of old Philadelphia. Ironically, the big wooden bar which seems like it’s been there forever, is far less transparent than the coffees served.
“According to the landlord, he purchased that reclaimed bar and installed it around 2010 but some customers refute that,” said Morretta. “Half the people in the neighborhood have told us they know the history of that bar, but they all have different accounts. Same thing with the ‘Ladies Entrance’ sign attached to the exterior. It’s the classic type of response you get anywhere in Philly when asking about something old. Everyone thinks they know but you never get a real answer.”
Through a collaboration with designer Carly Moore, the wood- and glass-filled interior is enhanced by teal blue tiles and yellow wood booth paneling that echoes the shop’s gleaming yellow La Marzocco GB5 espresso machine atop a white slab of quartz.
“We really just wanted to retain the historical elements of the shop without being stuffy,” said Morretta. “We wanted to be playful, colorful, and homey. We talked about it being like grandma’s rowhome. Grandma is from another era, but she’s still lively and stylish.”
Thus far, the shop has focused on to-go service, offering a range of drinks plus sandwiches made from pretzels baked by Federal Pretzel, one of the city’s original soft pretzel bakeries.
“We have a pretty small kitchen so we don’t have the capacity right now to bake our own but we would love to one day,” said Morretta. “Since we have such limited space, our concept is to promote local bakers and butchers that have contributed to the incredible food culture in Philly.”
With a pickup window behind the bar, Rowhome has kept a steady flow of customers since opening, although traffic has naturally been muted by the pandemic and the Philadelphia winter.
“We just keep saying ‘summer is coming,'” said Morretta. “We’re located across from a super busy park with a baseball field and a riverside bike path. If we have lines on the weekends in 30-degree weather, the summer is going to be insane.”
Rowhome Coffee is open now at 2536 Pine St in Philadelphia.
[Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story misspelled Hugh Morretta’s name as Hugh Moretta. We regret the error, and the story has been updated.]
Howard Bryman is the associate editor of Daily Coffee News by Roast Magazine. He is based in Portland, Oregon.