After graduating from the University of Delaware in 2000, Craig Mosmen and Mike Cassano quickly settled into their corporate nine-to-five jobs, going separate ways in their post-collegiate career paths. Mike went into sales and Craig took a job as a financial advisor for Morgan Stanley. But then a turn of events quickly shifted their paths, bringing them back together to start a new business venture in Manayunk — The Couch Tomato Café. I recently got a chance to talk with Craig about the restaurant and what the future holds for the two college buddies.
When did you first open The Couch Tomato Café? Why did you guys choose to open in Manayunk?
Mike and I first opened the restaurant in 2003. We thought Manayunk was the perfect neighborhood. It’s just outside of Center City Philadelphia. It’s a boutique area and home to a lot of young professionals and college students. The area’s Main Street is lined with tons of great restaurants and bars. Manyaunk is definitely a hub for nightlife in the area.
What inspired you to get into the restaurant biz?
Mike and I both come from entrepreneurial families. I grew up in Albany, NY, where my mother and aunt owned a catering business. Mike’s from South Jersey, where his dad owns a printing company.
In college, Mike and I worked at the same restaurant. During our senior year, we worked for a young guy who owned a place that sold calzones and realized that owning a business like that was something we could see ourselves doing.
After college, Mike worked in sales and I worked as a financial advisor for Morgan Stanley. But then 9/11 happened and we both left our jobs soon thereafter. We thought back to our years in college and all the conversations we had about opening our own place someday. Well, that day came sooner than I expected. Mike and I got together and decided this was our chance. So two years after we graduated, we each scrounged up $25,000 to put towards a business. At first we thought it was never going to happen. We were getting shot down by banks left and right for a startup loan. We’d probably spent a thousand dollars alone sending out business plans to almost 100 banks in the area.
There are so many restaurants in Philly, why do you think The Couch Tomato Café has been so successful (experiencing a 20 percent increase in growth year over year)?
When we first started, I made the pizzas and Mike worked the salad station. We started with three employees when we first opened. Today we have over 40 employees. We’ve found that hard work, dedication, and our decision making has helped us grow tremendously. We’ve also been successful at providing our catering services to many of the local businesses in the area, which has helped to boost our business tremendously.
Our families have been extremely supportive as well, providing us with amazing advice. Mike and I have quickly learned that running a business is a second marriage. When you’re working with a partner, you have to learn to deal with personal differences. If you’re fair and trust each other, you can create a strong business. We both learned to work to each other’s strength and weaknesses. Over the last few years, Mike and I have split our roles and responsibilities.
I handle the marketing, financing and expansion plans. Mike operates the day to day operations and staff. Our strengths and weaknesses complement each other well. We have an amazing general manager, Katrina Ogle, who plays an integral part in running the restaurant and helping us to maintain a creative and well received menu of items.
What are some of the signature items on the menu?
We have over 40 different gourmet pizzas and specialty salads on our menu. We don’t have a ton of storage space in our kitchen, so we typically buy our produce daily, keeping our stock of supplies very fresh. We’re starting to use more organic ingredients as well. People come here because the quality of the food is so fresh and tasty. We even make homemade Ciabatta bread to go with our salads. Our chef makes all the soups homemade and during warmer months he adds gazpacho to the menu. We also serve up a wheat dough pizza, which has been popular among more health conscious diners.
Buffalo chicken pizza is our biggest pizza seller. We use a hot sauce mix, topped with fresh boneless chicken, gorgonzola and Grande Italian mozzarella cheese. The Grande Italian mozzarella is one of the most expensive cheeses on the market, but we like using it because it’s not overly greasy when you cook with it, and its taste is worth the price.
So now that you and Mike have waved good bye to office life, what does the future hold for The Couch Tomato Café and its owners?
Mike and I are planning on opening up the second and third floor this winter and expanding the restaurant. Once the upstairs is established and running smoothly, we may look into opening a second location.
The restaurant currently has 20 indoor seats and 30 outdoor seats. The first floor will remain the same, but with the expansion we’ll add 80 seats on the second and third floor. We also plan to add a wine list to our menu. Right now we’re BYOB; by the end of the year we plan to have our liquor license. We’re also converting a large vacant lot behind our building for valet parking. Parking can be a real pain in this area, so our diners will be happy to know they won’t have to drive around the block looking for parking, and park for FREE!
I’m excited about the restaurants rapid growth. I have no regrets about leaving corporate America. Not even for a second! This is exactly what I expected and I love every minute of it. And I know Mike shares my same feelings as well.
The Couch Tomato Cafe, 102 Rector St., Phladelphia, PA