Comfort Food for the Health Conscious
By Samantha Costa
Photography by Alexa Nahas Photography (alexanahas.com)
The Couch Tomato, lovingly and simply dubbed “Couch” by locals, is officially an adult. The business just celebrated 18 years positioned along the cobblestone of Rector and Main Street. This Manayunk mainstay has cultivated comfort food for the health-conscious foodie over several years.
Deciding to go into business nearly two decades ago had a lot to do with Michael Cassano, CEO of The Couch Tomato Restaurant Group, and his business partner, Craig Mosmen, living in Manayunk.
“We had just graduated college, and we were always hanging out,” Michael said. “And anytime we wanted to grab something quick, the quick-casual concept was not in the area yet.”
Right out of the gate, Manayunk welcomed Craig and Michael’s budding business with a hungry belly, open arms, and a craving for food that made them feel good.
“People were like, ‘This is exactly what this area needed,’” Michael said. “There’s something to be said about what Manayunk has to offer.”
The Couch Tomato was the first in their “family” in a sense. They have a second location in West Chester, with a third planned for Conshohocken in 2022.
“Manayunk will always be our first. It’s home because of that,” Michael said.
Evolving With Manayunk
Of course, Manayunk has changed since Michael and Craig’s college and early post-college days. People in their 30s and 40s are purchasing new homes, and new businesses are catering to a beyond-college-aged crowd. The watering hole that is Manayunk may have its stereotypes, but it’s matured alongside The Couch Tomato’s growing demand for healthy, organic, and dietary restriction-friendly food.
Nowadays, the business partner friends have their own families and a renewed perspective compared to nearly 20 years ago.
“We’ve evolved our menu quite a bit to not only meet the demands of the street but also to an extension of how we eat at home,” Michael said. “We like our kids to eat healthy. We try to eat a lot of vegetables and fruit, and organic when we can do that.”
There are plenty of places to grab a slice of pizza or a burger, it’s true. But, there are few places where you can get tacos made of hearts of palm that resemble a fish taco, Michael said.
“We were trying to be an extension of how we eat, but at the same time, we felt like there was a void in this neighborhood we could capitalize on. I would like to think that we are not doing anything differently except listening to our customers,” he said.
About seven years ago, a customer suggested a gluten-free pizza. Michael and Craig did a little research and discovered the need for people living with dietary restrictions – not just a fad diet. Since there were few options in the area, they developed a proprietary recipe, which Philadelphia Magazine recognized. Word got out, and the masses caught on.
Listening to customers is an essential part of owning a business in general, he said. That’s especially true in this neighborhood, bubbling with so many different interests and desires.
That evolution has helped the restaurant grow, despite the pandemic. Michael attributes their success to their newly launched mobile app, released in January 2020. It just so happened that much of the globe shut down two months later.
“We didn’t have to pivot to change everything we were doing to make ends meet,” Michael said. “We had that infrastructure in place to see what was ahead of us.
Of course, no one could have predicted what the future held, but they were positioned to utilize their already-popular pickup and delivery options. They also began using contactless menus.
Home delivery has been an option since 2003, “but the idea of The Couch Tomato wasn’t about bringing food to your couch. It was about having a cozy dining experience – somewhere people can feel like it is a neighborhood spot,” Michael said.
There were some Fridays during the pandemic that were busier than they were pre-pandemic, he said. But that would not be possible without the supportive Manayunk community stepping up to order food with kindness and patience for the resilient staff.
“A lot of places didn’t make it, and I feel very fortunate,” Michael said.
Something for Everyone
Even if you haven’t been to Manayunk in a while, or you just moved up the hill to Roxborough, visiting The Couch Tomato feels like coming home. Walk into limited cozy seating and the pizza and salad counter. Head upstairs to the Bistro, and you’ll find a rustic dining area with brick-exposed walls, ambient lighting, and a bar.
“It’s a place where you can feel good about what you’re eating and where you’re spending your money,” Michael said.
They have developed a concept leaning into “cleaner” food and trying to be ahead of the curve regarding the type of food available in Manayunk, Michael said. It can be tough to balance finding one restaurant to suit the needs of everybody in a group or even a couple. While one person might be vegan, their significant other may not be. Michael said their goal has always been to fill that gap.
“Something for everyone has always been our motto,” he said.
And although it can be a labor of love, Couch lends itself well to people with diverse dietary needs.
Products are either locally sourced or organic and prepped that day. The quality is always fresh, Michael said, adding that they do not have huge walk-ins.
All biases aside, Michael said he feels pretty good about what he just ate when he steps away from eating at Couch.
“I feel like it was a healthy meal. I feel content. It’s not heavy or greasy. It’s not anything you’d get from a typical pizzeria. It’s a nice experience that will make you feel good after you’re done,” he said.
There are some new items on the menu, including a signature Margherita pizza that might just be the best pie yet. The sauce is richly flavored. For the colder months, patrons can look forward to their signature daily soup specials. The tomato basil bisque paired with their grilled cheese is a fan favorite – and one of mine.