Pop into the new Insomnia Cookies shop on Ninth Street across from Pat’s King of Steaks in South Philadelphia. Head to the left of the cookie and ice cream counter, and you’ll face a bookshelf lined with a college kids’ stuff, including a Penn pennant.
The bookshelf slowly opens to reveal a curved hallway ribboned in neon. Walk in, head around the bend, and there it is: a room shot through with electric color. To the left is a counter where customers can order customized cookies with a selection of toppings, much like any number of fast-casual restaurants (or, on the dessert side, like Duck Donuts). In front is a bar for cookie-based milkshakes.
You might call it a sweetseasy.
Insomnia calls it CookieLab, an extension of Insomnia’s research-and-”doughvelopment” lab in Newtown Square, which is closed to the public.
CookieLab creates a new outlet for the company, founded in 2003 by University of Pennsylvania junior Seth Berkowitz, who was living with nine guys in a West Philadelphia house when all he wanted in the middle of the night was something sweet. Berkowitz started baking cookies, which led to a wee-hours delivery service offering cookies and milk.
For its 192nd location in 40 states, Insomnia is doubling down on the in-person experience for its fans (”Insomniacs”), while its core business is delivery — with its own couriers — and top seller is still chocolate chip.
Innovation, such as this Willy Wonkaesque shop in development since 2019, is one part of it. ”We try to put cookievation at the center — that’s how we think about it,” said Berkowitz, who frequently bakes cookie terms into his vocabulary. “As the business grows, you’ve got to keep moving the needle on it.” In recent years, the company has introduced new lines of cookies, including dunkable cookies called Little Dippers.
This first CookieLab is in a new building on the northeast corner of Ninth and Wharton Streets, amid a neighborhood whose rich assortment of late-night food options includes Pat’s, Geno’s Steaks, and Rim Cafe. CookieLab’s pickup window, in the alley to the left of the front door, will be open 24 hours on weekends and will follow the hours for the retail store and CookieLab of 11 a.m. to 3 a.m. daily.
Customers can buy from the retail store in front, or head into the CookieLab for baked-to-order or prebaked cookies, which can be topped, and for shakes with milk or nondairy milks. There is seating, though Berkowitz believes that carryout will be popular.
Berkowitz said the company soon would announce a Center City location, including offices and a retail store. “We want to build something that can really be lasting and can make a really meaningful impact from an innovation perspective and from a family perspective,” he said.
“When I think about cookievation, it’s got to be a product. But you want it to be cultural, also.”