Cheesesteaks, soft pretzels, water ice and….bread? Philadelphia may soon be known for another iconic edible item thanks to 25-year-old Pete Merzbacher, who won a year of marketing services for his bakery Philly Bread in the inaugural Lightning in a Bottle competition.
"I got the product, I got the bakery, I own the equipment, I have the staff, I already have a market that’s buying it,” Merzbacher said. "But I haven’t had any time to market it.”
Like a bagel, Merzbacher's Philly muffin comes in white, wheat, cinnamon raisin and everything varieties. But he says his product is an English muffin-bagel hybrid.
"There are nooks and crannies in it. …The appearance is a lot closer to an English muffin and there’s no hole in the middle,” he said. "A bagel is very dense. The dough has very low hydration. My dough has very high hydration, which gets a different texture.”
Since launching Philly Bread in May 2013, Merzbacher says his business has gone from producing a few hundred muffins a month to about 7,000 with essentially no advertising.
“Sometimes I’ll pull out my smartphone and snap a picture of what I’m doing, write a little blurb and post it on Facebook,” he said. “But it’s really been the last thing on my mind.”
His muffins are currently available at 15 different locations in the area, including the Swarthmore Co-Op Food Market, MOM’s Organic Market in Bryn Mawr, and Weaver’s Way Co-Op in both Mount Airy and Chestnut Hill.
But Merzbacher knew he needed to start advertising if he hoped to reach his ambitious goal of scaling the “Philly Muffin” -- an updated version of the English muffin -- so it would become known as the city’s bread of choice.
“San Fran has the sourdough loaf, New York has the bagel and Paris has the baguette,” he said. “My intention is to make the Philly Muffin as world famous as our cheesesteaks are.”
The texture and the taste first caught the attention of the Lightning in a Bottle judges, a mix of business, advertising and communication professionals deciding who would win a year of marketing services, valued at $60,000, from Wilmington, Del.-based AB+C Creative Intelligence.
But Philly Bread’s potential effect on the city’s economy is what led the judges to select the year-old bakery from among the 29 businesses that applied.
“[Philly Bread] could have high impact on the local economy, has good growth potential and can be easily leveraged by marketing assistance,” Joel Vardy, president of Vardy & Associates who judged the competition.
Several others pointed out the effects Philly Bread has already had on the local economy. Merzbacher employs two part-time and two full-time workers and rents a commercial space at 4905 N. 5th St. in the city’s Olney section.
Although Merzbacher is not yet sure what the marketing strategy will be, AB+C executives say they’ll likely begin by overhauling his website.
Whatever the plan, Merzbacher is committed to doing what he does best.
"As they start pushing the marketing,” he said, “I’m ready to do what I need to do in the bakery.”