Most of us are familiar with the iconic chain Insomnia Cookies—a name that brings to mind modest-sized shops with deep purple accents and the sweet smell of warm, gooey cookies in every flavor imaginable. If you crave it, they probably have it. For the traditionalist, there's the Chocolate Chunk: a rich, buttery, chocolate-y makeover to your grandmother's recipe. For the experimenter, there are cookies like Orange Creamsicle, Strawberry Shortcake, and Rocky Road. There are even five vegan flavors to choose from. And that's not all: there are CookieWiches (Insomnia’s take on the conventional ice cream sandwich), Cookie Cakes, and more.
The most genius aspect of Insomnia? Its hours. The cookie shop stays open until 3 a.m. daily, providing snacks for the late–night studiers and the drunken students craving something sweet. And, if you want, Insomnia will even deliver your order right to your door.
Penn has its own Insomnia Cookie shop nestled in the basement of Houston Hall, one of the brand's 192 locations. It feels fitting that Penn has its own shop, considering Insomnia’s roots–after all, Insomnia Cookies was founded by a Penn student in 2003: Seth Berkowitz was living with nine of his friends during his junior year at Penn when he found himself craving something sweet after midnight. He began baking cookies from his house in West Philadelphia in the middle of the night and delivering them to students across campus. Thus, Insomnia Cookies was born and has continued to grow over the years.
I visited the CookieLab myself this weekend in the wee hours of the night as Insomnia’s business model demands. Here’s how it went.
From the outside, the shop appears to be no different than any other Insomnia Cookies. I raced to pull out my phone as I approached the front door to find the password of the week on Insomnia’s Instagram page. Each week there is a different password to gain access to the speakeasy in the back of the shop.
“Scoop, there it is,” I said to the cashier upon entering. She nodded and motioned to the bookcase behind her. The bookcase looks like one a Penn student might have in their dorm room, complete with a lava lamp, a disco ball, and a Penn flag. The cashier prompted me to say the secret password again.
As I did, the bookcase slowly opened in front of me, welcoming me into a glowing purple hallway.
As I entered, I was transported to a whimsical other land complete with customized cookies and cookie–based milkshakes. The room is lit by neon lights, twisted into various shapes and lines.
Seth Berkowitz told the Philadelphia Inquirer, “We try to put cookievation at the center–that’s how we think about it… As the business grows, you’ve got to keep moving the needle on it.”
The customized cookie counter at the left called to me. I rushed towards it and was greeted by a smiling employee. At the counter, you first bake your “dream dough” by choosing between five different doughs, ten “mix–ins”, including Oreos and sea salt caramel chunks, and four “finishers” such as sea salt and rainbow sprinkles. From there, you customize your cookie by choosing between four “spreads” and countless toppings and drizzles. The choices are truly endless, enough to leave the indecisive customer overwhelmed. I opted for the cashier’s recommendation: the PB pretzel cookie.
I sat at one of several socially–distanced tables to consume my sweet treat and left ecstatic at the new hidden gem I’d discovered.
Insomnia is planning to announce a Center City speakeasy location soon, bringing the magic of the CookieLab a bit closer to Penn. Until then, consider trekking to South Philly–it's worth it.