Think of a Center City hotel and the typical franchise comes to mind. Think of Morris House Hotel, conveniently located on 8th Street between Walnut and Locust, and different feelings and emotions resonate. History, class, privacy, and tranquility are only a few of the many notes we recently experienced during our delightful visit to the beautiful hotel and accompanying M Restaurant. We had the pleasure of sitting down with some of the wonderful women that run Morris House Hotel and the M Restaurant to learn more about this “oasis in the city.”
Femme & Fortune: Tell us about how M Restaurant and Morris House came to be.
Debbie Lefevre, Owner: My husband Jean Lefevre and his partner Michael diPaolo bought the hotel in 2000. Prior to that, it was vacant for eight long years as an alternate energy company headquarters.
Both Jean and Michael envisioned it to be a bed and breakfast so they made each room in the Morris House have their own private bathroom. They turned this into three different places. Morris House consists of the main hotel which was built in 1787, an adjoining carriage house (which includes three one-bedroom apartments that are rented by the night), as well as another building here that houses M Restaurant and four additional rooms, making 15 rooms total.
Jean and Michael spent three long years restoring everything and opened it in 2003 as a full-service hotel, restaurant and catering venue where anyone can stay as a guest, host a private business seminar, get married, have a reception dinner, and even have their proposal.
Jeanette Vennel, General Manager: The economy went down a few years ago and Debbie took over. She really grabbed a lot of great staff members (myself included), and the team now just works so well together. We are mainly women in the management team – Debbie’s the main heart and soul of the property, I’m the property manager, Lenke Martinkova is our hotel manager, and Danielle Connolly is our restaurant manager. We’ve really come a long way and have expanded quite a bit since we’ve opened back in 2003.
Femme & Fortune: Tell us about the people that come and stay at Morris House.
Debbie Lefevre, Owner: It’s an oasis in the city and absolutely reminiscent of being in the south of France. We have people that come here regularly from Europe and say that they feel like they’re at home. Jean and I travel quite often and we we really wanted this place to feel the same as our travels abroad. About 30% of our customers come from Europe and they really like the consistency we provide. Europeans aren’t as adventurous as Americans so they come here and want to feel like they’re home. Because of that, we have a great returning customer base.
Jeanette Vennel, General Manager: With only 15 rooms total for guests, we’re obviously too small for conventions and graduations to bother. But, we do also get the beautiful spillover from conventions and also the higher-end customers that say they don’t want to be with everyone else and want to experience something different here in the city. Hopefully, we don’t get too big, because I kind of like how we’re a secret here in the city!
Femme & Fortune: What are some upcoming endeavors for Morris House?
Jeanette Vennel, General Manager: We are actually opening up a coffee shop soon as part of M Restaurant!
Debbie Lefevre, Owner: We will have a limited menu for breakfast and eventually lunch along with our coffee bar. I mean where can you go and grab a cup of coffee and sit in a garden as beautiful as this?
Femme & Fortune: Can you go through the M Experience?
Jeanette Vennel, General Manager: So on Friday nights we have live jazz where you come through the garden and enjoy some acoustic jazz in our courtyard. The courtyard itself is a very enchanting and charming experience.
Lenke Martinkova, Hotel Manager: You can really sit outside with a glass of wine and read a book and really enjoy yourself. Everyone’s lives are hectic, and you can come here to the Morris House and just enjoy yourself. We have a lot of the local hospital patients who are going through a really painful time that come here to be happy and at peace. Compared to a bigger hotel, we take care of you here and make sure you feel as comfortable as possible.
Debbie Lefevre, Owner: We have a lot of marriage proposals that occur here as well, and we’ve even had people walk by and say “This is where I want to get married.” It’s really a one-of-a-kind experience.
Femme & Fortune: What makes this place different than any other Philadelphia hotel or restaurant?
Debbie Lefevre, Owner: All of the employees here are like my own sons and daughters, because I hire those that I consider to be family. This is a family-run business, it’s very personable when you come here. We have our setbacks and pros and cons, but I don’t think that you’ll find owners anywhere else that care as much as we do. It’s an inspiration for us to come to work every day.
I honestly say all the time that it’s also cheaper than therapy to come here. You come here with your friends and family and walk out leaving refreshed and rejuvenated and you wonder why. All you need is to be in nature. Here at Morris House, you don’t get the bus fumes or surly waiter elbowing you as you eat, dogs bothering you as you relax, or the feeling of being cramped like you do at other places. You have space, privacy, the chance to have a nice conversation here.
Femme & Fortune: Describe the restaurant and hotel in three words.
Jeanette Vennel, General Manager: The restaurant would be enchanting, hidden gem, and magical. The hotel would bc caring, true vintage, and historic.
Femme & Fortune: What are some obstacles that you faced while being in the restaurant and hospitality business?
Jeanette Vennel, General Manager: I think with any business, women are looked at as sexual creatures with more of a “Aren’t you cute?” manner – which is a totally unrealistic point of view. There are a lot of emotional differences between women and men, and sometimes women don’t get taken too seriously.
Lenke Martinkova, Hotel Manager: You really need to show who you are and prove yourself to others. I don’t think it really matters if you’re female or male, but it’s about working hard and showing who you are to everyone else.
Debbie Lefevre, Owner: I really haven’t felt any discrimination. I’m also a photographer and have had my own business for 33 years, and I actually benefit from being a female. The photography world is so male-oriented, that I get jobs because I’m a woman. But when you feel so passionate about something, I think it comes through and any gender can look up to you.
Femme & Fortune: Tell us about the menu and type of food at M Restaurant.
Jeanette Vennel, General Manager: We have small to medium-sized plates, and definitely no American cuisine. Our Executive Chef Kyle Beebe is always growing our menu from different seasonal and cultural influences and nothing’s ever been done before, which is a great thing.
Debbie Lefevre, Owner: My husband and I have a farm in New Jersey and we grow a lot of the vegetables for the restaurant there. Jeanette is actually the one that’s coined the phrase “seed-to-table” as we really do plant a lot of of our food, harvest it ourselves and then bring it here for our guests. It really makes a difference and you can tell. We try to introduce a more creative and fun way to eat without losing the quality and presentation.
After taking a tour of the property and tasting some of the exquisite culinary delights thanks to Executive Chef Kyle Beebe, the Femme & Fortune team was in heaven. Tucked away at 225 S. 8th Street in the heart of Center City, Morris House provides an exclusive feeling of a getaway without any compromise. Perfect for any occasion, Morris House treats every guest like family and delivers equally as much love into their food at M Restaurant. Visit them today and really enjoy Philadelphia’s hidden gem!
Photos via Melissa Alam