When the YOWIE hotel opened on Philadelphia’s iconic South Street, founders Everett Abitbol and Shannon Maldonado threw a big block party. The move wasn’t about gathering Instagram influencers or trendy DJs, rather about making the community feel included.
Getting the 13-room, invisible-service hotel off the ground was challenging, but YOWIE retail boutique founder Maldonado (who grew up in South Philadelphia) and local developer Abitbol felt a connection to the area.
In fact, Maldonado’s grandmother purchased her home with the real estate agent whose office had been located on the ground floor of the property, which Abitbol explains “always read as two separate buildings. You wouldn’t think it could support a floor plate necessary for a hotel.” Once he realized they had been joined, creating a building with four sides of exposure and a unique position as an integrated part of the streetscape, he knew it was something special. That launch night “felt like a very big hug from the city,” says Maldonado. “People came from all corners to be a part of the evening. It was incredible.”
Here, the business partners and Boutique Design’s 2023 Up-and-Coming Hotelier honorees detail the ethos they are bringing to their newest endeavor.
You initially partnered on hotel and event spaces the Dye House in Rhode Island and the Deacon in Philadelphia in 2021, with Shannon designing both properties. You’ve continued to work together since. How did the evolution of YOWIE from a retail store to a hotel come about?
Everett Abitbol: It was Covid therapy, to be honest. Shannon and I were able to dive into the Dye House during the scariest parts of Covid, and when we came up for a breath, we were sitting together in Shannon’s store on South Street. It was a really busy time. E-commerce was booming. Shannon’s curation is why I’ve fallen in love with her work. We were kicking [around] this idea of expanding YOWIE into hospitality. Shannon writes these little notes and recommendations, like, ‘Where would you recommend someone to stay?’ And the joke in Philly was ‘nowhere.’ That’s how the conversation started, and we kept coming back to within a couple thousand feet of where Shannon’s [previous YOWIE] store was. Many were looking for us to go to [Philadelphia neighborhoods] Rittenhouse or Fishtown. But we started on South Street, and we found our home on South Street. We had the idea that we were the guestroom to the neighborhood.
Shannon Maldonado: I knew there was more for us, but I wasn’t sure what that was. In conversations with Everett, I was reminded that so much of what we already were doing in the shop was hospitality. We’ve always been very connected to our audience. I always wanted to be a part of a hotel. My original goal was for the Ace or the Standard to find me and make me their gift shop person. This hotel is a dream realized and, beyond that, feels like a natural progression. Everett helped me see the bigger picture and have bigger goals and dreams for the brand. I’m glad we kept going to get there and that I’m sitting in the building right now as we speak.
Once you found the building, what did you want to create?
SM: It was about the building being beautiful and understated from the exterior. Once you’re inside your room, you have the special experience of seeing the color, the details, the books, the plants. It feels very cozy and welcoming. There’s a genuine sense of placemaking in our suites. It feels like a cool apartment, not a normal hotel.
What challenges did you encounter?
EA: It took time to figure out how we were going to lay this building out. The two buildings seemed connected at every floor until we gutted them and the third floor from the west side had almost a two-foot difference in height from the east side.
SM: But it allowed for us to design these little stoops, like vestibules that you walk into before the room. It makes it feel more special, nodding to South Philadelphia’s architecture. Every time I do a tour, everyone’s favorite part is walking up the stairs into the three suites on the west side of the third floor.
And YOWIE is a shoppable hotel.
SM: When you check in, you will find a physical catalog that tells you everything in your room, down to the paint color on the walls. It identifies what things are available downstairs in the shop and what things are made to order. I looked at the rooms as a mix of hotel and a showroom. It was so important for each room to be different so I could showcase all the brands I’ve wanted to work with for years. We also want to be a connector. Your average person doesn’t know how to buy a made-to-order commissioned artwork. We’re happy to be that conduit.
How are you programming the space to involve community members?
EA: Part of our DNA has been about creating gathering spaces. [YOWIE has] a downstairs space where we can invite people to interact with us.
SM: We’re excited to use that room as a flexible space for workshops and events—some food-driven, some entrepreneurship-driven, some artist-driven. We also hope to share it with other brands or people looking to do an intimate event.
How do you keep things personal?
EA: We had a guest staying and we did enough research to know they were applying for a sculpture grant at [the Rhode Island School of Design]. We happen to know a sculpture professor from RISD in a building right behind the Dye House and we were able to make a connection and get the guest a studio tour. It’s about digging up these little things so we can make someone feel a bit more special when they’re traveling.
SM: I don’t want YOWIE to be so big that I can’t connect with people. I’ve always wanted to feel connected to the people I worked with and feel inspired by the things I was designing. I hope we can continue to grow, but also to stay small in our approach to hospitality. It’s what sets us apart.
This article originally appeared in BD’s Fall 2023 issue.