It was December of 2009 and Dr. Steve Small and his new business partner, Marc Kieffer, were at the Charlotte Mecklenburg School bus depot. It is a huge lot where repairs are done on close to a thousand buses in the system, but Small and Kieffer were in the back where the surplus buses were parked.
“It was like a bus graveyard,” Small recalls. “All the old, crusty buses were pushed up against a back fence.”
They spotted the 30-foot bus Kieffer had scouted out online and gave it a going over. They knew the bus was an unconventional business expense, but it was perfect for their new roles as owners of a Mellow Mushroom restaurant. Immediately, they bought it.
“We found a company here in town called Charlotte Party Bus,” Kieffer continues. “They convert double deckers into party buses, so we towed the bus over there and they took out the drive train, the engine and all the seats. They opened it up on one side and then an art team spray painted it to look like a hippie bus.”
“The day it was delivered to the restaurant was a production,” recalls Small. “It was brought in on an 18 wheeler flatbed, lifted off with a forklift and then rolled in on dollies. We had to take the restaurant windows out to get it in.”
The bus now enjoys pride of place in the Mellow Mushroom on Selwyn Avenue and the booths nestled inside are a favorite spot for families with kids and apparently some aspiring graffiti artists who have added their names and doodles to its colorful walls.
“No two Mellow Mushroom stores look alike,” says Small. “Marc and his wife, who is an interior designer, created the look.” True to the store’s culture, each store is decorated differently, sometimes having a unifying theme to the artwork. Tie-dye and colorful mushrooms are common.
“Selwyn store is a ‘road trip’ theme,” Kieffer says and points out the stylized painted road that meanders along the restaurant floor and the concert posters and wall-sized triptych of Woodstock photos above the back booths.
“Instead of regular lighting we hung street lights over the booths. And then there’s the bus,” beams Kieffer proudly.
In contrast, there are no buses in the other Mellow Mushroom in Charlotte owned by the same investment group. The Ballantyne restaurant which opened in December, has a “Magic Carpet Ride” theme complete with four carpets floating from the 24 foot ceiling, murals of genie lamps and minarets and a glass cylinder with a smoke machine and colored lights to give the effect of a giant hookah pipe. It’s been so popular that some customers have encountered up to two hour waits during the opening weeks.
“Right now we’re crazy busy,” Small says, “but it’s going to take some time to see where we’re going to end up.”
“The Selwyn store does a lot of night business and is usually ranked at between 10 and 25 in sales of Mellow Mushroom stores nationwide,” Kieffer adds. “I think Ballantyne will be both a lunch and dinner business. Our goal is to have the Ballantyne store be a Top Five store consistently.
“We have a lot of customer loyalty. Many customers are fans of Mellow Mushroom from other cities and those people are telling their friends. During the opening of Ballantyne, I’ve heard a lot of people saying, ‘We’ve heard about Mellow Mushroom. We want to try it.’”
“I grew up with Mellow Mushroom,” says Small. “The pizza is awesome, but it’s also an experience. People come to Mellow Mushroom to eat great pizza or try a new beer, but they also want to see what’s going on.”
Both Small and Keiffer grew up with Mellow Mushroom in Atlanta, where three college students had started it in 1974 to celebrate fresh stone baked pizzas as an art form and to reflect their eccentric philosophies
The first location was created out of an old liquor store near Georgia Tech, but long lines and gaining popularity led to the opening of more stores in Atlanta and then expansion around the state and Southeast. By the late ’80s, Mellow Mushroom started offering franchising opportunities and has since grown to 130 stores nationwide in 18 states.
“The original Mellow Mushrooms were super funky places but bare bones inside and smaller, maybe 2,500 to 3,000 square feet,” Kieffer explains. “Now each store has a minimum of 25 beers on draft and our Selwyn store is 5,700 square feet. Ballantyne is even larger at 6,500.”
The size may have changed but today’s Mellow Mushroom stores have kept their fun and funky roots. Each store is unique but they all have an eclectic ’70s feel evoking the best of that decade.
A smiley face wearing an “Easy Rider” motorcycle helmet covers the wall in the Men’s Room of the Selwyn store; a burning bra mural decorates the Ladies’ Room. And the signature characters “Mel O. Mushroom” and “Dude Shroomington” chill out on top of the hippie bus.
Mellow Mushroom stores have also expanded from their college town roots to other markets. “Our customers span the gamut,” says Small. “Pizza appeals to everybody and we all use the same recipe from Atlanta.”
“We still get the Queens University kids coming in for the late night menu that has $1.50 slices,” Kieffer points out, “but we get business people coming in to grab a beer and wings after work and people coming in to watch the game. It’s also a family place. The kids line up on Friday nights to watch the guys toss pizzas.”
Both locations offer live music and trivia nights, as well as beer and wine specials. They are also social media-connected, o Facebook, Twitter, Yelp and Urban Spoon.
“We get corporate support for marketing,” explains Small, “but since our focus is local, we have to come up with the majority of our efforts on our own. We advertise in local publications. We do a lot of sponsorship or trade deals.”
“Charlotte is way wired-in,” Small comments. “The word from corporate is that the Charlotte area really uses the Internet and social media.”
“On National Pizza Day,” Kieffer notes, “Mellow Mushroom gave away 25,000 Internet coupons for a free cheese pizza. Our Selwyn store collected more coupons than any store nationwide so you could say people here are online a lot.”
A Long, Strange Trip or Kismet?
“It seems like I was destined to be involved with Mellow Mushroom,” says Kieffer, who has a degree in hotel and restaurant management and has owned and managed restaurants in the past. He says he planned on eventually buying a Mellow Mushroom franchise in Atlanta with his brother.
Plans changed when his father asked Kieffer to move to Charlotte and help him with his business of selling multi-million dollar commercial and packaging printing equipment. Kieffer made the move to Charlotte and into printing equipment sales, but the Mellow Mushroom franchise was always in the back of his mind.
“I approached Mellow Mushroom in 1995 about opening stores here in Charlotte,” he says, “but I wanted the rights to all of Charlotte, not just one store, and at the time Mellow Mushroom didn’t want to do that. I like to cook and friends were always telling me I should open up a restaurant, but by that time my wife and I had adopted two children from overseas and we needed the security of a steady job.”
With the downturn of the economy, sales of multi-million dollar printing presses dried up and Kieffer’s steady job became a lay off. Then a chance conversation in April of 2009 brought Kieffer full circle and back to his goal of owning a Mellow Mushroom.
Small, who is a practicing emergency room doctor, had always been interested in business and was part of an investment group with some friends. “We looked into a lot of businesses but every time we did due diligence on a prospective business, it fell apart. We always felt that if we found the right thing, we’d like to go into business together.”
The “right thing” began as an opportunity to be a small investor in a commercial real estate property deal being put together by a friend of the family who was a real estate broker and developer. The deal morphed from renting space to a new corporate-owned Charlotte Mellow Mushroom into owning an actual franchise.
“Marc and I are neighbors, our wives are friends,” explains Small, “so he and I went out for a couple of beers down at the EpiCenter one night and I told him about the deal. I didn’t even know about Marc’s restaurant background until then. We were just out having a beer. And then I thought, ‘We may actually have something here. It was meant to be.’”
Small and Kieffer joined with Small’s brother and two of Small’s friends to invest in the franchise.
“One partner lives in L.A., one in Nashville and one in Virginia,” Kieffer says. “We formed this whole corporation having never even met these people face-to-face. The first time we met them was at the Selwyn store opening.”
Only Kieffer and Small live in Charlotte, so Kieffer acts as manager and handles most of the day-to-day responsibilities, but even with his full-time job as a physician, Small is very involved.
“It’s stimulating,” Small says. “Someday I might quit medicine and work solely in the stores. But it takes a lot of money to build a store so it won’t happen next year, but depending upon the success of the stores, I can see it happening in the next five to 10 years.”
Kieffer looks up as Jordan Gross of the Panthers walks in the back door to grab a take-out order. They exchange “Hey, man” greetings.
Kieffer smiles. “You also get to meet celebrities,” he says. “Four or five of the Panthers come in a lot. Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson have been in and Angie Harmon and her husband, Jason Sehorn. But I think my favorite part is the ‘regulars.’ I like that our customers know us and we know them.”
Together, the partners have the rights to five stores in the greater Charlotte area and plans are to open all five. Concord, Lake Norman, Huntersville and Steele Creek top the list of possible future locations and the next store may open as soon as later this year.
“It all depends on when we find the right space,” Small says. “If we find something we love next week, we can start trying to put it together right away. That’s the part of the business I like best—scouting out the space and putting together the real estate deals.”
Small and Kieffer already have a theme planned out for the next store based on the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine. “The guy from Charlotte Party Bus has called us to say he’s figured out how he can make the sub,” Kieffer says. “We need to get an old Windstream camper…”