The Untold Truth Of Mellow Mushroom

Mellow Mushroom, with its "higher order of pizza" mantra, has set itself apart as a unique outlier in a world of regional pizza chains that are all the same. 

The pizza is "southern" style, with not even an attempt at the more popular New York or Chicago styles. The marketing and branding sometimes appears cannabis-adjacent, but also sometimes leans fully into 4/20 culture, with a focus on all things high, munchies and edible. The art is eclectic and each location is different.

There are more than 200 Mellow Mushroom locations across the United States, with more than a thousand employees, expanding outward from the headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia, and if you haven't been able to visit one of the locations just yet, you're missing out. However, if you're a tried-and-true Mellow Mushroom fan, you likely already know about the Southern crust style, the amazing artwork, and the gluten-free menu — but do you know about the eco-friendly pizza boxes, Mellow Mushroom's expansive philanthropic efforts, or the Mellow Mushroom founding fathers?

For everything you ever needed to know about Mellow Mushroom, here's the untold truth.

The first Mellow Mushroom was founded by two college kids

If you thought your college days were wasted because you barely went to class or maybe you, on the flip side, worked too hard and played too little, you won't want to compare yourself to the Mellow Mushroom founders. According to the Georgia Tech Alumni Magazine, Rocky Reeves and Mike Nicholson were roommates at Georgia Tech when they first got the idea to open up the very first Mellow Mushroom location in 1974. Despite being college students, the two thought they could handle starting up a business on top of classes and they opened the doors of the first Mellow Mushroom on Spring Street in Atlanta, near the Georgia Tech campus.

Possibly thanks to years of prior pizza experience under the belts (both young men had worked in various pizza restaurants up until this point, to pay for college), the idea succeeded. While Nicholson graduated the same year the first restaurant opened, Reeves didn't graduate until 1979, but that didn't stop the two from expanding their business quickly, into surrounding Southern states.

The first Mellow Mushroom menu offered pizza for $2.50 and beer for under $1

If you're going to open a pizza joint near a college campus, with the kind of branding that's naturally going to appeal to college kids, then you'd better put together a menu with prices that college kids can afford — and that's exactly what Rocky Reeves and Mike Nicholson did. The very first, 1974 Mellow Mushroom menu offered small cheese pizzas at $2.50 each for an entire pie, alongside Coke products for $0.30 each and beer (Budweiser, Michelob, or PBR) for $0.75 each. Pizza and beer have been the staple menu items at Mellow Mushroom locations ever since.

You'll be hard pressed to find prices that affordable these days — you're lucky to even get a slice of pizza for $2.50 — but Mellow Mushroom did bring its 1974 menu back for a brief stint, in 2014, in honor of the brand's 40th anniversary. Maybe we'll get lucky and they'll bring it back again in 2024, for their 50th birthday bash?

Each Mellow Mushroom location is locally owned and operated

Every single Mellow Mushroom location is locally owned and operated, according to the brand. Not only does this mean that each location just naturally offers a little bit of its own local flair, but Mellow Mushroom actually encourages it. Every location's artwork and decor is different, reflecting the local vibe and art of local artists.

But opening your own local Mellow Mushroom doesn't come easy. A franchise requires $500,000 in cash or a cash equivalent and a background in restaurant operations, and the total start-up costs range from $1.6 million to $4.4 million. Franchisees also have to sign a non-compete agreement, or face some serious repercussions. In 2007, one franchisee who operated three Mellow Mushroom locations in North Carolina closed their locations and opened their own pizza pubs in the same buildings, and Mellow Mushroom's parent company quickly took legal action, asking the former franchisees to shut down their locations and return all their branded merchandise and equipment.

Today, Home Grown Industries of Georgia oversees Mellow Mushroom franchises

So who is Mellow Mushroom's parent company? It's Home Grown Industries of Georgia. However, Home Grown Industries of Georgia isn't some big restaurant conglomerate that oversees several different brands, similar to, for example, Yum! Brands. Instead, Home Grown Industries is simply the "corporate" name for Mellow Mushroom. Home Grown Industries is the business's registered company name, while Mellow Mushroom is the trade name. Mellow Mushroom is Home Grown Industries and Home Grown Industries in Mellow Mushroom, got it?

Even though Mellow Mushroom has a fancier name these days, though, it's still headquartered in Atlanta, just about a half-hour drive away from where the original restaurant was located. Rocky Reeves and Mike Nicholson are no longer the owners, though; that role has been passed to Richard Brasch, who now acts as owner, president, and CEO. According to Business Insider, Brasch's relationship with Mellow Mushroom goes way back; he worked for the first Mellow Mushroom restaurant in what he calls its "chaotic early days." Today, he's striving to balance the old hippie vibe with a more profit-conducive, non-chaotic structure and stability.

Mellow Mushroom specializes in what it calls "Southern" pizza

You know New York City-style pizza. You know Chicago deep dish pizza. But Southern pizza? What exactly makes a pizza "Southern"? According to Mellow Mushroom and Business Insider, who notes that Mellow Mushroom is the only chain in the world that offers this particular style of pizza, the Southern pizza (a term that Mellow Mushroom trademarked, by the way) style all comes down to the crust.

Mellow Mushroom creates its pizza crust with Appalachian spring water and plenty of garlic, to create a crust that's thicker than New York City-style pizza, thinner than Chicago deep dish, slightly chewy and full of flavor. The Appalachian spring water is shipped out to all of the restaurant locations, no matter where they are, it's so vital to the crust-making process. Other dough ingredients include high-protein, un-bromated, unbleached wheat flour, but no refined white sugar. After all the ingredients are blended, the dough is hand-tossed and stone-baked. The result? Southern-style pizza.

Mellow Mushroom has a whole cast of characters to go alongside its iconic humanoid mushroom

You're familiar with Ronald McDonald, Grimace, the Hamburglar, and the rest of the McDonaldland gang from Mickey D's, but The Golden Arches isn't the only restaurant with its own cast of cartoon characters. Mellow Mushroom started out with its humanoid, yellow, totally stoned mushroom character, Mel O. Mushroom, but, over the years, the restaurant has expanded its list of characters to include a range of humanoid-like mushrooms, animals, and mythical creatures, all of which live on the Mellow Mushroom Mothership, reports the brand. The characters have appeared on Mellow Mushroom merchandise, on marketing materials, and more, and range from a pretzel-zapping wizard to a bespectacled dragon named Hummus to Esperanza the Fairy. There's also the Harshinator, who "harshes your mellow," and Cappy the Elf, who sports a mushroom-cap hat.

A product of Mellow Mushroom's creative and marketing teams, when the characters are used in marketing materials like an emailed survey, the teams report a 40% participation rate.

Mellow Mushroom takes its goods on the road with its own food truck

Described as "not your average food trailer," the Mellow Mushroom Bake Bus is exactly that — more of a colorful hippie van meets pizzeria on wheels than any food truck. Serving Mellow Mushroom's favorite menu items, as well as, on occasion, music, the Bake Bus isn't a feature at every single Mellow Mushroom location, so you're lucky if you spot one. The Bake Bus shows up at special events, such as new restaurant openings to drum up excitement and business, but also at sporting events, festivals, concerts, breweries, etcetera.

In one instance, according to Pizza Today, the Bake Bus even showed up at a wedding and celebrated a bride and groom who'd frequented their local Mellow Mushroom throughout their love story. If you want to get the Bake Bus for your own wedding, though, you'll need to call headquarters, like this bride did. The Bake Bus seems to come and go at corporate's whim and isn't available for just any, ordinary catering job.

The Mellow Mushroom pizza box is the "greenest" pizza box in the country

Do you ever think about what happens to your pizza box after you toss it into the trash or recycling bin? If you tossed it in the former, you probably think you did your part in creating a cleaner planet, but, in actuality, according to Stanford University, pizza boxes can't be recycled. The grease and cheese soil the cardboard, resulting in paper that can't be used a second time. So when the recycling team finds a pizza box in your bin, they likely are tossing it into the trash. From there, a pizza box will take at least 90 days to degrade in the landfill, and with three billion pizza boxes tossed each year, that's a lot of trash.

Luckily, Mellow Mushroom is thinking green with its pizza boxes. Each brown Mellow Mushroom pizza box boasts a negative carbon footprint and each box (along with all of the brand's napkins and tissues) is made from 100% recycled materials. The soy ink printing on the box is even environmentally friendly, too. It all adds up to what Mellow Mushroom calls the greenest pizza box in the country.

Mellow Mushroom goes out of its way to serve diners with specialty diets

If you're following any sort of specialty diet, from gluten-free to vegan, you probably have a difficult time ordering at pizza restaurants. Not all restaurants offer a gluten-free option and those who do typically warn that their facilities aren't technically gluten-free, so your gluten-free pizza could come into contact with gluten during preparation. When it comes to vegan pizza options, you're even less likely to find a suitable pizza on the menu.

However, Mellow Mushroom goes out of its way to serve all diners, regardless of diet. Their gluten-free pizzas, according to the brand, are made with a proprietary gluten-free crust that's made in a gluten-free facility and then the pizzas are made in-restaurant at a gluten-free station, for a truly gluten-free pizza that's not just "gluten-friendly." Vegans, meanwhile, as we covered in a previous article, can enjoy an entirely vegan menu, with vegan pizzas made with no-cheese and no-butter crust, vegan cheese, and lots of veggies. Mellow Mushroom even offers vegan hoagies.

Mellow Mushroom has its own lifestyle brand spin-off

Debuting in 2015, Mellow Mushroom's lifestyle brand includes a range of apparel, home goods, and even pet items. At the time of launch, the brand was known as House of Shroom, according to one Creative Loafing article, but today, it's simply called The Yellow Room.

Much like the Mellow Mushroom restaurants, The Yellow Room offers artistic designs from "mellow" creatives. Based on the contact information for The Yellow Room, it appears Mellow Mushroom farms out the actual clothing and item creation to a screen-printing company called Threds, but regardless, the work is still pretty cool and it gets the Mellow Mushroom stamp of approval.

Available collections rotate on a regular basis and the current collection is called Dog Daze, featuring a curious pup with mushrooms growing out of his ears. As you might expect, the Yellow Room home items include psychedelic posters, a vintage poster of Mel O. Mushroom that says "Smoking," and an ashtray.

Mellow Mushroom has always supported the arts

But Mellow Mushroom supporting artists through initiatives like its Yellow Room brand is nothing new. Mellow Mushroom has always supported the arts, from its very first restaurant. There, at the Spring Street location in Atlanta, the brand says, artists worked in exchange for free pizza and free beer. While that probably wouldn't fly today, Mellow Mushroom still brings in local artists into new locations, to create stellar pieces of work unique to the region.

In fact, Mellow Mushroom considers its artwork so paramount to the Mellow Mushroom dining experience that, during the pandemic, when most restaurants were offering take-out and delivery only, Mellow Mushroom worked to get artwork in the hands of customers at home, via its Art of Mellow campaign (via FSR Magazine). Each person who ordered online from Mellow Mushroom during the latter part of 2020 was entered into a sweepstakes to receive a commissioned piece of Mellow Mushroom art, as well as other art items, such as limited edition prints.

Mellow Mushroom really leans into the mellow aspect of the brand

No one can say that Mellow Mushroom doesn't have fun and when you have a brand identity that's so tied to the cannabis industry, why would you not have fun with it? Over the years, Mellow Mushroom has put on special events and promotions with this in mind. For example, in 2020, a Mellow Mushroom in Missouri teamed up with a medical marijuana brand to put on events educating people on Missouri's medical marijuana industry, reports Greenway Magazine. They held a "Munchie Brunch" that featured CBD beverages served alongside Mellow Mushroom pizza. Similarly, on April 20, Mellow Mushroom locations in Charlotte, North Carolina, as Kiss 95.1 reported, celebrated 4/20 with $4.20 munchies (aka, appetizers) and 420 free pizzas given away at 4:20 p.m.

Unfortunately, you won't find any edibles on the Mellow Mushroom menu just yet. You will, though, find a cocktail on the menu called the Liquid Marijuana, which blends rum, blue curaçao, pineapple juice, and sour together for a relaxing concoction.

Mellow Mushroom is big on giving back to the community

Whatever your opinion on the cannabis vibe, no one can deny that Mellow Mushroom gives back to its communities in big ways. Last year, Mellow Mushroom restaurants in more than 100 cities participated in the A Pie for A Pie program that donated one pizza for every pizza ordered during the event to front-line workers and charities. The fall event was made possible via a partnership with The Mushroom Council and HGI, an FSR Magazine article reports.

But that wasn't the only time that Mellow Mushroom put on one of these Pie for A Pie events. In the summer of 2020, a Mellow Mushroom restaurant in South Carolina gave away free pizzas to local graduates, saying they'd had a tough year, graduating during a pandemic (via ABC 15 News). Another Mellow Mushroom location in Arkansas recently gave free pizzas to a Fayetteville hospital for every pizza ordered (via CBS 5 News).

Mellow Mushroom is making a big effort to expand its employee base

A push for new hires shouldn't be surprising to anyone who dines out frequently. Across the board, most restaurants are experiencing a severe labor shortage and QSR Magazine details that nearly 85% of operators report lower-than-normal staffing levels as of April 2021, with nearly half of those operators saying they had more than a 20% shortage in staff. A third of operators said they expected it would take up to a year for staffing levels to recoup from the pandemic. Mellow Mushroom is just one of many restaurants looking to hire, and hire fast.

Most recently, Mellow Mushroom is hard at work attempting to expand the Mellow Mushroom team via its brand-designated National Month of Hiring, over May 2021, during which it aimed to hire 2,000 new employees at more than 175 restaurants in more than 20 states (via FSR Magazine). The brand reported that surveyed employees say they like Mellow Mushroom's unique vibe, good tips, and flexible work schedules. But are good vibes enough to retain employees? Only time will tell.