It may be the originator of hand-tossed, stone-baked southern pizza but Mellow Mushroom is about so much more than the pie. Mellow is “a state of mind, a culture, a way of being,” according to the casual restaurant chain’s food philosophy. And to better fulfill its mission to provide delicious food in a fun and creative environment, Mellow Mushroom rolled out a new beverage program this past spring and hired a new beverage director this summer.
The restaurant brand typically updates its program annually, says Nick Arenas, who joined as director of beverage this past August. Mellow Mushroom will request proposals from the supply partner community, evaluate the proposed items against its goals, test each and every item and then launch each program in May.
“This enables us to stay on trend, be trendy when and where necessary, but also keep our offerings in place long enough to get an accurate read on its effect on our business and, most importantly, our guests,” Arenas says.
Arenas, whose beverage experience includes stints at Levy Restaurants, Logan’s Roadhouse and William Grant & Sons, oversees the Mellow Mushroom program with Kynyetta Lester, associate director of beverage. Lester has been the company for more than 10 years, serving in the operations and beverage departments, and previously worked as part of the training team for Hooters.
Magical Margs and more
Mellow Mushroom’s new beverage menu offers a selection of updated sangrias, wines, “Liquid Karma” cocktails and signature Mystic Margaritas. The Liquid Karma cocktail category includes several popular signature sips, such as the Sunset in Paradise (with Bacardi Superior rum, coconut, pineapple, pomegranate and fresh sour); Golden Goose (Grey Goose vodka, fresh lemon, pineapple, turmeric and Fever Tree ginger beer); and the Peach Buzz (Jameson Irish whiskey, peach and fresh lime).
The Lemon Submarine, with Woodford Reserve bourbon, St. Germain elderflower liqueur, freshly brewed iced tea, rosemary and fresh sour mix, is a new addition to the lineup. So is Mule the World, which builds on the classic Mule recipe. With Fever-Tree ginger beer and house-made lime syrup, guests can select from their choice of premium spirits, including Ketel One vodka, Don Julio Blanco tequila, Bulleit Frontier bourbon, Crown Royal Canadian whisky, or Captain Morgan spiced rum.
The Mystic Margaritas section of the menu highlights the best-selling RB Margarita (made with Casamigos blanco tequila, Bauchant orange liqueur, house agave sour), the Made Wild Margarita version (with Casamigos reposado tequila) and the Gone Feral Margarita (Casamigos anejo tequila). The selections give guests the opportunity to experience different tequila expressions.
The Campfire Peach Margarita, brought back in June by popular demand, gets its smoky flavor comes from the combination of Casamigos blanco tequila and Casamigos joven mezcal, along with peach puree, jalapeno and house-made agave sour. Mellow Mushroom cocktails are priced at around $9 each.
“We will continue innovating moving forward to bring cocktails using only premium ingredients, with superior service and guest-first execution,” Arenas says.
Sassy sangrias and fine wines
A super-premium take on the classic, Mellow Mushroom’s new sangrias feature fresh fruit and Hennessy V.S. Cognac. Each sangria is made fresh to order, from all-natural ingredients.
The Rotating Selections sangria option on the menu will change twice per year to bring in new flavors. For instance, the Purple Reign summer sangria combined Hennessy VS Cognac, Bonanza cabernet sauvignon, black cherry puree and Fee Brothers rhubarb bitters.
Wines on the list include selections from renowned wineries like the Wagner Family, and the winemakers behind Caymus, Jackson Family, Kim Crawford and La Marca. “We seek to offer only premium-quality wines that guests recognize both on- and off-premise,” Arenas says.
“Wine is a special category for us, in that most don’t associate wine and pizza,” he notes. “Our outlook is that wine goes well with anything, as long as paired properly. We seek to have wines that offer not only exceptional quality, but are truly a fit with our fun and unique brand.”
What’s more, Mellow Mushroom guests can now enjoy wine in a variety of pour sizes, including a 6-oz. glass, a 9-oz. glass or a bottle. Prices vary by market but average about $7 for the 6-oz. glass, $9 for the 9-oz. and $29 a bottle. The varied pour sizes enable guests to try multiple different wines or indulge in their favorites.
The restaurant has seen a considerable rise in the wine category as a whole since introducing the 9-oz. pour offering, says Arenas. “We feel quite good about this additional option for Mellow guests.”
Perhaps not surprising for a pizza concept, beer is the leading alcoholic beverage at Mellow Mushroom. Beer currently hovers around 12% as a percentage of overall food and beverage, with spirits at 9% and wine at 3%.
The company has mandates specifying core beers — in both draft and package — that are category and market leaders in their respective styles. These beers drive the majority of beer sales, Arena says.
“We also have created a beer optimization framework for our operators to be able to pick the right number of taps for their specific market,” he adds. “These taps are largely available for local and regional craft beers.”
Oberon, a citrusy wheat ale from Kalamazoo, MI-based Bell’s Brewery, was a summer craft beer selection.
Founded in 1974 in Atlanta, Mellow Mushroom Pizza Bakers was “born out of the free-wheelin’ hippy culture of the Seventies,” according to the company’s mission statement. The Mellow Mushroom franchise operates under Home-Grown Industries of Georgia and currently has 169 locations across 20 states, primarily in the Southeast.
The brand clearly aims to put the fun in fungus: Each Mellow is locally owned and operated and provides a unique feel focused around customer service and high-quality food in an eclectic, art-filled and family-friendly environment.
In fact, several “Shroomville” cartoon characters inspired by the food have popped up over the years, including Mel. O Mushroom, The Funguys and Esperanza. The Mellow characters have appeared in stores, calendars and their own comic strip.
In addition to its signature pies, made with a unique spring-water crust, Mellow Mushroom serves up calzones, sandwiches and burgers, plus salads and munchies, with plenty of gluten-free and vegan options. Servers and bartenders will suggest specific food pairings to guests.
“This has proven to be a great way for servers and bartenders to connect with our guests,” Arenas says. “We see suggestions have a bit more sincerity when the team member makes a personal recommendation.”
The brand has expanded as far west as Mesa, AZ (opened in 2016), and as far north as Tom’s River, NJ (opened in 2017). “We continue to look at new markets that would be a great new home of Mellow Mushroom,” Arena says.
“Our culture is truly special and unique, so we take part in each and every opening we do to spread our contagious culture from Day 1. Each and every member of our team ‘catches the fever’ from their first moment, because that’s what Mellow is all about!”
Like many companies today, Mellow Mushroom has had hiring challenges and looks for new ways to attract talent. This summer it partnered with social media expert Drew Talbert on a video campaign to find candidates for the “operations coach” position. Arena says that Mellow Mushroom saw a 200% increase in the number of applications via LinkedIn as a result of the campaign.
Shroom to grow
Mellow Mushroom expects to see growth in craft cocktails and non-alcoholic mocktails. A new drink called Pineapple Express, a blend of pineapple, coconut, turmeric spice and house-made agave sour, is available spiked with Flor de Caña seven-year-aged rum for an additional charge or as an alcohol-free mocktail. Guests can also add their favorite spirit to the new Cherry Springer mocktail, with black cherry, fresh sour and soda.
The chain had offered some non-alcoholic drinks in the past, “but not with the focus and innovation as we offer now,” Arena says. “Nonalcoholic offerings are especially continuing to grow in popularity and preference,” particularly with GenZ and Millennial guests, he notes. “Our goal is to be on trend with these initiatives and offerings.”
A new “Local to Your Mellow” cocktail section includes past favorites or drink creations specific to each location. Just as no two restaurants look the same, “this ‘Local To Your Mellow’ section allows Mellow owners to have personalize beverage items and offer truly unique items at each and every Mellow Mushroom restaurant,” Arenas says.
What’s on deck for Mellow Mushroom in the next year? It’s been learning to manage the increase in online ordering, for one thing.
Heading into the pandemic, Mellow Mushroom had already invested in off-premise technology and new packaging. “That positioned us well for 2020 and 2021,” Arenas says.
Online orders are double pre-pandemic levels, he adds. “We are in the process of launching an intranet site for Mellow franchisees and planning for a website rebuild in the next few months.”
In general, “We are looking at internal systems and processes and how we can continue to deliver an exceptional guest experience while streamlining operations, both at the bar and in the kitchen,” Arenas says.
“Delivering a quality pizza has been the guiding focus for Mellow Mushroom over the past five decades and will be what continues to fuel our success as we head into our 50th year in 2024.”