Unexpected Expectations

Mellow Mushroom locations are a product of local flavor and individual ideas, but as Michael Shepherd explains, it takes a lot of hands to make something unique

"Our best quality is that we don't have a prototype. And our worst quality is that we don't have a prototype." —Michael Shepherd, Director of Construction
“Our best quality is that we don’t have a prototype. And our worst quality is that we don’t have a prototype.”
—Michael Shepherd, Director of Construction

A revolving, upside-down Volkswagen Beetle in Arkansas. A 20-foot blimp with Barbie and GI Joe in the carriage in Texas. Space Invaders in Iowa. The unexpected is what to expect of the décor at a Mellow Mushroom restaurant. And that’s the way that director of construction Michael Shepherd likes it.

Originally from Ohio, Shepherd moved to Atlanta in 1984. After graduating from Georgia Tech with a degree in building construction, he worked as a general contractor, building restaurants for other chains, before joining the Atlanta-based Mellow Mushroom. “I got a cool vibe from them,” he says. “Each restaurant is completely different.”

Mellow Mushroom has about 180 unique locations around the country. “Last year, approximately one-third of our new locations were retrofit, one-third were built from the ground up, and one-third were shell buildings. The size also varies by location. We go with whatever the market dictates,” Shepherd says.

The company opens between 13 and 18 new locations each year. Ground-up construction takes the longest; Shepherd estimates it takes, on average, about 16 weeks for the drawing process, four to six weeks for permitting, and 20 to 24 weeks for buildout. “A lot of effort goes into getting the best possible design before opening the restaurant,” he says.

After a franchisee and site have been approved by company president Richard Brasch, an architect is selected and further due diligence is performed to analyze cost and operational constraints. After due-diligence approval, a team consisting of construction, design, and art assembles for the project. The company sometimes uses local artists to help execute the restaurant’s theme. “For example, for our Round Rock, Texas, location we used artists from the Austin area, and our Bluffton, South Carolina, location features some local folk art,” Shepherd says.

The "Disco Beetle" is just one of the distinguishing parts of the Mellow Mushroom aesthetic.
The “Disco Beetle” is just one of the distinguishing parts of the Mellow Mushroom aesthetic.

The franchisees determine the art direction for their restaurant, with help from Shepherd and the Mellow Mushroom team. “Through discovery meetings and weekly conference calls, our team does a great job of interpreting the franchisee’s vision while maintaining the local flair. We encourage the franchisee to send us pictures of what they like and don’t like, to guide our team.”

Early on, a meeting is held with the franchisee and architect as well as the president, COO, and CFO of Mellow Mushroom to discuss every detail—even things like whether the restrooms will have paper towels or hand dryers. Mellow Mushroom helps the franchisee coordinate vendors for elements such as kitchen equipment; smallwares (plates, cups, and utensils); point of sale; and the AV package (TVs, cameras, speakers, and low-voltage wiring for phones).

“The actual building materials are brought in so everyone can see and touch them,” Shepherd says. “We also design the restaurant’s signage—each store is different.”

Shepherd works off an owner-provided checklist with a timing sequence. “Since franchisees come from all career arenas, the owner checklist is used to walk the franchisee through the construction process step by step. In this way, they can complete their responsibilities in a timely manner and alleviate any long lead times.

More about Michael

Michael Shepherd graduated from Georgia Tech and originally leaned toward architecture but decided he liked being out in the field more. He has been with Mellow Mushroom for six years. When asked with whom he’d most like to split a hoagie, he said: “Robert Plant [of Led Zeppelin]. I’ll bet he has a lot of good stories.”

“The design process is the challenging part, not the construction,” he continues. “As a team, we have to make sure we interpret the franchisee’s vision and goals while adhering to our criteria and brand standards. This is not a complete list, but some examples of our criteria are that we do not allow laminate countertops or carpet. We must have tile full height in the restrooms. There must be no visible 2X-fluorescents or FRP (fibre-reinforced plastic) in the guests’ view—and we require well-defined and -lit back bars.”

There can be challenges in implementing one-of-a-kind designs in each location. “Our best quality is that we don’t have a prototype. And our worst quality is that we don’t have a prototype,” Shepherd says. “Since we are a franchise system, most franchisees assume we ‘rubber stamp’ drawings and have them available ready to build. Since every Mellow Mushroom is completely different, it takes time to develop each location.”

Shepherd says that all his work is guided by a piece of advice passed on to him from his mother: If you’re going to do something, do it well. “I put myself in the franchisee’s shoes,” he says, “and put heart into each location as if it were my store, my time, and my money.”