What distinguishes Southern pizza from the cheesy delights served around the world?
The secret behind the American South’s unique brand of pie is the crust, says Mellow Mushroom CEO Richard Brasch. He would know — the 200-plus location pizza chain has trademarked the term.
Southern pizza crust is neither deep-dish, like traditional Chicago-style, nor thin-crust, as most New York-style pies tend to be. Instead, it’s a league of its own — chewy, thick, garlic-y, and, incredibly enough, always made with spring water imported from the Appalachian Mountains.
“We could easily use filtered or tap water,” Brasch told Business Insider. “But, we believe it makes for a consistently excellent product.”
So, as the Atlanta-based full-service chain continues to expand beyond the Southeast, it imports Appalachian spring water everywhere that new locations open.
That’s the degree of care that Brasch says is baked into Mellow Mushroom’s brand, which positions the restaurant as a place to chill out with friends and family, as opposed to the delivery-centric model of the biggest national chains.
“A lot of people sell pizza, obviously,” says Brasch. The difference at Mellow Mushroom is a willingness to take the extra time to pay careful attention to quality.
Unlike many restaurant franchises, which can seem addicted to growth as companies frantically try to boost shareholder value, Mellow Mushroom’s CEO does in fact seem pretty mellow about expansion.
The company has recently been steadily opening 10 to 15 new locations a year, and plans to continue to do the same, neither speeding up or slowing down. According to Brasch, the company tends to attract committed, “iconoclastic” franchisees who are excited to imbue each location with its own special charm.
That’s another thing that sets Mellow Mushroom apart: Instead of sticking to a common company design, every franchisee is encouraged to explore his or her own artistic vision when opening a new location.
Some base restaurant design around a city’s history, while some find inspiration in an owner’s hobbies. An Asheville, North Carolina location used to be a gas station, while one in Durham, North Carolina is in a remodeled tobacco factory. Local art and other creations that caught the franchisee’s eye cover the restaurants, making them feel more like independent pizza joints than part of a 200-location chain.
The company’s chill but intensely dedicated approach has its roots in its founding in 1974, when three college students opened the first location in Atlanta, Georgia. Brasch worked at the company for a period in its “chaotic early days,” and says that even as the company becomes more structured, it strives to continue to nurture the hippie-inspired creativity to sets it apart from the competition.
While pizza chains like Domino’s and Pizza Hut attract and keep customers by making every location reliably identical, Mellow Mushroom has gained a cult following by being different. It’s a formula for success that Brasch admits takes more time and tinkering than that of most pizza chains — but also one that he would never think of changing.
So, as Mellow Mushroom moves into new states such as Massachusetts and New York, there is no exact image that new customers should expect. However, they can look forward to a uniquely quirky design, a dedicated owner, and, of course, Southern-style pizza you can’t find anywhere else in the world.
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