Mellow Mushroom, the popular pizza and beer franchise known for its eclectic, themed-based original art, is expected to open in Colonial Williamsburg’s Merchant Square on October 8, 2018. Its owner, retired Naval Aviator Gray Nelson, was a Mellow Mushroom fan long before becoming a franchisee.
“In 2002, my wife and I were in Destin, Florida and saw a sign for Mellow Mushroom. We didn’t know what it was, but I like mushrooms on my pizza, so we tried it,” he says. “It was so good, the best pizza I have ever had, and I’ve had pizza all over the world, from Italy to Chicago to New York.”
Mellow Mushroom’s stone-baked, “southern” style pizza is different from “northern” pizzas, Gray explains. “Having lived in Manhattan, the New York pizza everyone thinks of is this thin slice that you fold in half; it’s very flat and it is incredible. But our southern pizza isn’t that; it’s a little bit thicker pizza and we make it with all-natural ingredients. It’s incredible when it’s fresh and hot, but it’s also the best pizza I’ve ever had the next day as a leftover — even cold.”
Gray and his wife, Navy Lt. Cmdr. Cameron Nelson, left the Florida Mellow Mushroom already discussing plans for Gray to open a Mellow Mushroom himself one day. Thirteen years later, Gray realized that dream, opening his first Mellow Mushroom restaurant in Newport News in 2015.
Choosing Williamsburg for his second Mellow Mushroom venture has special meaning for Gray. “My father graduated from William & Mary, so having the restaurant here means a lot,” says Gray, noting the new restaurant will be just down the street from the college.
Gray and his wife also have a history in Hampton Roads; they have both been stationed in the area during their military careers, and they were married at the Oceana Naval Air Station. “Also, my wife and I have looked at the Hampton Roads area as a place we would like to settle,” Gray says, noting although he has a place in Newport News, he and Cameron also have a home in Northern Virginia. Cameron still works as an Active-Duty officer in the Navy Judge Advocate General’s Corps stationed at the Bureau of Medicine and Surgery (BUMED) as the Special Counsel to the Navy Surgeon General and Chief, BUMED.
From Aviator to Restaurateur
Gray says his Navy leadership experience has translated well to being an entrepreneur. “I didn’t want to go into the airlines after leaving the Navy; I wanted to own my own business and give back to the community,” Gray says. “For many years, I had the benefit of serving our country, and I think the leadership side of business, being able to lead and inspire others to do great things, was the most appealing to me.”
Gray says working to execute Naval flight operations has some similarities to running a kitchen that creates a memorable experience for its guests. At the Newport News restaurant, he employs about 75 people, most in their early- to mid-20s, similar to the young people he led in the Navy. He says the experience of seeing them grow personally and professionally has been “incredible,” and he anticipates a similar experience at the Williamsburg restaurant, which will initially employ 120-140 staff before “steadying out” at 70-90 employees.
“One thing I like to say to the staff is that I always want Mellow Mushroom to be a great place to work, as well as a great place for you to have worked,” Gray says. “Whether you have worked six months or ten years, it’s important to know that you’ve benefited from the experience by either bettering yourself or having the opportunity to make those around you better.”
Gray will be at the Williamsburg restaurant often, but will have a general manager, Hampton Roads native Jessica Grimaldo, overseeing day-to-day operations.
On the Menu
One of the things that makes Mellow Mushroom stand out from other chain pizza joints is the emphasis on each store having its own menu, with “Unique” specialty pizzas that are different and specific to that store. Although Gray has not yet finalized the Williamsburg menu, one Williamsburg “Unique” will be the Thai Dye pizza, featuring curry chicken and sweet Thai chili sauce, which is also a favorite at other Mellow Mushrooms. The menu will also include “munchies” such as wings, pretzels, and Magic Mushroom soup; salads; hoagies; and even sweets.
Of course, if there’s pizza, there must be beer, and so it will be at Williamsburg’s Mellow Mushroom. Although the restaurant is very family oriented, beer—along with wine and spirts — will be on the menu.
“We’ll use local people for cocktails and beer,” Gray says. “We’ll be working very closely with Virginia Beer Company to create a unique beer specifically for the launch of our Williamsburg restaurant. It will be available at both the Williamsburg and Newport News restaurants and at the Virginia Beer Company brewhouse.”
Original Artwork: British Invasion Redux
Like all Mellow Mushrooms, the Williamsburg restaurant will create its own distinctive vibe with large-scale and eclectic original artwork, particularly murals. The theme will be the British cultural invasions of the 1960s and 1980s, as interpreted by prominent Melbourne, Florida artist Derek Gores, whose clients include the NFL, Live Nation, Lucasfilm, and Madonna.
“The idea is that Colonial Williamsburg is the unique place in our country that basically recognizes the foundation of this country and its ties to Britain from Colonial times,” Gray explains. “We wanted to give a salute to British rock, with a little bit of a British pub and a rock n roll cityscape. It’s a salute to our special and unique relationship with England.”
“The music side of the art has some of my favorite bands from growing up, like Modern English and The Cure,” Gray adds. “There are also nods to the Beatles; when people see them, they’ll understand the references.”
“There’s going to be a lot of visual interest and eye candy, and we hope that guests will see something new every time that they’re here. Hopefully, it’s enough that you can’t take it all in on one visit, and you come back again and again and enjoy it,” he says.
The restaurant’s art focus includes offering two t-shirts unique to Williamsburg. One will be a salute to the British Armed Forces of World War II. The other one will recognize the Williamsburg Post Office, which was once located where the restaurant is now.
The Williamsburg Mellow Mushroom restaurant, at 3,750 square feet, will seat 229 guests, and will include a patio and a bar.
The Williamsburg Mellow Mushroom is located at 110 S. Henry Street, in the Henry Street Shops of Merchant Square.
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