When Shawn Ledford opened Mellow Mushroom in Augusta, it was all about pizza and beer. In fact, Ledford often found himself in the kitchen helping out.
“When I opened downtown, I was in that kitchen cooking, cooking, cooking, all the time. And I did even in Evans,” Ledford said. “And now, it’s just… you get so spread out with three you have to figure out how to manage without being in the store. I like the kitchen. It was simple then.”
It was in 2003 that Ledford and his wife Katy, transplants to the area from Atlanta, opened their first Mellow Mushroom location at the corner of 12th and Broad streets. Now, the Ledfords’ lives are a little more complicated. The downtown Augusta and Evans location on Washington Road are still going strong, the Mellow Mushroom has expanded its menu, most recently to include hamburgers. And their Aiken location is celebrating its first anniversary.
Ledford said he’d always wanted to have a Mellow Mushroom location in each corner of the region. Over time, though, he noticed that many Aiken residents would make a point of stopping by for a pie when they were in town for other reasons.
“They would come for a medical appointment and Mellow as always one of their stops,” he explained. “And we really love the downtown area here. It’s very quaint and there’s a lot of activity going on, so it was always attractive to me.”
First off was finding a location. And unlike Augusta and Evans, which are on roads that make them difficult to miss, Aiken’s store is in an alley. It’s a little bit hidden, especially if you don’t live in Aiken. If you do live in Aiken, however, the spot makes perfect sense.
“This historically has been the anchor for restaurants in downtown Aiken,” Ledford explained. “The Bowery was here, Up Your Alley was over there, so now we’re kind of turning that over and there’s a new era of restaurants here. There’s a new restaurant across the street, we have Mellow here, and then you had the streetscape project going on in the alley. Someone bought the building next to us and they’re opening a new restaurant there, so there’s a lot of growth going on in downtown Aiken right now.”
The recently finished streetscape project, which involved fencing off the alley area and lots of mud, put a bit of a damper on business during the all-important first year. Ledford said that, in the long run, it’s a definite improvement.
“It wasn’t good for business but, in the end, it’s going to be better because they really did a nice job,” he said. “It really looks nice and clean and crisp, and it’s going to be a good thing.”
Once the Ledfords found the location, opening the restaurant wasn’t just a matter of putting in the equipment, gathering the ingredients and opening the doors. Unlike other franchises, Mellow Mushroom’s corporate office encourages franchisees like the Ledfords to make the space their own.
And it shows.
While Mellow Mushroom Augusta is a brightly colored, funky space with works by local artist billy s adorning the walls, the Aiken location is, for lack of a better word, pretty. The colors are subdued and darker, the bar is a aqua-colored concrete slab, and the enclosed patio area has a wood-beamed ceiling.
Of course, there are eclectic touches, like the Pegasus flying out of the wall of the back dining room or the mushroom cap covering a large booth. For the most part, however, the Aiken restaurant is much quieter and more serene than its sisters in the Augusta area.
“It is pretty, isn’t it?” Ledford said when asked about the difference in decor. “I think that’s just kind of moving with the times. I think that, in Augusta, the situation was perfect and we wanted an eclectic store with a bohemian feel to it. This one (the Aiken location) is more established. I think the clientele is more conservative here, so we try to kind of stay within those parameters.”
Getting to know the area and its residents has been the Ledfords goal in their first year of being open.
“You know, downtown Augusta is different from Evans, and Aiken is different from downtown Augusta and Evans, so it’s really just figuring out your audience and playing to it,” he said. “Aiken is a unique place, it really is. A lot of people are very fond of it and they don’t want it to change. And then some people are looking forward to the change. And Aiken has a lot of people not from Aiken, so it’s kind of hard to peg its personality down but, overall, we’ve been well-received.”
Improvement is the word the Ledford are now focused on, in Aiken as well as in their other two restaurants. While the one in downtown Augusta just recently finished a renovation, the Evans location will soon begin one.
“We have bought the house behind us and we’re expanding our parking lot,” Ledford says. “I feel like people have adjusted to our location and they carpool there sometimes because we are so limited in parking, but we are enclosing our patio and putting it on the side of the building and we’re putting a hard roof over that, so we’re expanding 25-30 seats. And we’re expanding our parking lot by another quarter acre. We’re netting 54 more spots in the new parking lot.”
Each Mellow Mushroom location, he said, has encountered its own challenges. Each, however, has come through those challenges stronger.
“For example, parking’s always been a struggle for us out in Evans but it’s weird: we’ve overcome it and it’s a really good store that continues to grow,” Ledford explained. “We know we have a good product and that’s why I’m looking forward to year two here. Getting plugged into a new community? It’s a challenge, but it’s fun. I’m meeting some good people.”
Good people who can bond over two things: pizza and beer.
151 Bee Lane, Aiken
11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday-Wednesday; 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Thursday-Saturday