Business News

Around Town: Mellow Mushroom takes over old Bako’s

by Leslie Turk

Before you go off on this "cursed corner" on Johnston and Doucet, think about why its previous concepts failed.

Mellow Mushroom franchisees Todd Moffatt and Billy Maisano will introduce the funky pizzeria concept to Lafayette early next year.
Photo by Robin May

Todd Moffatt and Billy Maisano had hoped to eventually expand Mellow Mushroom to Lafayette - in part to reconnect with their UL college crowd of the late '80s/early '90s - but they were looking in a different market when they contacted Ryan Pécot of Stirling Properties for help finding a site. He quickly convinced the franchisees, who already have stores in Covington and Metairie, that Lafayette is where they need to be.

Pécot had a few locations in mind, but he kept being drawn back to that vacant burnt umber building at Johnston Street and Doucet Road - yeah, you know the one. Nothing's worked there so far, but like many of his real estate peers, the Stirling rep knows the right concept will.

As expected, Maisano and Moffatt immediately wanted to know if the site was "cursed" (c'mon, they're both New Orleans natives), Pécot recalls, but he was able to assure them it's not.

Just think about it: Toucan's (Bobby Silor), Bootie's (need I say more?), Serranos Salsa Company (spent way too much money to ever make it, and management of local operation left a lot to be desired), Bako's (don't ever go into business to seek revenge on your former employer; it won't work).

"Of course the site isn't cursed, but I guess it's the easy answer to why concepts have not been successful in the past on that corner," Pécot tells ABiz. "Mellow Mushroom quickly realized that they operate well outside of those respective pitfalls," he notes. "Focusing on the real estate itself, it is close to geographically the center of Lafayette, has phenomenal traffic counts and visibility, is surrounded by arguably the most dense residential [area] consisting of very strong demographics, and interplays well with the UL athletic campus."

Zea, the real estate broker points out, consistently posts some of the highest restaurant sales volumes in the city - with zero visibility from a major artery. "Most retail site selectors would give that [Zea] site a C+ at best, but [the restaurant] is well managed, has a very good and consistent product, and is well located geographically. Expect to see that same recipe for success from Mellow Mushroom, with a better [non-cursed] physical location."

Now that we've put that nonsense aside, meet Moffatt and Maisano, 42 and 43, respectively, who have extensive restaurant and property management/real estate experience. After graduating from UL in 1993, Maisano, who worked as a busboy from the age of 14 and bartended at Mako's on The Strip while a UL student, went on to work for Semolina, Copeland's, Zea and Smoothie King - jobs that also took him to Georgia and Alabama. Moffatt's been involved with his family's property management company, Select Properties, since 1992 and has also run his own real estate company. He earned a master's degree in finance from UNO in 1998.

The business partners' affiliation with Atlanta-based Mellow Mushroom, a fast-growing chain of 160 restaurants known for stone-baked pizzas, music-themed interiors with a funky vibe, and quality craft beers ("no crap on tap," as they say), goes back to 2004-2005. Moffatt and Maisano were planning to do their first restaurant on Veterans Memorial Boulevard in Metairie when Hurricane Katrina hit, pushing them back about four years. In August 2009 they launched in Covington, and in January of this year the Veterans store finally opened.

The Lafayette location, a 7,300-square-foot building they paid $792,000 for (also signing a long-term land lease with The Grand), will undergo renovations beginning in December and open early in next year's first quarter. About size of the Metairie store, it too will have a local music theme (Dr. John, Fats Domino, Harry Connick Jr., the Nevilles and The Meters adorn the walls in Metairie, where trumpets were turned into light fixtures).

"We're going to see just how funky we can get it," Moffatt says.

"Lafayette wants to see a lot of new stuff, so we're really going to have some fun with this one," notes Maisano. Mellow Mushroom, founded in 1974 by three college students, gives franchisees a lot of leeway by allowing stores to reflect the local culture and personality of the respective owners.

There will be 30 beers on tap (including some fave home brews) and 30-plus TV screens (there is a bit of sports theme to the joint), along with a gluten-free, vegan and vegetarian menu (how cool is that?).

Moffatt, who has an apartment in Lafayette thanks to his family's local real estate holdings and plans to spend a significant amount of time here, isn't sweating the "cursed corner" talk. "It's not the corner," he says. "It's always been conceptually challenged."

Besides, there is just too much work to be done to get the store open while paying close attention to the New Orleans area locations, both of which the partners say are performing extremely well.

"Doing two stores was pushing it, but I love Lafayette so much I just couldn't turn it down," Moffatt says.

Maisano, on the other hand, is one New Orleans boy who isn't taking anything for granted. "Just in case, we'll have a voodoo doctor to remove the curse," he says with a smile.