Commercial Progress Report

Mellowing Out

by Patrick Flanagan

New Johnston Street eatery catapults to No. 1 spot in nearly 200-location chain.

Mellowing Out
New Johnston Street eatery catapults to No. 1 spot in nearly 200-location chain. By Lisa Hanchey

When Billy Stagg wanted to chill after a busy day, he and his family headed down the road from their Atlanta home to the hippy-trippy Mellow Mushroom for pizza and beer. Today he is running the nation's No. 1 parlor in the franchise - back in Lafayette, where the Eunice native has lived for the past seven years.

Located at the former "cursed" corner at Johnson and Doucet Road, Mellow Mushroom has obliterated any signs of its failed predecessors. In September, New Orleans native and UL graduate Todd Moffat purchased the spot at 3151 Johnston St. for $790,000, investing another $1.5 million in renovations. The inside was totally gutted, converting to an open kitchen, laid-back bar and cool décor reminiscent of the early Hard Rock Café days with real guitars, a hanging lit piano keyboard, metal artwork and an LED-lit 3D mural.

Stagg got his start in the food business in 1986, when he landed a job at Piccadilly. During the one-year training program, he learned every position in the restaurant. "I had to learn how to cook before I ever managed a person," he recalls. "I loved it."

After working at Piccadilly for 18 years, Stagg moved back to Lafayette. In 2008 he, wife Lori and sister-in-law Karen Hail opened Cena in River Ranch, offering ready-to-cook meals and catering. Five years later, Cena relocated to a space downtown on Garfield Street, allowing the trio to fulfill their catering commitments. "I was ready to get out of the catering side of the business, and so I started making preparations for that," Stagg says.

Last year, Lori, a nurse, spotted a posting on about Mellow Mushroom coming to Lafayette. "She said, You ought to talk to those guys to see what it's about,'" he recalls. Intrigued, Stagg contacted Moffat, owner and operations manager of the Metairie, Covington and Lafayette locations, and fellow UL graduate Billy Maisano, Moffat's business partner and director of operations. After talking for several months, Stagg signed on as general manager and shareowner of the Lafayette location. "They made an offer, and I thought it was what I needed, so I did it," he says. "It's been great. They are great guys to work with. So far, so good."

So good in fact that for its first consecutive three weeks, Mellow Mushroom Lafayette became the No. 1 location in the company - by far. Currently, the store employs more than 130 full- and part-time workers, and intends to hire more. "The company philosophy is about being a family," he says. "Working around young kids also keeps you young."

Launched in Atlanta in 1974, Mellow Mushroom spored 182 locations throughout the Southeast, eventually spreading to the Midwest. "One of the things that Mellow excels at is their marketing," Stagg says. "They have a firm control over their brand development and protection - they approve anything that's put out there visually as far as graphics. They want it to stay what it is - a mellow environment that has great pizza and beer."

Menu items include pizza, hoagies, salads, calzones and munchies. Popular pizzas with patrons include the House Special - red sauce base with mozzarella, pepperoni, sausage, ground beef, ham, Applewood smoked bacon, mushrooms, black olives, Roma tomatoes, green peppers and onions, and Stagg's personal favorite, the Kosmic Karma - red sauce base with feta and mozzarella, spinach, sun-dried tomatoes and Roma tomatoes with a pesto swirl. Pizzas are hand-made to order and baked in a stone oven. "We prep fresh vegetables every day, twice a day usually," Stagg says. "The dough is made with spring water with no refined sugar in it. The only thing it's got in it to sweeten is a touch of molasses, which is what makes it brown so nicely."

The restaurant has en extensive gluten-free, vegan and vegetarian menu, and its full-service bar offers Louisiana craft beers on tap including Bayou Teche Biere, Parish Brewing, NOLA Brewing and Tin Roof Brewing Co. - with more local offerings to come. "Our whole philosophy is to buy local craft beers that we can pair with our pizzas," Stagg says. "Pizza and beer are synonymous."

If all goes as planned, Stagg anticipates expanding in the near future. "As soon as we get this one where we want it in sales, and staffing wise, we are looking to open another location," he says.

Hours are 11 a.m. - 11 p.m. Sunday-Thursday and 11 a.m. - 12 p.m. Friday and Saturday. "Happy Day" with half-price beer and well drinks is offered Monday-Friday from 11 a.m.- 6 p.m.