by David Coulson
Sept. 10, 2014. There is a lot of history involved with Mellow Mushroom and the High Country. And Chase Luddeke has lived through most of it.
When Luddeke was 14 years old, his family relocated from the suburbs of Atlanta to open the first Mellow Mushroom restaurant outside of Georgia.
Moving into a space once occupied by the vastly popular Sollecito’s Italian restaurant, the Luddeke clan introduced what Chase remembers as a homey, relaxed place to get pizza.
“When we opened on Rivers Street, we wanted to be known as the hole-in-the-wall, local pizza place,” said Luddeke.
He learned the craft of running a pizza parlor from the ground floor, starting as a dishwasher before moving on to such chores as waiting tables, tending bar and working in the kitchen.
Though his father Chuck is still involved with the ownership of the business and is around seven days a week, the younger Luddeke took over as the restaurant manager in 2002, at the age of 20.
“When I was young, I never wanted to go to college,” Luddeke said of his journey. “Somewhere in there, I knew this is what I wanted to be doing someday.”
Over the years that the Luddekes owned the restaurant, it evolved into somewhat of a Boone institution. So much so that when Mellow Mushroom lost its lease for the River Street location, there was a large party-like celebration among its many fans who showed up to see the eatery out on the final day of operation.
“It’s cool that the community support is so strong,” Luddecke said. “It is the most important part of the business.”
The Luddeke family had sold the original Boone Mellow Mushroom by then, so when it closed it doors, the original owners — who had opened another Mellow Mushroom in Blowing Rock in 2001 — were quick to step into the brink.
The result was the opening of a new Mellow Mushroom with a larger, King Street locale. The new location, which opened in August 2011, features a much larger, more efficient kitchen, enabling the staff to prepare foods more quickly and with greater attention to detail.
The interior of the new restaurant is friendly and comfortable.
“We wanted it to have that low-key vibe,” said Luddeke.
While the new Boone location has been in place for three years, the Blowing Rock restaurant got a new landing place when it closed its old store in April and reopened in the old Bob Timberlake gallery on June 1.
Looking at the necessity to overhaul the old Blowing Rock site, the decision to move was an easy one.
“We have a better business in a new location,” Luddeke explained.
Being a former upscale furniture gallery made the conversion to a restaurant a natural transition.
When Mellow Mushroom opened in Boone, few people knew that is was part of a larger chain of franchises. It began with an individualistic flare and that dynamic has remained a part of the restaurant.
“We don’t like to be looked at like a franchise,” Luddeke said.
At the same time, Luddeke said one of the thing he loves the most about the Mellow Mushroom brand is that individual owners are able to put their own stamp on their restaurants, from menu items to beverage choices.
There is a core menu at all Mellow Mushrooms, but after that, each store has what is referred to as its uniques menu.
One example of that locally is a popular pizza that is called the Boone Goon, which has been offered since the 1990s.
Luddeke said the menu for the local restaurants has tripled in size over the years.
Mellow Mushroom franchises are required to offer at least 24 draft beers. The Boone location has 30 different types available, while the Blowing Rock shop has 24, but utilizes a much-more extensive wine list to suit its different cliental.
The two local Mellow Mushrooms are part of 170 restaurants that are rapidly expanding nationwide.
“Over the past 10 years, it has come a million miles,” said Luddeke. “But it has kept that same hippie vibe since the 1970s.”
Ultimately, Luddeke said that he wants his restaurant to be considered a family restaurant.
“Seventy-five percent of the business we do is families,” he explained. “That is the backbone of our business.”
The love affair between the High Country and the restaurant is also extremely important.
“This is a community in every sense of the word,” said Luddeke. “You have to get involved with the community. We have to treat people like our neighbors and our friends.”
That results in the Mellow Mushroom putting a huge emphasis and plenty of employee training on customer service for the 150 workers who call the two restaurants home.
“There is a difference between good customer service and great customer service,” said Luddeke. “We want to offer our customers great customer service and we work hard to deliver that.”
An example of the effort to play to customer loyalty occurred last month when the Mellow Mushroom celebrated its 40th anniversary. The restaurants nationwide turned back prices to 1974, offering pizzas for $2.50 and beverages for 50 cents.
People started lining up at the Boone locale at 10:15 a.m., even though the restaurant didn’t open until 11 a.m. With customers lining the sidewalks, there were up to 2 1/2-hour waits to get a table, but the local crowd didn’t mind.
“It was a lot of fun,” Luddeke said. “It was one of those great days for me.”
Luddeke said the Boone location was one of just 20 Mellow Mushrooms across the country to serve over 1,000 of the discounted cheese pizzas, while another 600 of those pies were consumed in Blowing Rock.
“People get behind us up here,” Luddeke said. “Boone and Blowing Rock have a sense of ownership in their Mellow Mushrooms.”
This month, the local restaurants in the franchise are getting behind the national Mellow Mushroom campaign for “No Kid Hungry,” a fundraiser that is done every September.
While the past several years have been a time of expansion for this iconic local restaurant, Luddeke and his family continue to look to the future.
Remembering back to the days on Rivers Street and the popular patio seating, the Mellow Mushroom manager said he hopes to expand the Boone locale with a patio area within the next five years. The Blowing Rock store already has pagoda/patio seating.
“The town has an impact on the decisions we make,” Luddeke remarked proudly. “There is a sense of ownership. You’ve got to listen to your customers and know what they want.”
And for Luddeke, that means looking for new ways to improve an established favorite.
“It is great that way, with the strong community support,” he said. “One of our most important thoughts is to make this restaurant that old standby for people, but to make it something new as well. We are constantly evolving and getting better.”
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