Celebrating 50 years, Mellow Mushroom co-founder shares the story of the trippy pizza chain’s humble beginning

The Atlanta-based company commemorates the occasion with unique menu items, funky art, and special Pint Nights

Co-founder Weinstein stands in front of the original Mellow Mushroom in Midtown

Courtesy of Mellow Mushroom

From bright colors and psychedelic art to its slightly sweet crust, Mellow Mushroom stands out among pizza chains. With 163 locations around the country (primarily in the Southeast), it’s hard to imagine that this funky conglomerate began with three college-aged guys with a passion for pizza. At age 76, Marc “Banks” Weinstein is the lone co-founder still involved in the business—Mike Nicholson and Rocky Reeves retired in 2008, and CEO Richard Brasch joined the team.

I met Weinstein at the Mellow Mushroom in Midtown, where he hugged the manager, indulged in cheese pizza, and reflected on the past. “We were we were hippies making pizza basically,” he says. “People liked the energy, the vibe there. A lot of creative people hung around and we became friends. Pizza is a communal food.”

The original Mellow Mushroom menu

Courtesy of Mellow Mushroom

It was the 1970s and Weinstein had studied business marketing at the University of Georgia. He’d intended to work in real estate, but a recession changed his plans. After learning to make pizza while working at local restaurants, he secured a small space in Sandy Springs and set about building a pie shop. Around the same time, he met Nicholson and Reeves, Georgia Tech students who were also opening a pizza place—this one on 14th and Spring in Midtown. They decided to join forces.

Weinstein tweaked a recipe (the same one still used today) inspired by Nick DeVito, of Chicago. Nicholson came up with the name and the trio launched Mellow Mushroom with a concise menu of five pizzas, four hoagies, a chef salad, and beer. “The legal age for drinking was 18 back then,” Weinstein explains, noting the importance of beer. Everything was made to order, from the meatball sandwich (“nothing more than a meatloaf cut into big chunks”) to the top round (sliced in house).

A lack of funds meant equipment was purchased used and none of the furniture matched. The founders relied on friends and customers to decorate the stores, often trading pizza for artwork. “We had no money—just entrepreneurial spirit and a motivating following of friends and people in Atlanta who loved our products,” Weinstein says. One guy designed the menu, another the logo, and another painted the mural on the wall. Beer companies donated neon signs.

An old Mellow Mushroom character

Courtesy of Mellow Mushroom

Sustainability was a focus from the start. “We were a bunch of hippies,” Weinstein says. They grew sprouts in the restaurants and used natural cardboard pizza boxes since bleaching them white would harm the environment. Today, Mellow Mushroom boasts all-natural meats, preservative-free cheese, and pizza boxes with a negative carbon footprint.

How did it grow from two tiny stores—”Spring Street fit 19 people uncomfortably,” Weinstein reminisces—to the franchise behemoth it is today? Organic growth, he says. His partners dropped out of college and seized opportunities for new locations as they became available. For 12 years, they operated the original six Mellow Mushrooms—including locations in Buckhead, Midtown, Sandy Springs, Avondale Estates, on Buford Highway, and near Emory—but they ran into difficulty staffing. “There were no cell phones, and we couldn’t be in six places at once,” Weinstein laments. By year 13, he convinced his partners to franchise. Five of the stores sold within 45 days. A bidding war over the sixth resulted in the launch of the seventh store, and the company grew from there.

Today, there are three corporate-owned stores; Weinstein purchased the Emory location last year to fund much-needed renovations. Dough for every store comes from a commissary kitchen at the corporate headquarters. A 75,000-square-foot warehouse is home to the psychedelic art and fixtures Mellow Mushroom is known for. From colorful statues to mushroom clocks to unique door handles, Weinstein sources many of the items himself. Whether a franchisee is opening a new store, renovates an existing one, or is looking for some new decor, they can come to the warehouse and select items free of charge. Mellow Mushroom will even paint them upon request.

50th anniversary cups

Courtesy of Mellow Mushroom

These days, Weinstein spends half the year in Thailand working remotely. When he’s in town, he still enjoys a “Veg Out” pizza every Thursday “to stay young,” he jokes. He taste-tests new menu items, assists with quality control, and lets Brasch handle the day-to-day. He has children and grandchildren, yet he never plans to retire completely. “I think you when you stop, you’re going to start resting [permanently]. So, I would just like to wear out,” he says.

It’s been 50 years, and though the menu and store footprint have expanded, the spirit of Mellow Mushroom remains. To commemorate the golden jubilee, the company launched a limited-time menu featuring specialty and revived classic pizzas, honey-sriracha wings, and a Disco Peach cocktail made with Jim Beam bourbon, Captain Morgan spiced rum, peach, fresh sour mix, and Coca-Cola. There are new pizza box designs, branded cups and T-shirts, and giveaways. Select locations will host a Pint Night with collectible 50th anniversary pint glasses from June through September.

In early fall, Mellow Mushroom will open a new prototype store near the Atlanta Zoo in Grant Park. It’s a return to the company’s roots with a smaller footprint and condensed menu offerings. Look for a baked “panizzi” sandwich made with folded pizza dough.

“I still love pizza,” Weinstein says.

The Super Pepp pizza is among the limited-time offerings commemorating the 50th anniversary of Mellow Mushroom.

Courtesy of Mellow Mushroom