Johnny Hudgins hobbles around the work site of the new Mellow Mushroom in the Avondale neighborhood of West Ashley, calmly checking in with various contractors, workmen, and new employees. His left leg is encased in a brace so elaborate, he may as well be on the set of a science fiction film. "I basically destroyed my knee during our traditional Mellow Mushroom Super Bowl football match," he says. Even with his one hurt leg, he confidently guides the insanity that inevitably accompanies the final days before a new restaurant opens to the public.
Today, Hudgins is a restaurant managing veteran, but his beginnings in the business are quite humble. His best friend Michael Shem-Tov was taking an entrepreneurship class at the College of Charleston and produced a business plan to bring a franchise of their favorite restaurant, Mellow Mushroom, to downtown Charleston. He tapped Hudgins to be a part of the deal, and the two successfully opened their King Street location in 2001. By 2008, Home Grown Industries, the company that owns the Mellow Mushroom chain, took notice of the two's impressive entrepreneurial skills and brought them into the corporate fold in suburban Atlanta. At this point in the story, the two brought in a third partner — Joshua Broome, a former employee who'd started working in the store in 2001 as a CofC freshman. He took on role of managing partner, staying in Charleston to run the King Street store.
After working for corporate for a couple of years, Hudgins was ready to return to Charleston, but he knew that the Mellow on King wouldn't be enough to keep him occupied. "I knew that I would drive myself crazy if that was all I did," says Hudgins. "I needed another big project in my life."
They'd always wanted to open another restaurant in a different area of Charleston, particularly Avondale. While looking for a good location, a friend alerted him to the old movie theater space in Avondale, which most recently housed Consigning Women. "We call it the biggest building in Avondale that no one has seen before," says Hudgins. He's right. The building with its tall walls and long, open ceiling is enormous.
Enter Carl Janes, a former Charleston-based artist and designer, who is now the creative director for Mellow Mushroom corporate — a position he scored after working on some Mellow projects with Shem-Tov when he was at corporate in charge of marketing. Janes came up with a concept for the artwork, taking into account the owners' desire to transform the walls into art. "We didn't want art work hung on these walls," says Shem-Tov. "We wanted the walls to be the artwork."
When they pitched it to the home office, they got an encouraging reaction. "We have a great boss who tells us to go for it," says Janes. "He was ecstatic about our design choices and ideas about this new Mellow Mushroom." Thus began a long 14-month process of turning the old theater into a new restaurant experience.
They started by gutting the space, removing two layers of drop-ceiling to reveal a dramatic barrel-shaped wooden ceiling. They hired Seiber Design out of Atlanta to come up with an architectural plan that captured the inherent drama of the building, and they spent more than a year and $1.25 million to transform the space.
Now that the restaurant is complete, it's a real marvel. The scope is big and dramatic. The long, high walls have been painted over by Janes with sweeping swirls of black and white. Displayed within the swirls are screenprints of small items —things that held meaning for each of the owners like dice, roller skates, and Buddha — blown up and painted in fluorescent colors. The end result looks like a cross between Dr. Seuss and Andy Warhol.
The floor plan is pleasingly symmetrical, with a long, diamond-shaped centerpiece that serves as the banquettes for the main seating area. It stretches from the bar to the kitchen, which is where you'll find the cooks on "show." Above the bustling kitchen space is a large curved white shape that echoes a proscenium stage. Come Super Bowl Sunday, a large screen can be lowered in front for projecting the game. The sound system is worthy of any strip club, says Shem-Tov. Cozy booths with bright red fabric line the walls. The tables were made from reclaimed wood, and each chair from 111 recycled Coca-Cola bottles.
Upstairs, the former balcony has been made into a seating area with a large community table overlooking the action below and providing a good view of King Charles II. Local photographer Sully Sullivan was commissioned to photograph folks as various figures — the king being none other than Chef Sean Brock himself holding a guinea hog. His hilarious photo was blown up to huge proportions and mounted on plex-glass above the bar.
The Avondale Mellow Mushroom looks as though it would be more at home being a four-star restaurant situated in a Las Vegas casino or a modern nightclub in New York.
"We wanted this Mellow Mushroom to have an international feel," says Hudgins. "It had to be something that Charleston's never seen before."
Now that it's complete, it's clear they achieved that goal. No doubt it will increase traffic to the small Avondale triangle, but they've already partnered with neighboring businesses to offer free valet parking in the evenings.
"It has been a long journey," says Hudgins. "It's funny that we will be opening this Mellow Mushroom 14 months to the exact day that we first looked at this old movie theatre."
The Avondale Mellow Mushroom opens on Mon. March 28.