S.J. Collins Enterprises

Navy vet takes command of Mellow Mushroom in Newport News

Have you ever had a pizza that literally changed your life?

Gray Nelson did.

And even though it was way back in 2002, he remembers it like it was yesterday.

"It was so good," Nelson said.

How good was it? It was so good that after eating at the Mellow Mushroom restaurant in Destin, Fla., Nelson bought a souvenir T-shirt.

Then he asked his wife if he could open a Mellow Mushroom of his own.

Thirteen years later, Nelson's pepperoni-induced pipe dream has become a retail reality.

Hampton Roads' first Mellow Mushroom restaurant is now open at the Marketplace at Tech Center in Newport News. The 6,500-square-foot space is located inside the burgeoning Oyster Point retail center, joining a "power trio" of popular chains including P.F. Chang's and BJ's Brewhouse and Restaurant.

The Georgia-based Mellow Mushroom currently operates more than 150 franchises nationwide. Nelson's new restaurant is No. 6 in the state, following locations in Blacksburg, Bristol, Charlottesville, Herndon and Richmond.

Why did it take Nelson so long to open the doors?

Up until 2013, he was on active-duty in the U.S. Navy. Nelson has just over 20 years of service and finishes his obligation as a reservist in November. His wife, Lt. Cmdr. Cameron Nelson, JAGC, USN, is stationed at the Pentagon.

His original plan was to save money and work toward opening a Mellow Mushroom franchise when he left the Navy.

"The experience, the food and the service was so good that I said, 'I want to be a part of this,'" he said.

"In 2006, I was this close to being able to qualify financially. But then the economy went the way it did."

He continued his military service and worked to "get all his ducks in a row" until he was ready to go to the bank and get the funding in line.

When he signed the franchise agreement in late 2014, he wore the Mellow Mushroom T-shirt that he bought in 2002.

"It was a great way to tie those two events together," Nelson said.

Shortly thereafter, he executed the lease and the final lap of his franchise journey began.

"I'm fortunate that [Mellow Mushroom was] willing to take me on," Nelson said. "I didn't have the business experience, but hopefully I could lean on the leadership experience that I gained being in the military."

A pizza place with all the toppings

You don't have to go far into Nelson's Mellow Mushroom before you realize that this is not your ordinary pizza joint.

In fact, it starts outside with whimsical signage that includes an enormous yellow submarine on the rear of the building.

Inside, the vibe is an eye-catching mix of museum and amusement park. Art is everywhere. Colorful murals dominate the walls, and odd metal fish sculptures and cartoonish Mellow Mushroom mascots adorn the walls and ceilings.

The wall that fronts the kitchen is painted like a Navy warship, battleship gray accented with depth markers and hull numbers. Bright yellow girders criss-cross the space over one dining area, and the solid, curved construction of the bar recalls an engine room.

"Mellow Mushroom is very open to how individual franchisees tailor their stores," Nelson said. "My design idea was to draw heavily on Newport News and also my background in the Navy."

Nelson estimates that he's invested more than $900,000 in building improvements alone.

Ask him about any of the decor and you'll realize this is not one of those haphazard, chain-restaurant, interior-design jobs. There are no pop-art knockoffs, neon Elvis posters or fake roadside antiques.

Everything in the restaurant has meaning for Nelson.

The east wall features a mural depicting a cruise ship named the "Newport News." Nelson says this is, in fact, the S.S. America, a cruise ship built in Newport News, launched in 1939 and sponsored by Eleanor Roosevelt. The America was considered the flagship of the United States Lines and was called into service during World War II as a troop transport.

Nelson is passionate about celebrating it as one of the "grand achievements of mankind" and displaying it as a proud piece of local history.

The west wall mural features a collage of local influences from Christopher Newport to Ella Fitzgerald.

"The whole Hampton Roads area is an important place for my wife and I," Nelson said.

Both were stationed locally during their military careers, and the couple was married at Oceana.

After exploring options in Virginia Beach and Chesapeake, Nelson said that his current location in Newport News was an incredible opportunity.

"We knew we wanted to be at Tech Center," he said. "We're very proud to be here in Newport News first."

Menu ready for active duty

More than a decade after that first bite, Nelson is still a fan of Mellow Mushroom pizza.

"We've had pizza in Italy, Chicago and New York City," Nelson said. "And this pizza is just awesome."

His favorites include signature pies such as the Mighty Meaty (pepperoni, sausage, beef and bacon), the Holy Shiitake (shiitake, button and portobello mushrooms), and the Maui Wowie (ham, pineapple, jerk chicken, banana peppers and bacon).

Nelson and his crew - General Manager Meredith Burleigh and close to 150 employees - are ready to welcome diehard Mellow Mushroom fans and convert new crowds into devoted followers.

In addition to the famous signature pizzas, the Mellow Mushroom menu includes calzones, subs and salads. Nelson added that there are plenty of vegan and vegetarian options as well as a gluten-free pizza crust. The bar will offer a selection of wine and 42 beers on tap.

The Marketplace at Tech Center location offers seating for more than 220 people, including two patio areas and a 30-seat bar.