— For one local business owner, a productive chapter ends, while an inspiring one begins.
You know the place. Maybe it’s in your hometown, or on campus, or nestled strategically within your favorite vacation spot—that quaint café or coffee shop that you walk into and immediately feel at home. It’s where you go to accomplish whatever day’s work needs doing—or perhaps, to chat with the locals and other regulars. Or maybe it’s just the perfect spot to relax and watch the world go by.
Phil Mastrangelo, owner of Mellow Moods Café in Shepherdstown, knows his “place” very well. It’s in Ocracoke, North Carolina—a little island where he lived for several years after high school.
“I went into the Ocracoke Coffee Shop every morning,” he said. “Everyone sits around drinking their coffee. They take their mornings slow.” The mixture of locals and tourists made for some great conversations. “You meet so many people from around the country.”
The feeling of this place, a mecca as Mastrangelo calls it, has been a constant inspiration throughout his life. Another has been his passion for what he calls “real food.”
“My dad was Italian. He wanted real food,” he said. Because his family lived near a national park in Maryland, real food was easy to come by. “We grew huge gardens. My mom would get a cow every year. I grew up eating fresh meat, big salads.”
Having grown up surrounded by it, locally grown, home-cooked food was ingrained into Mastrangelo’s core values from a young age—which is why he was disappointed when he started to notice a cultural shift taking place.
“In 1994, in the restaurant industry, the food was still real; restaurants still made everything,” he noted. At the restaurant in Hagerstown, where he cooked in high school, “… they would ask me, ‘can your mom drive by the meat market so you can pick up the meat on your way in?’”
From mayonnaise to salad dressing, Mastrangelo learned how to make entire meals from scratch. But his comprehensive knowledge of the food he was selling soon became unnecessary.
“In 1997, I started to see the switch. We were buying gallons of mayonnaise, gallons of ranch dressing.” He also noticed big food chains such as TGI Fridays and Applebee’s cropping up all over—representing a processed food industry that buys in bulk. This, he said, was the beginning of the end.
“When chains started popping up, the only way to compete was to use the products they were using,” he added—emphasizing that restaurants had to adapt to survive, causing them to lack variety. “Eventually we all ordered from the same distributer. All the food tasted the same, except for maybe a few spices added.”
And as the market value of “real food” began to wane, so did Mastrangelo’s passion for cooking. “At this point, I was doing it for a paycheck,” he indicated.
Years later, he started working at the restaurant of a close friend who was adamant about making all the food from scratch. “She started showing me how to make the hummus again, make the dressings, the fresh mayo—it reignited my love of food.”
The Perfect Time and Place
It was on a trip to Hawaii in 2006 that he got the big idea.
“The food in Hawaii was so fresh—it was amazing,” he stressed—with a particular nod to the smoothies. “I lived off of them. I would grab my smoothie, go down to the beach, go surfing. That was my morning.”
Mastrangelo saw no reason food like this couldn’t exist back home. “That was the thought: I wanted real food around here again. I figured, wouldn’t it be great if we had real fruit smoothies?”
By and large, it was a market yet to be tapped in Shepherdstown—a place he remembered fondly from his childhood. “I knew Shepherdstown as a little hippie community,” he said. “There was a music shop called Intergalactic Garage where I would trade my CDs. I kind of fell in love with the quaintness of the town.”
It seemed a good fit for a natural, organic juice bar. Luckily, he’d noticed a sliver of space on German Street that’d been vacant for a while. And just like that, in 2007, Mellow Moods was born.
At first, Mastrangelo kept it simple—only a few smoothies, juices, and sandwiches. As people crowded around the tiny bar he built, writing messages on a chalkboard on the wall and sipping their smoothies, he started to see the place taking shape right in front of him. “We got a line out the door every single day,” he pointed out.
Unfortunately, he soon realized that his vision might not be sustainable. “No matter how fast we worked, we could only get so many people out the door,” he said. And rent was high, despite the small space. Additionally, while the menu had few items, Mastrangelo’s commitment to real food was another significant drain on funds.
“I couldn’t justify not keeping it organic and natural. I believe in it,” he affirmed.
Something had to give. The option arose to move to a restaurant-sized space, but Mastrangelo was worried. “It was either bust our butts, making very little money over there, or see if the town would support a full-blown café.”
And as Shepherdstown tends to do—people showed up. “I remember our first day,” he said. “We opened the door and it was chaos.”
Soon, pleased customers became regulars. Mastrangelo watched as groups of friends started local businesses. Even the elusive college crowd grew faithful. “The coolest things started happening here,” he remembered—adding that he likes to think that the vibe of Mellow Moods brought people together and brought out ideas.
“I mean, that’s what coffee shops around the world have been about. That was the whole idea behind Mellow Moods.”
Growth and New Beginnings
Mastrangelo eventually gained the freedom to expand the menu and buy plenty of organic ingredients. The commitment had paid off—and his vision was realized. (And Shepherdstown gained a new mecca.)
But, as incredible as the journey has been, Mastrangelo admits that working in restaurants for 23 years has left him burnt-out. “I’ve been doing this pretty selflessly. I haven’t ‘gotten a raise’ in years, and I work really hard for bare minimum.”
When an acquaintance approached him with an offer as a restaurant consultant, complete with a salary, health benefits, and vacation time, he felt like it was his next step. “I like change. I think change is something that we all resist. To me, if we’re not changing, we’re not growing. I’m not into getting stuck.”
Mastrangelo has seen that owning a business can take a lot out of people. “It’s by our own doing,” he admitted. “It’s by me saying, ‘Oh, but I can’t leave—I am Mellow Moods.’”
Not that being “Phil from Mellow Moods” is a bad title, he maintained. “I have little kids come up to me in the grocery store and go, ‘you’re the smoothie guy!’ There’s nothing wrong with that guy. I think that’s a very nice thing, but it’s starting to steal my ultimate identity.”
And while Mastrangelo is certainly proud of his creation, he wants the freedom to be himself again. “Now, I feel like I’m getting the option to just be me. I have dreams of doing other things, such as building hollow wooden surfboards in West Virginia using native wood—something I’ll now have the time to do.”
It’s been difficult to let go of Mellow Moods, but Mastrangelo is happy the Café will remain a thread in the fabric of life in Shepherdstown. (Mellow Moods was indeed purchased and will remain a cherished staple on German Street.)
“I would still love to come in in the morning, relax, and get my cup of coffee,” he assured. And why not? It is “his place,” after all.