Plastic Players

Mr. Potato Head

By Michelle Prather

Sure, most people enjoy a pile of mashed potatoes to round off a hearty meal, but mashed potatoes as the star of lunch or dinner? You bet, says Brent McClun, whose feel-good Potato Mountain cafe will bring in $180,000 this year.

"[Mashed] potatoes have always reminded me of the great home I had growing up: a great mom and dad, great brothers, my grandma and the great heritage I have," says McClun fondly. His affection for the popular comfort food, coupled with his love of mountain climbing and skiing, inspired McClun to try to project those warm, fuzzy feelings to customers in a restaurant setting.

With just $1,500, last May McClun opened The Herbery/The Potato Mountain, a nine-seat restaurant/store that sells herbs, vitamins, candles, books--and mashed potatoes. It's the latest in a slew of entrepreneurial endeavors he's toyed with since age 18. "I remember thinking `This time I'll start two [businesses] at once to increase my chances,' " chuckles McClun.

Expecting the Lawrence, Kansas, store to profit from herbs on opening day, McClun was surprised when he "didn't sell one herb" but reaped nearly $70 in spud sales. Sales nearly doubled on days two and three. Then a local newspaper did a story on the start-up, sending business out of control. "I had to tell [the line of people snaking out the door] we were out of potatoes and it'd be an hour before we had any more," recalls McClun. He even offered to buy waiting customers lunch at the Lawrence eatery of their choice.

With demand at its peak, McClun had no choice but to find a bigger space for the cafe. He pounced on the first available location--a 45-seat restaurant just three blocks away--and opened it for business six weeks after launching his first location, which he's since turned into an old-fashioned candy store.

At press time, McClun had remodeled that second location by filling it with faux alpine trees, a trail through the dining area and a ranger's station for ordering, and was exploring franchising. Publishing house Doubleday has contacted McClun about a possible cookbook deal, and Dateline NBC has shown interest as well.

It appears that, like their towering counterparts in nature, mashed potato mountains (with such flavorful toppings as chicken, egg noodles and gravy) are giving customers a breath of fresh air as an alternative to the average dining experience.

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This article was originally published in the May 1999 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Plastic Players.

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