A suburban mall isn't exactly the first place you expect to find a budding singer-songwriter.

But there sits Pete Ford, with a guitar strapped around his neck and a bandanna that adds a rock star aura, among the kiosks at Ridgedale Center that peddle everything from eyebrow threading to "snoozie" foot coverings.

For $50, Ford will write and record (on CD or mp3) a song for you about pretty much whoever you want — a sweetheart, a grandchild, a business client, even a dog.

He hatched the idea for the business, which began as a website, while living out of his car in California. With the help of his parents, who lent him some money, the 24-year-old Minnetonka native opened "The Serenade Store" kiosk in the mall last month.

The offbeat idea is probably not surprising coming from Ford, who has followed an unconventional path. He dropped out of college when he had an "epiphany" that he should move to Buenos Aires and play music. He ended up finishing school and then moved out to California for a while before returning to the Twin Cities.

He acknowledged that it's tough to make money with the kiosk, with most of his proceeds going straight back to pay for its rent. But he said it's provided good exposure and has helped him fine-tune his business. His website helps him make ends meet.

Q: Who was the first person you ever wrote a song for?

A: Oh, man, well, this business started I guess when I was living in California. And I wrote a song for my girlfriend at the time. And just the idea of writing personalized songs started to really take off. I had people calling me about different serenades. Really, all types of stuff from weddings to birthdays and anniversaries.

Q: How did people find you?

A: Initially, it started off as a word of mouth kind of thing. Friends told their friends. They got my number. When I got more and more calls, I thought, maybe I have something here. So I built the website and started to make a business.

Q: When did you move back here?

A: I moved to Wisconsin about three months ago. Then I got a call from Ridgedale Mall, saying they would have my business out here. So I came back to the Cities.

Q: Had you applied to the mall?

A: I called all of the different malls in the area, in Wisconsin and Minneapolis, to see if there was any interest. None of the malls would allow any kind of live music under any circumstances. Except for Ridgedale. Now that the business is taking off, of course, I'm getting calls back from all the rest of the malls.

Q: Did you ever think one day you'd have a kiosk at the mall?

A: No way! I never would have seen myself at a kiosk at a retail mall. It is kind of crazy, but the idea, it made so much sense in my head. I've always had a very strong business acumen. I was born into a family of businesspeople. I'm kind of the odd duck in terms of the artist side and the musician.

Q: How is business?

A: It's been killing. I thought for sure, I'm going to get the guys who are shopping for wives' anniversaries. Or 'Shoot, it's my wife's birthday tomorrow and I'm at the mall because I don't know what to get her.' I figured there would be a lot of that. There's some. But there are so many different, wacky types of serenades I've had to write for people. Last week, I had a lady come in who wanted one for her dog kennel. I've had a number of people come in for promotional songs for their websites. It's been pushing my versatility a little.

Q: Was the dog kennel the strangest request so far?

A: Currently, I would say so. That was pretty bizarre. Another option is I go in and do a live performance and embarrass someone. Once I did it in a university classroom at the U. The fun part is you have to sort of finagle your way through security people or the administrative people.

Q: Did the professor get mad?

A: Kind of. I mean, it's kind of awkward. I was only there for like five minutes. It must have been, I want to say it was some kind of math class. I'm not a math person.

Q: Do you get a lot of love songs requests?

A: Yeah, that's the majority. Right now, during the holidays, I also get a lot of family stuff. A lot of grandmas and grandpas come out here to the mall and they're not sure what to give to their grandkids. And they like it because it doesn't show any favoritism. It's hard to give a gift that is even-keel.

Q: How long does it take to write the song?

A: If they're in a time crunch, I'll get it done in about 15 minutes. And I'll play it for them. If they like it, they buy it. If they don't, they don't have to. If they're not on as much of a time crunch, then I can get more time to do a higher-quality job.

Q: Have people ever said no once you play the song for them?

A: A couple. Heartbreaking.

Q: So do you have certain melodies you use often?

A: Sometimes I recycle stuff over and over. We write so many songs. I don't think it's even possible for us to write as many as we do and not recycle some stuff.

Q: So who is we?

A: It started with just me and then I just brought on this guy Joey [Olson] just a few days ago. He's a buddy of mine from high school.

Q: How would you describe your musical style? When I listened to your stuff online, I thought you had a kind of John Mayer-esque quality.

A: He's one of my biggest idols for sure so I'm really flattered that you say that. Any singer-songwriters out there — John Mayer and Jack Johnson are kind of clichés, but I love both those guys. I also grew up listening to classic rock, so that's where a lot of my influence comes from.

Q: How many song requests do you get a day?

A: Some days we get zero. Yesterday, not even a single person stopped by the booth over 10 hours. A couple days ago, it's like six. I wish it was like four or five every day kind of thing.

Kavita Kumar • 612-673-4113