Behind the Scenes with Cameron Mitchell

Cameron Mitchell knew from a very young age that he was destined for the restaurant business, and once he had his plan in place, nothing could stop him. Today, Mitchell owns more than a dozen award-winning restaurant locations across the nation under the Cameron Mitchell Restaurants (cameronmitchell.com) umbrella, and shows no signs of slowing down. His success can be attributed to a combination of factors, including the company's dedication to its employees; Mitchell's natural-born marketing instincts; and a deep love for the restaurant business.

Mitchell recently sat down for an interview with Restaurant Marketing to discuss how he got his start, promotions that he's found successful, what he finds most important in restaurant marketing today, and one of the biggest mistakes he's seen restaurant marketers make.

Where did you get your start in the restaurant business?

I started washing dishes as a junior in high school 32 years ago and i fell in love with the business. After high school i was working at a local restaurant in Columbus and had an epiphany that this was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life - I wanted to be in the restaurant business. When i had my epiphany at 18, I went home and wrote out my goals and woke my mom up at 1:00 in the morning and told her my plans to attend the Culinary Institute of America, become executive chef, general manager, then regional manager then VP of operations. But the ultimate goal was to be president of a restaurant company by the time I was 35. so that's what I pursued. By the time I was in my late 20s, I got hired as a sous chef at a local restaurant company, which had one restaurant. They built a second restaurant and I became executive chef. then after four or five more restaurants, I grew into the general manager and oversaw operations of six restaurants. I eventually hit my head on the ceiling and decided it was time to start my own restaurant company. We opened my first restaurant in October of 1993 (Cameron's) when I was 29 years old.

Where did the idea stem from to offer several different concepts?

I saw Rich Melman with Lettuce Entertain You, Buckhead Life Restaurant Group in Atlanta, and other multi-concept operators around the country. That's where I got the idea and decided to become a multi-concept operator here in Columbus.

Are there pros and cons to a multi-concept setup?

In all the restaurants I equate it to the chassis being the same. The accounting system, the culture philosophy, the way we operate, etc. The window dressing is the body of the car. Meaning that with each different concept, the window dressing changes a little bit. But you don't get to focus on the brand like you do with a singular brand. Maybe you don't get some of the same economies of scale, results of a singular focus. but for us, it's more of a labor of love. We love the restaurant business, and whether I'm doing a great cheeseburger or a soufflé or anything in between, it's a lot of fun.

Your restaurants run like well-oiled machines. To what do you attribute this success?

If there's a secret at all, it's our company values and culture. i have a few things in there that are a little different than most restaurant companies. One of our guiding principles is that our associates come first. We don't really have a direct relationship with the guest. We have a direct relationship with our people; our people take care of our guests; our guests take care of our company. So I think that's unique. Most restaurants companies would probably say that the customer comes first. It's not that we don't care about great guest service--it's paramount to any successful restaurant. But, we achieve great guest service through taking care of our people and putting our people first. it's all based on the Golden Rule. We're not open on the major holidays because I don't think our people want to work on those holidays. I don't want to work on those holidays, so I don't ask anyone else to work. people love working for our company. Also, making a profit is not our No. 1 goal. our number one goal is to maintain our culture and our values. I think the key to long-term success is to be a values-driven organization. not that we don't care about profit, but it's job No. 1A, not job No. 1.

How are the menus chosen for your concepts?

We travel the country and look at what's going on. We try to keep fresh and study the trade magazines. Our corporate chefs have been with the company for a lot of years and know what's needed to keep the menus fresh and invigorated.

What was your first experience with restaurant marketing?

I guess I'm a natural-born marketer. I've always believed in the shotgun approach. I equate our marketing programs to me up in the crow's nest with a .50 caliber machine gun shooting at everything versus a laser focus. My goal is to have something in the press every week, whether it's a special promotion or a radio drop. We're very aggressive marketers, but we only spend about 1% of our revenue on marketing, because ultimately, the best form of restaurant marketing is execution at the table and word of mouth. We're very aggressive on the local store marketing level, ad campaigns and marketing campaigns, and always make sure to have something to talk about in our restaurants.

What do you think is the most important aspect of marketing in the restaurant business today?

Staying top of mind more than anything, and giving your staff and your guests something to talk about.

Do you handle marketing differently in today's economic climate?

No, I just think we're a little more sophisticated and have become better marketers over the years in deciding what works and what doesn't work, which is hard to do.

What have been some of the most successful promotions?

Our hotel concierge rewards program works very well for us; we've built great relationships with the hotels. We've done periodic discounting to generate trial of a restaurant, and then hopefully we're able to maintain some of that business after the discount program. We do half-price wine nights on Mondays and Sunday spaghetti suppers. We like to reward our guests for being there.

How do you accommodate gluten-free customers?

We were pioneering gluten-free years ago. all of our restaurants offer gluten-free menus. The response has really surprised us. It used to be that you always made sure that you had a vegetarian item on the menu; now, for every one vegetarian dish we well, we well 10 gluten-free dishes. lots of people come to our restaurants specifically for the gluten-free offerings. I'm not sure what's happening to cause this shift, but I think that if you're not doing gluten-free right now, you're really behind the curve.

How do you focus on your community?

One of the pillars of our company culture is to support our community. We're very charitable and have given millions of dollars over the years to our communities; we're always involved in fundraisers and charity events. it's the give back that I think any responsible business would do . It's a natural for us. We have an off-premises catering company that handles a lot of that, which was a natural evolution for the business also.

How long have you had the catering company?

About 10 years. It made sense to be able to handle parties charitable events, etc. It's been a terrific business for us over the years. 

What do you think is one of the biggest mistakes restaurateurs make when marketing?

Placing ads in newspapers/magazines and the ad doesn't really say anything, doesn't make people think, doesn't have a call to action, doesn't represent the restaurant well, doesn't help drive the identity. In all of our ads, we're always working our company image. We have a healthy, strong image as a very charitable company, as a great company to work for, etc. If we get awarded as one of the best places to work, that in itself is a great marketing piece. The brand image is everything, and that takes years to build and days to ruin. We handle all of that with kid gloves and tend to it like a farmer would tend to his crops.

What advice do you have for today's restaurant marketers?

Be aggressive. Try just about anything. Radio/TV demonstrations, charitable events, etc.

Do you have plans for future concepts?

We're currently working on some now; it's the genesis of our company. We will always continue to open new concepts. We have one coming this fall in Columbus along the gastropub theme line and we're working on additional new concepts to come down the pike.