Just Getting Started

After 20 years, Cameron Mitchell has many more concepts he'd like to try

Columbus restaurant entrepreneur Cameron Mitchell and his staff are finishing hiring workers for their first new restaurant in five years.

The Pearl is Mitchell’s latest take on a gastropub, those restaurant/bar combinations that sell high-end food and liquor. His Cameron Mitchell Restaurants already has Cap City Fine Diner & Bar and Marcella’s in that niche. Set to open nightly for dinner onFeb. 5, the Pearl also will have a raw-seafood bar.

Mitchell tells a rags-to-riches story. “I started in the dish room 32 years ago and have worked my way up to this position today,” said the president of the restaurant company that bears his name. It operates nine Ocean Prime restaurants in nine states, as well as nine mostly unique restaurants (there are two duplicates) in the Columbus area.

Mitchell also is a partner in the growing Rusty Bucket Restaurant and Tavern franchise in Ohio, Indiana and Michigan. “We provide all the back-office operations — real-estate development, accounting, finance, banking, marketing, human resources, IT, construction, construction management — for the Bucket,” he said.

Mitchell turns 50 this year, and his company will celebrate its 20th anniversary. So the quintessential Columbus restaurateur sat down with T he Dispatch to talk about his latest restaurant, the industry and where his company is headed.

Q. How did the concept for The Pearl surface?

A. We leased the space without any idea of what we were going to put there. (The Pearl is a few doors down from Marcella’s in the Short North neighborhood of Columbus.) That’s the first time we’v e done that. There’s a strong gastropub movement across the country, so we thought building a place where our chefs really wanted to eat was a great concept for our people.

Q. How would you describe the Pearl?

A. It will have tavern food prepared in fine-dining fashion that is some of the best I’ve ever had. A raw-seafood bar with a dozen seats will be a big component. We’ll have hot and cold preparations of shrimp, oysters, crab and clams. We’re aging our own liquors. The mixes and garnishes that go into some of our cocktails and punches are going to be fresh and dynamic. Oh, and our beer list will read like a wine list. We’ll have 40 or 50 beers from around the world.

We want the Pearl to be a place where you can gather for happy hour, for dinner, for late-night drinks and snacks. Eventually, we’ll open Saturday and Sunday brunches where you can relax after a Friday or Saturday night on the town.

Q. How does the Pearl fit into your philosophy of restaurant ownership?

A. Our company was born as a multiconcept restaurant operator. As we build new concepts in Columbus, we never know where they’re going to go. Look at some of the brands we’ve built: the fish market was our fourth or fifth concept, the steakhouse was our fifth or sixth concept (Mitchell sold both concepts, 22 restaurants in all, to Ruth’s Chris Steak House for $94 million in 2008), Ocean Prime was our eighth concept.

We continue to build concepts because that’s our passion. We do not build restaurants with the idea of replicating them. We have several more we’re planning and are going to talk about in the next few months. We have a lot of Latino associates, and I’ve promised them I’m going to do a Latino restaurant sometime in the next five years.

We never want to be a flash in the pan. We want restaurants like the Pearl to become institutions and be part of the Columbus fabric for decades. I love this city. I was born and raised here, and this will always be my home. We get a thrill out of doing our part to help Columbus move forward with some unique dining opportunities.

Q. Take me back to November 2007. Why did you decide to sell Mitchell’s Fish Market, Columbus Fish Market, Mitchell’s Steakhouse and Cameron’s Steakhouse to Ruth’s Chris?

A. I had no intention of selling the restaurants, quite frankly. It was a perfect storm. We had acquired a lot of debt as we built the restaurants. I wanted to reward my partners. And the prices being paid for restaurant companies were the highest I’d ever seen.

Also, we had the Ocean Prime brand ready to build, we had just opened Marcella’s, and we were building our Rusty Bucket Taverns with our sister company. We had a lot of opportunities in front of us, and we didn’t have the economic wherewithal to maximize them without selling the fish and steak restaurants.

Q. Any regrets?

A. None. What I didn’t see coming was the economic crash. It was fortuitous that we went into the crash with no debt. That helped us withstand the downturn and be positioned to grow when the economy recovered.

Q. What are the major divisions in Cameron Mitchell Restaurants?

A. We have three planks in our business plan. One is to develop our specialty restaurant group and catering practice here in Columbus. Our second plank is to develop our sister company, Rusty Bucket Restaurant and Tavern, regionally. We have 13 units in three states, and we’d like to expand in more states. The third plank is to nationally expand our Ocean Prime concept, which is our Mitchell’s Ocean Club locally. We have three scheduled to open in the next 18 months (bringing the total to 12).

Q. How would you describe the health of the restaurant industry?

A. I think the restaurant industry is alive and well. We ebb and flow along with consumer confidence and consumer spending. Sometimes, restaurant outings are the first thing people cut out of their budgets. On the other hand, I think it’s easier to cut bigger purchases than it is to cut going out to dinner.

The restaurant industry continues to change with the times. The menus we started with 20 years ago are far different today. It’s part of our company culture to change and evolve.

Q. What is the biggest threat to the restaurant industry?


A. Probably the Affordable Care Act. We have 3,000 employees between both companies, and we’re not sure yet how we’re going to handle the added expense of buying insurance for all of them. To pay $2,000 an employee is a hefty bill. But we’re a resilient bunch of people, so we’ll figure out a way through it.

Q. What do you want your restaurant business legacy to be?

A. I’m a people person. We have an unbelievable people-first culture that is unparalleled in our business. We believe that if we take care of our people, our people will take care of our guests, and our guests will take care of our company. Being a lasting organization that puts people first, and has a strong culture and values, is a key to long-term success.

Secondly, I want to leave a legacy of education through Ohio State or the Culinary Institute of America, which educated me and which I chaired. I’m not sure yet how I will do this.

Q. What’s the most exciting thing in your life these days?

A. I’m most excited about our business. I’ve been blessed to be surrounded by some really wonderful people. We’ve worked together for so many years, and it’s evident the business is running the best it’s ever run. In the early days, everything was right in front of me. It was more work than I could possibly handle. Now, I’m in more of a stewardship position. Where are we going to go? What’s the future going to look like? I have a better hand in crafting answers to these questions now.

January 6, 2013
Mary Vanac
The Columbus Dispatch