Cameron Mitchell

President and Founder, Cameron Mitchell Restaurants

You’ve got to commend Cameron Mitchell on his ambition; the first day of his quest to become a titan of American culinary industry could have easily been his last.

It was 1980, and Mitchell wasn’t just a lowly line cook – he was the worst performing cook on the line by his estimation, and in the midst of a probation and suspension at Max & Erma’s, he had an epiphany.

“I got my mom up at one in the morning,” he tells me, from the across the table, his words blending seamlessly with the sounds of Led Zeppelin streaming on Pandora behind me.

“[I told her] I want to be in the restaurant business. She was pretty pleased.”

He pragmatically plotted his goals, which had to seem fairly lofty for an 18-year-old cook not known for his efficiency or his timeliness. He wanted to graduate from the Culinary Institute of America and be an executive chef by the time he was 23; from there, a general manager by 24, regional manager by 26, Vice President of Operations by 30, and President of any restaurant company by 35.

Thirty years later, his mom would be ecstatic. Not only did he cross all those goals off his list, he put his own name on the sign, opened 60 restaurants, helped put Columbus’ food talent on the map in other markets, and made a million dollars before his hair turned gray.

In addition to The Pearl, opening in February as the first new CMR concept in five years, he’s setting sights on Beverly Hills and New York City as the company enters its 20th anniversary year.

One of their mottos has long been, “The answer’s yes; now what’s the question?”

In this case, the question is, “Does Cameron Mitchell still have great ideas up his suited sleeve?”

The Pearl is your first new concept in five years ... do you still get the same feeling you did 20 years ago?

Oh yeah. I mean … those are natural feelings. I get excited, I think, ‘How busy are we gonna be? Ya know, but I also have waves of lack of confidence come over me … that sort of thing. But, it’s easier now. We know with The Pearl, there’s so much hype and energy, we know it’s gonna be busy in the beginning, but whether it’s busy a year from now, or two years from now, is really what’s important. In Columbus, it’s different. Here, we can at least count on that trial. When we open out of town, it’s a little scarier. You make these millions of dollars in investments … but how much can you really know another market? We make our mistakes outside of Columbus … I’ve made plenty of bad real estate mistakes … I always say, as a quote “restaurant professional,” that 8 or 9 times out of 10, I think the ball’s going right, it goes right. But, there’s still that 1 or 2 times where it goes left on me.

A lot of times as a businessman, it's about what you do those one or two times it goes left.

Mm hmm. We’ve paid millions of dollars for our mistakes. [laughs]. I’ve gotten my education. I’ll be 50 this year, and you start to look back and understand it all a little bit. Some friends and I were sitting around talking about the Max & Erma’s on Kenny Road that I opened up back on December 7, 1981, and I was thinking, “Wow, that was 31 years ago … what have I done all these years?” And I thought, “Well, I opened about 60 restaurants, I built a family, built a business … that’s cool.”

Twenty years of Cameron Mitchell and your first new concept in five years; that’s a natural nexus to reflect on your career, and also think about what comes next.

I believe you’re either going up or down; there is no such thing as steady. So, part of our company culture is to be better today than we were yesterday, and better tomorrow than we were today … we’re constantly pushing. I work for so many masters. It’s our people, first and foremost; our purveyors that count on our business; the bank – you’ve gotta work for them; and my family, my retirement … so it’s much bigger than me. It’s for other people building careers within our company, and moving forward.

Are there ever moments when you're overwhelmed?

(long pause) ... No ... because I guess I've learned over these years of being an entrepreneur that you can always figure it out. Things never are as bad as they first appear. 

One of the fascinating things about your story is that you weren’t just a businessman moving money around; you started back of the house, working on the line with everybody else. When did the culinary and the entrepreneurial start to mix?

I’ve always had the entrepreneurial. I’ve always had the discussion with people, “Is it nature or is it nurture? For me, it’s pure nature. I’ve been trying to make money since I was a little kid.

What was it about that moment 20 years ago that pushed you in this direction?

It was during a shift change on a Friday afternoon – I was working a.m. as a line cook and p.m. as a host. Back then, it was packed to the gills. During the shift change, I remember looking over the kitchen and the line, and the a.m. guys are trying to leave and the p.m. guys are trying to come on, and it was pandemonium. The dining room’s 3/4 full and the restaurant’s busy… and time froze. I said, “This is what I want to do with the rest of my life.”

Why were you on probation?

For being lazy. Same problem I had in high school – being late and lazy both. [laughs]. Saturday, I woke up and started working my career. From that day forward, it was labor on Friday, love on Saturday. I’m not sure I ever really worked a day after that. I worked hard, but I loved what I did. I tell my people, I don’t delineate between playing golf, traveling, spending time with my family, or working at the office … to me, it’s all the same. It’s what I do; it’s who I am. There is no such thing as work. I say I’m going to work, but that just means I’m moving from one place to another [laughs]. I wanted to spend my entire life learning how to do something well.

How has your personality changed over the years? Have you mellowed?

I’m a lot less intense than I used to be. [laughs]. Our CFO told someone that I was the toughest boss she’s ever worked for, and the best boss she’s ever worked for. To me, that was one of the best compliments you can ever have. My style is certainly to give people the rope they need, but in my younger days, I was notorious for being able to push someone all the way to the very edge. They had a choice to either turn around and face me – or jump [laughs]. If they turned around to face me, we’d walk back off the edge together. Bringing out the best in people is difficult sometimes. But, I’m definitely more mature now. I should be – I’m 50 years old now! [laughs].

(Mitchell goes on at length often about his employees in this interview, praising the culture that exists within the CMR “family.” It’s not uninformed cheerleading, either. When I casually mention one of my best friends from college that works for him, he recalls with a giant mile how she started as a hostess with the company and has now risen to Assistant Director of Human Resources, and tells me how happy he was to see her become a wife and mother.)

Entrepreneur doesn’t quite cover all the bases with you, it seems. You’re excited about leading – not just about building wealth.

Building wealth is one thing, but I always think it’s a secondary goal. The primary goal is to build a great company. If you build a great company, wealth will follow, and success will follow. I always try to keep that in check. Opening The Pearl, I haven’t spent much time at all thinking about how much money we’re gonna make; it’s just a whole heckuva lot of fun to bring something new to Columbus. And we want to bring more restaurants to Columbus. This has been, is, and always will be, our home. There’s still a lot of opportunity here.

Well, that’s a good place to transition. In what ways does Columbus differ as a market from 20 years ago? When the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal or the Travel Channel keeps dropping in … as far as I can tell, there’s nothing putting Columbus on the map more right now than food and drink.

We struggled for years and years as Columbus had a reputation of vanilla, ya know? I mean there’s very little to that – so many people in this town have done such a great job of trying to move the city forward. The Columbus partnership now, and Columbus 20/20, and the city, and the mayor … the mayor just shifted several million dollars to the Experience Columbus, which we have worked on for years … and the new Hilton with the new convention hotel and to expand that base, and professional sports, Nationwide and all they’ve done to Downtown Columbus … just look at like Jeni’s Ice Cream, or like Chris Doody with Piada. There’s just so many things going on ...

Yeah, there’s a bit of vibe here right now, don’t you think?

To me, it’s an exciting time in Columbus, and you know, I saw a niche in the marketplace 20 years ago for the small type concept restaurant operator and I still see that same niche today.

Which is how you end up opening The Pearl.

Yeah. You’ve got Liz Lessner and her group. There’s just a lot of budding restaurateurs out there in Columbus already … but there’s room [for more]. Like the Curio bar that just came open – I haven’t been there yet, but I know what they’re doing. There are just all these nuances. And Columbus is ripe for some great breakfast joints. There’s things still to come.

You mentioned a few names there, but what are some other people within the industry in Columbus that you’ve taken note of over 20 years?

I forget their names – the folks that own Rossi and Club 185 …

Tina and Randy Corbin.

Yeah, they’re doing some good work; The Rossi’s one of my favorite places to go outside of work. Like I said, them, and Liz Lessner and her group – I mean, those are the multi-concept operators, ya know? Chris with Piada, certainly ... Piada’s gonna be absolutely huge. Then you’ve got [Matt the Millers] Craig Barnum with his group. And there’s just a lot of those independents – that’s what makes it great.

Where’s the last place you went to get a meal that wasn’t your restaurant?

It was Third and Hollywood.

I knew you were gonna say that somehow. That place has come up like six times from different people lately that have told me it’s really good.

It’s really great. I forgot to mention those guys at Northstar and what they’re doing there; we go there by default cause we live right near it, but we think its one of the best. And my kids really like the bread there. I get embarrassed sometimes at how many times I’m there! [laughs] Cause my kids rule the roost …

How about if you’re cooking at home? What do you usually cook?

Well, I don’t really cook at home. [laughs] My wife does! She loves to cook and entertain, so she does the lion’s share. I help clean – I’m a cleaner. [laughs]

Well, you have been described “dish room to board room.” What’s the difference between your day-to-day now as more of a businessman than a head chef?

I was in one of our restaurants in Tampa the other night, and the place was packed. I always walk back to say hi to the dishwashers first; I start from there and work my way around – and these guys in the back were just getting obliterated. I mean, there was crap everywhere and it was just a mess. I blew a gasket. I called our chef over and was like, ‘We can’t have this.’ I said, ‘Ya know, if this was the host stand that was getting their butts kicked or the bartenders, we’d be throwing all of our resources in there to get them fixed up and help. Meanwhile, we’ve got these guys back here swimming in this mess. So, it took about eight guys in 45 minutes to get it all cleaned up. There is no difference. I always preach to all of our associates, ‘There’s 3,000 of us, and we’re all the same.’ We may have different job responsibilities, but we’re all associates of Cameron Mitchell restaurants and … no one group or one class is more important than the other. They learned their lesson; they won’t let that happen again ... hopefully [laughs].

Your “Milkshake Story,” where you and your son are made a milkshake by a restaurant even when it wasn’t on the menu, has become part of company lore and has been cited by many in the industry as a parable for customer service. Do you get tired of telling it?

No. It’s such a great story about guest service. It’s just so simple. Really, the company’s based on the golden rule: treat people how you want to be treated. We’re closed on seven major holidays cause, ya know … I don’t want to work on Thanksgiving and I don’t want to get up on New Year’s Day to go to work. So, if it’s not good for me, it’s not good for them. We don’t ever have that traditional push-and-pull between management and the “lowly” associates and corporate, if you will. We’re all one group going together. If we can do it, we’re gonna do it. I just heard ... it happened just yesterday, the brother-in-law of our executive vice president was in Martini for dinner, and they had no idea who he was – he was just entertaining a group of businessmen and clients. And one of his clients went, ‘Ya know, I really got a hankering for some spaghetti and meatballs,’ but we didn’t have it on the menu. ‘Can you do that?’ and they’re like, [snaps fingers] “No problem.”

That has to make you proud, that all these years later it’s still trickled down to every associate, no matter where they are on the chain.

Right. And the thing about “the answer is yes” is that it requires effort. It’s easy to say ‘no.’ ‘No’ requires no effort whatsoever. ‘Yes’ always means you’ve gotta go do something. But we work on that long and hard to make sure that it’s not just in guest service. It could be a server asking to get a shift off or something like that. It’s an overall pervasive attitude – let’s make this happen.

Since you’re a classic rock guy … it’s time to know where you stand: Beatles or Stones?

Stones.

That easy, huh?

Easy. They just resonate with me better. I saw them at the World Series of Rock and I’ve seen them in concert many times. They’re one of my favorites.

What was the best concert you ever went to?

Pink Floyd. At Ohio State.

At the ’Shoe?

Oh, I wished they’d do that again. I saw the Stones there, too. But Pink Floyd was incredible. They could do it again.

You preach transparency in business and you seem like a pretty engaging guy, but have you had to adjust over the years being more in the public eye?

Slowly but surely I’ve become more of a recluse …

Is that because you value more of your personal time? Whether it’s with family or by yourself...

Mostly its just because I feel awkward sometimes. I know that I have some notoriety and so forth, and hopefully it’s positive [laughs]. I guess you become slowly and subtly more aware of it; I also don’t want to think too much of it. I’m just a guy running restaurants, ya know?

I was Chairman of the Board of Trustees at the most prestigious culinary school of the world, the Harvard of culinary schools of the world. And I’ve been on the cover of every trade journal there is and speak at every conference and really, ya know, I could try to get on TV and try to get on the Food Network and really turn up the hype, but I have no desire to do that. That all takes time away from the family, and I’m not gonna do that either. It’s hard enough to run a business …

Tell me about your family. How many kids do you have?

I’ve got three kids – 4th grade, 6th grade, 9th grade. I’ve got a little girl, Louise, and two sons; Ross, my middle son, he’s in 6th grade, and Charlie’s my oldest, and he’s in 9th grade. My wife Molly, she was the perfect one for me. She’s an English teacher – and I failed sophomore English a couple times, so ….

You got a wife and a tutor?

Right! But, she waited tables in high school, and loves food and wine … and yet, she’s not in the business either. It’s been a great relationship. We both knew that night we met at Friday’s for a drink at 9 p.m. She was kind of depressed from breaking up with her college boyfriend and her mom forced her to get off the couch and go. We were meeting for one drink and we stayed at the bar until one in the morning; both of us knew that night we were going to marry each other. We were engaged six months later …

That’s great. How was the food at the wedding?

[laughs] It was good. So, we met literally not even days after the first restaurant opened, so she’s been with me since the beginning ostensibly …

What else do you do for fun?

Play golf and travel.

Give me your favorite place to travel to that’s not for business and a place that you’ve never been but you really want to go.

My favorite place to travel to ... we rented a villa up in Tuscany. Actually, the chef there, our house manager there is named Marcella – that’s how we named the restaurant. Where I haven’t been that I wanna go is … two places I would say. One would be Hong Kong and the other would be Alaska.

What’s your favorite staple food? The one food that you could eat any time?

Pizza. We order it all the time at home.

One of things I’m fascinated with, is that when local companies get as successful as yours and branch out into other cities, it can be hard to still position yourself as “local.” I think a lot of people equate local and/or independent with small. Is that perception a challenge for you?

We’re working on a deal for a restaurant out in Beverly Hills, and soon – eventually – we’ll be in New York City, and we’re gonna be Philadelphia this year … but we could be a billion dollar company and I would still think of us as local. This will always be our home and I want the company to be around 60, 70, even 100 years – long after I’m gone. So I don’t think there’s such a thing as “too big.” No different than Scotts, or Nationwide, or Cardinal Health, or whatever. They’re these huge companies, but they’re based out of Columbus and they do a lot of great things for Columbus. We’re just that on a much smaller scale. So, the bigger we get outside of Columbus, the more fun and the more cool things we can do for Columbus.

My pet peeve is these restaurant reviewers … outta town, they’ll bash you because you’re not local, and in town, sometimes they’ll bash you cause you’re too big or...

You’re not independent and small enough ...

Right. And it just makes me sick, because it’s like they don’t realize that if we’re out of town, the 120 employees that we have at that restaurant work in that town [laughs]. They’re not from out of town, ya know?

Or the people here in town ... We’re Cameron Mitchell Restaurants – yeah, we’re the biggest, I got that – but we love this city and we want do great things for the city. And all of our people are local and work here and everything else. There seems to be this crass attitude toward us because we’re big ... I don’t get that. I just never get that. [They’ll say] I’m gonna go to the little guy – well, I appreciate the little guy, too! I was a little guy once! [laughs] I read this article here that called us “corporate honchos.” We’re not corporate honchos; we’re just part of the team.

January 1, 2013
Travis Hoewischer
614 Magazine
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