Cookbook Profile

Interview: Cameron Mitchell,
Owner, Cameron Mitchell Restaurants

by Lisa M. Brefere, Karen Eich Drummond, and Brad Barnes


Q: Tell me about your company, Cameron Mitchell Restaurants.

A: We are a $ 100,000,000-a-year multiconcept, full-service company that operates in six states in the Midwest. We have 10 different concepts, 27 different restaurants, and a full-service, off-premises catering company. We also manage a small restaurant group including four restaurants.

Q: How did you get started doing this?

A: I was the Director of Operations for a small restaurant company before I started on my own in 1993. I left my operations job in July of 1992. It took 14 months to put the first restaurant together. I was 30 years old at the time when we opened our first one. I started with partners whom I needed to raise capital. Today we have over 180 partners, including 30 operating partners within the company. We raised money on several different occasions throughout the course of the company's history.

Q: How did you get into this business?

A: I've always said I got fired from my first two jobs, which were mowing lawns and delivering newspapers, and I started washing dishes in high school. It was the only job I could hold. So I stuck with it. I came from a traditional suburban high school here in Columbus, where 93% of the kids went off to college. Both my brothers were doctors, but I wasn't ready to go off to a four-year college. So I lived at home with my mom, and I worked for a large regional casual dining chain based here in Columbus, Ohio. I was with them for about a year when I almost got fired. I was put on suspension for three days and probation for 30 days for being late to work. I couldn't get myself out of bed. I was just working for beer money and was kind of a wayward kid at the time.

After my suspension, I came back to work and I was late again. Luckily the manager on duty turned the other cheek. That was a Tuesday and thank goodness he did, because on Friday, I was working a double shift as a line cook during the day and a host at night, and during shift change it was just pandemonium. All of a sudden, time froze, and I had an epiphany. I looked across to the hot line and said, "This is what I want to do with the rest of my life." I went home that night and wrote out my goals. I wanted to go to the Culinary Institute of America, become Executive Chef at 23, General Manager at 24, a Regional Director at 26, Vice President of Operations at 30, and President of a restaurant company at 35. That was it. On Friday, I was just going to work, but the next day I was working for a career. My whole world changed. I went from the bottom of the basement to becoming an Opening Team Cordinator for them until finally I was Kitchen Manager.

Q: What triggered that decision?

A: I love what I am doing. This is what I'm going to do for the rest of my life. I had one more epiphany that was kind of fundamental as well. If we fast-forward a few years, I graduated from culinary school, came back to Columbus, and worked for a local restaurant company. We had one restaurant when I joined the company. I started as a Sous Chef opening up our second restaurant. I became Sous Chef for this company and then six months later I was promoted to executive chef, so I became Executive Chef at 23, just like my goal was. And I became General Manager at 24 and then became their Regional Director at 26, and then Operations Director. We had six restaurants then. As I got closer to the center of the organization, I had some fundamental problems with the company.

I decided then to start my own restaurant company, Cameron Mitchell Restaurants. I wanted to build a special company that had a culture and foundation that was second to none, with people that loved to work there. And that is what we are still doing today.

So I started with a legal pad and pen and really no money. I had a little money to live on, but I had no money to start a business. It was a lot of hard work and perseverance and courage to go through those times. I worked for about six months on a restaurant project downtown in Columbus. I was just getting ready to finalize the lease and the plans for starting construction. I raised all the money through partnerships for this project, and the landlord went bankrupt at the last minute. The bank repossessed the building, so everything fell through. I was totally broke. I sent my partners their checks back. I explained to them what happened and sent them my new business plan for a smaller project. We were finally able to get it financed. It was a long 14 months to get the first one open. It's been a struggle, and it's still a struggle today. Our cost of goods is through the roof right now, and profitability is down from last year. When you build a restaurant you expect to pull a profit, but it doesn't always happen like that.

Q: Can you talk about the management philosophy of Cameron Mitchell Restaurants?

A: At Cameron Mitchell Restaurants, we believe in our associates. The foundation of our company is based upon integrity—each individual adhering to a code of core values that determines behavior and interactions. Treating one another in accordance with these philosophies establishes strong communication and an enjoyable work environment. Ultimately, we believe we will experience continued success by maintaining this company culture.

We have five questions that we ask ourselves:

1. What do we want to be? An extraordinary restaurant company.

2. Who are we? Great people delivering genuine hospitality.

3. What is our role? To make raving fans of our associates, guests, purveyors, partners, and communities.

4. What is our mission? To continue to thrive, driven by our culture and fiscal responsibilities.

5. What is our goal? To be better today than we were yesterday and better tomorrow than we are today.

Our people are the foundation of this organization. When the company puts its people first, the results are spectacular. The tools we utilize and the theories by which we operate all stem from this belief. Superior service comes from the heart. We realize that our guests will have a wonderful experience only when our associates are truly happy.

The value of an individual is never held higher than the value of the team. For the team to function at its greatest potential, all individuals on the team must work in harmony. It is important that no individual disrupts the positive chemistry of the team.

To preserve our great work environment, we hire only upbeat and positive people from a variety of cultures and backgrounds. A positive attitude is an approach to a way of life. It is a conscious choice and the driving force behind exceptional service. Everyone is responsible for fostering an atmosphere that encourages positive attitudes.

Work should be fun. We have an exciting work environment that is filled with laughter and smiles. Guaranteed fun equals guaranteed success.

Quality is built up front and permeates everything we do. We believe that there is no room for mediocrity. If we are not better than the rest, we become a commodity and are chosen only for price. We measure our quality constantly. What we choose to do, we choose to do best. Our quality is 100% guaranteed. We do it right the first time.

We foster open and honest communication. Communication breaks down the barriers to success. We uphold an open-door policy. Feedback creates learning, understanding, and growth. The only bad idea is the one not communicated. We communicate with respect and eloquent language. When we are all informed, we can move forward together.

We believe in the creative process. There is art in everything that we do, and art is important because some of the most memorable aspects of service are creative ones. Pride should be taken in even the simplest tasks. Time, people, ideas, artistic beauty, and togetherness all define a creative process, which is inherent to our success and to our organization.

We are committed to the growth of all our associates, our company, and our community. We believe that without the growth of our associates, we too will become stagnant. Everything changes around us and we intend to change with it, not to be left behind and forgotten. We are committed to the educational process. We believe that learning should last a lifetime.

Q: What kind of advice would you have for young culinarians?

A: My recipe for success is to get the best education you can. Work for the best company, have the best attitude. Throw in a little luck and hard work, and you are going to be successful. Also, set your goals and aim high. You can change them along the way, but you have to have a map to get started. Seek advice from your elders. I do that all the time. Go and listen to them. My other advice is to work hard when you are 20 or 30 because you just can't do it in your forties. You've got kids, you've got family, you've got other commitments. Sometimes, you don't have the energy. Finally, have integrity and honesty, and manage from your heart. You treat people the way you want to be treated. I always say integrity takes years to build and days to ruin. No one can take that away from you but yourself.


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This page created October 2008