Restaurateur: The answer to a customer is always yes

Cameron Mitchell is the poster child of a rags-to-riches story. The Columbus, Ohio-based restaurateur, and former high school dropout, opened his first restaurant in 1993 and has since grown his company to include 33 multiconcept units worth about $120 million. Two of his concepts — Mitchell's/Columbus Fish Market and Mitchell's/Cameron's Steakhouse — were sold to Ruth's Hospitality Group for $92 million.

As the keynote speaker of this year's North American Pizza and Ice Cream Show in Columbus, Mitchell told his story about being a high school dropout, returning eventually to graduate, and being suspended as a morning cook/afternoon host at a Columbus concept before having an "epiphany" one busy Friday afternoon.

"I was just working for beer money. I was the laziest guy in the kitchen. But one afternoon, when we were so busy, I had an epiphany during a shift change. I just looked down the line in the kitchen and realized I wanted to be in the restaurant business the rest of my life," Mitchell said to a packed audience Sunday.

So he wrote out his goals on a legal pad, including graduating from the Culinary Institute of America at age 23, becoming a general manager at 24, becoming a regional manager at 26, moving up to a VP of operations at age 30, and being the president of a restaurant company by age 35.

"The next day I went from working for beer money to working for a career. I went from being the laziest guy in the kitchen to the hardest working guy in the kitchen — literally overnight," Mitchell said.

He, indeed, graduated from the CIA, became a general manager back in Columbus by age 24, and was selected to oversee six restaurants at a company called the 55 Group by 26. In 1992, he had his second epiphany: To start his own company.

"I got frustrated (with the 55 Group) because the boss was a micromanager. It was owned by two local businessmen in real estate and they didn't really care or respect the restaurant industry. So I left in July 1992 and started my own restaurant company," Mitchell said.

Company culture and values

His first order of business was outlining the company's culture and values. He spent three weeks coming up with these principles that are still in place today. He then found a location and raised $600,000 through investors; people he met while at the 55 Group. A few months later, however, the deal began to fall through. In February of 1993, another landlord took a chance on the idea and, by October of that same year, Cameron's of Worthington opened. The restaurant marked its 20th anniversary last year.

Mitchell has since opened 65 restaurants and most recently signed a lease for his Ocean Prime concept to make its debut in Manhattan in the spring. This opening will officially give Cameron Mitchell's a coast-to-coast footprint (he has a location open in Beverly Hills, Calif.).

"There are two components to opening a successful restaurant," he said. "Number one is having a good strategy. I made a lot of mistakes, but I surrounded myself with smart people. Number two — the most important piece — is the company's culture and values." His include:

  1. What do you want to be? "Cameron Mitchell is an extraordinary restaurant company that tries to separate itself from the pack. It's unique," he said.
  2. Who are we? Cameron Mitchell's company answers this question with: "We are great people delivering genuine hospitality from their heart. We get the same people as everyone else does, but we treat them like they're valued," he said.
  3. Have a mission statement. "Ours is: To thrive with both cultural and fiscal responsibility. We are in the top 10 percent of restaurant companies in profit. That's very important, but I don't care about that if the culture isn't there," Mitchell said.
  4. Make raving fans of people you come in contact with. "We have 3,000 associates worldwide and they all have the same role in the organization to do this," he said.
  5. What are your business goals? "Ours has stayed the same — be better today than you were yesterday, and be better tomorrow than you were today," he said.

Two core values

On top of this bedrock, Mitchell said there is another list of core values. He outlined two of his company's:

  1. The associates come first. "The guest is not the most important to us. I know this isn't our industry's standard way of thinking, but I will tell you in my business we take care of our people. It's a triangular effect. If we take care of our associates, they take care of our guests, and our guests will take care of our company," Mitchell said, adding there are "programs and policies" in place to reinforce this value every day.
  2. The answer is always yes. What's the question? Mitchell told a story about taking his then-young son out to dinner and asking for a milkshake, and being told "no" by both the server and the manager. So, he ordered a chocolate milk and a la mode ice cream and asked them to blend the items together. Mitchell has since ingrained this story into every facet of his company's training policy – even creating milkshake-themed mascots and pins for associates. "The answer is yes is the backbone of our company," he said.

Photo courtesy of Chris Casella.

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User Comments – Give us your opinion!
  • Burton Langille
    5478775
    Great article, I really like the idea of putting the associated first and they're accountable for the guest experience. Most restaurant jobs don't pay well so this is a refreshing idea that I can see making a difference. I'd also like to know their experience in identifying and rewarding loyal customers.
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