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