Next year marks the 25th anniversary of Cameron Mitchell Restaurants, the group known for wide-reaching brands such as Ocean Prime, Marcella’s, and Molly Woo’s. At the helm of the company is Cameron Mitchell himself, who has been working in restaurants since he was 16 years old — he’s opened an impressive 85 restaurants to date, which have done “a few billion dollars” in sales. In addition to working his way up from from dishwasher to founder and president of a restaurant company, Cameron has been honored by Nation’s Restaurant News and the U.S. Small Business Administration, among other organizations, and he also served as Chairman and Board of Trustees at the Culinary Institute of America (the first alumnus to do so).
Success in the restaurant business doesn’t come easily, so when we see someone at Cameron’s level, we all take note. Recently, we asked him all about his background and philosophy to learn his top insights for growing and thriving in this ever-changing and -challenging industry. Read on for inspiration, education, and much more.
1. Set specific goals.
After graduating high school, Cameron was working in restaurants — washing dishes, bussing tables, cooking here and there. He didn’t immediately enroll in college because he didn’t know what he wanted to do. “I was living at home, working two jobs, going nowhere,” he says. He was suspended for three days for being late and put on probation, during which time he worked a double-shift as an AM grill cook and a host in the evening. That night, before service, he looked across the kitchen and said, “This is what I’m going to do the rest of my life — I absolutely love this.”
That night, after his shift, he went home and wrote out his goals: to graduate from the Culinary Institute of America; become Executive Chef by the time he was 23; become a GM by 24; a Regional Director by 26; a VP of Operations by 30; and president of a restaurant company by 35. He woke his mom up at 1 a.m. to share the goals with her.
“I went back to work the next day and literally did a 180-degree turn,” says Cameron. “On Friday I was working for the man, for beer money, lost and lazy, and Saturday morning I was working for myself, my career, my future. I was the hardest working guy in the kitchen. I really never looked back from there. It changed for me overnight in one fell swoop.”
And the reality? He beat many of those initial goals he set, ultimately overseeing the operations for four restaurants by the time he was 26. Then, he hit his head on the ceiling. In 1992, he decided to start his own restaurant company and began raising the capital and building the business plan for his first concept. The following year, in 1993, Cameron’s opened its doors in Columbus, Ohio.
2. Start with culture and values.
Most people dream of opening their own restaurant; Cameron dreamed of running a restaurant company. “I wanted the company to be around for 100 years, long after me — I didn’t want it to be about me, I wanted it to be about our values and culture, which runs 24-7-365, whether I’m there or not.”
In the first few weeks after starting his own company, Cameron wrote out the company’s culture and values. He aimed to create a company that was people- and associate-focused. “I knew that would be a true differentiator, because it wasn’t going on out there.” Even still today, Cameron Mitchell Restaurants’ culture is based on five basic questions any business has to ask itself (listed here with his responses):
- Who are we? We’re great people delivering genuine hospitality.
- What do we want to be? We want to be an extraordinary restaurant company. By definition, that’s the opposite of ordinary.
- What is your mission? Our mission is to thrive with both cultural and fiscal responsibility. You’d think that as CEO of a restaurant company, my number one goal is to make a profit. That’s not true. Our number one goal is to maintain our culture and values. That, to me, is the key to long-term profitability and viability.
- What is your role? We have 4,000 associates, lots of different job descriptions, restaurants all over the country — but all 4,000 of us have the exact same role in the company. And that is to make raving fans of five groups of people we do business with: our fellow associates, our guests, our communities, our partners, and our purveyors.
- Finally, what is our goal? We have hundreds of business goals; they change and come and go. One goal stays the same, and that’s to be better today than we were yesterday, and be better tomorrow than we were today. It creates a culture of change in our organization. That also becomes our insurance policy — we’ve grown every year.
3. Put your associates first.
In addition to the culture, Cameron stands firmly by this core value: associates come first.
“You’d think the guest comes first, but I don’t believe that,” he says. “I would take that a step further and say that I don’t think we have a direct relationship with our guests; we have a direct relationship with our people. It’s not that I don’t care about great guest service — I love to take care of people. But I believe the true path to great guest service is by taking care of our people. We take care of our people, our people take care of our guests, and our guests take care of our company. When our people know how much we care about them, they in turn will take care of us and care about our guest experience. And ultimately that leads to continued growth in sales and profitability.”
4. Make a milkshake toast.
One day Cameron went with his family to a local restaurant and ordered his son a grilled cheese and a chocolate milkshake. The server told him they couldn’t make either. He ordered a club sandwich — hold the ham, turkey, bacon, etc. — and asked to have what was left sautéed in a pan. Then, he ordered a chocolate milk with a side of “a la mode” and asked her to have the kitchen whip it up in a blender. She agreed, a bit reluctantly.
The whole experience left an impression, and Cameron shared the story a couple of weeks later while delivering a keynote speech at an event held by a local business magazine. “I’m talking about our company, and I tell that story and how it wouldn’t happen in our organization,” he says. Soon after, one of the event attendees stopped him on the street and said she had tried to order a chocolate milkshake at Mitchell’s Fish Market (a CMR restaurant) and the team wouldn’t make it for her. “It was like she punched me in the gut right there in the street. I got all fired up for the Monday morning exec meeting. I said, we’ve got a problem here — our culture isn’t permeating the organization.”
Today, every time a new associate goes through orientation during their first day with the company, the team tells the story of the milkshake — and actually makes a milkshake for the new employee. They start all major meetings and leadership conferences with milkshake toasts. “We make thousands of chocolate milkshakes a year to drive that point home.”
Ultimately, it’s about attitude, Cameron says. “We have a pervasive attitude in our company that we can do what we will. The number one question I get all the time is: where do you get such great people? I say, we hire the same people everyone else does. The difference is, we treat them great. That is the differential.”
5. Scale the culture, scale the concept.
“The first restaurant I opened, I was scared to death,” says Cameron. By 2000, he had 10 restaurants in Columbus and was starting to think about opening out of town. That was challenging at first, but as the company continued to scale the team gained more and more confidence. Today, CMR has opened concepts from coast to coast, making mistakes and adjustments along the way.
“In the beginning we opened restaurants with outside-hire managers, and all of the sudden the culture and values was not there the way it should be,” he says. “We typically now open a restaurant with a minimum of five managers on staff from within the company so we can inculcate that culture in the new market. Today, our culture and values out of town are the same as they are in town.”
Additionally, just because a brand is successful in Columbus, Ohio doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to work everywhere else. The team has had to evolve brands, which take years to hone and get right. “You’re always tinkering.” With great people, systems, and processes in place, the road to growth looks much smoother.
6. Bridge the front and back of house.
Cameron is unique as an owner/operator because he’s worked both sides of the business: the kitchen and the dining room. “You’re either a famous chef or you’re Danny Meyer,” he says. He knows how chefs can yell and scream, because he’s been there. He’s seen how angry, condescending words can make servers too scared to go into the kitchen and ask questions. “It’s just a waste of time, and we don’t tolerate it.”
At CMR everyone has to speak to one another with respect — even chefs in the heat of battle. “That’s how you run a great business. You can’t have one side of your business reacting negatively to the other — I learned over the years that’s not good.”
Another bonus of his varied background is the inspiration Cameron brings to the employees in the back of the house especially. The kitchen staff know he used to be an Executive Chef, a line cook, and a dishwasher. “They love that,” he says. “I wouldn’t trade it. You’ve got to have a certain mix of personality and character to do both.”
7. Figure out how to make it work.
It’s no secret that the industry is in the midst of huge change, with minimum wage hikes and rising costs across the board. How does a veteran like Cameron think about business challenges? “You either sit down and wring your hands about it, or you can move forward and press on with a positive mental attitude. My glass is half full because I’ve got a pitcher of water sitting beside it — that’s how I look at life.”
Cameron is in favor of the wage hikes, which he says are good for his people. Plus, if everyone in the industry is experiencing them, there’s a level, competitive playing field. “We all still want to maintain our business model, and we’ll eventually take price to help offset some of those expenses.” But at the end of the day, he says, it’s just another business challenge — and business is always difficult. “Any business has got their challenges — you’ve got to know how to work them.”
Right now, CMR is continuing to build the Ocean Prime brand across the country, and they recently overhauled their more casual Rusty Bucket brand. They plan to continue the specialty brands they’ve launched in Columbus, as well as their catering business. With the 25th anniversary of the company coming up, Cameron is starting to think about his legacy and eventual retirement, transitioning into a steward of the company versus “going full-throttle.”
“I use the snowball analogy: you keep rolling and rolling and it gets bigger and bigger. That’s what you have to do. I’ve got 40 years in the business coming up in 2020, and I figure at that point, you get a little bit of credibility to you. I’m trying to make that transition — I call it the fourth quarter of my career.”