Cameron Mitchell feels like he hasn’t gone to work in 20 years. The founder and CEO of Cameron Mitchell Restaurants plans to keep his “founder” title until he — as he puts it — goes to the big restaurant in the sky. He doesn’t want to retire, ever. However, after 37 years in the restaurant industry, he is moving toward a stewardship role.
Most recently, the company has been building out its Ocean Prime brand, which serves seafood and steak, while continuing to build specialty restaurants with the goal of vetting a secondary growth brand that can be developed coast to coast.
In October, Cameron Mitchell Restaurants will celebrate 25 years in business. The company is stronger than ever, with approximately 4,200 employees, 30 restaurants in its portfolio and five new locales opening in the next 14-18 months. In addition, the Rusty Bucket, its sister company, has more than 20 restaurants, and Cameron Mitchell Premier Events, its private dining and catering division, has expanded in recent years.
“In the earlier days, we were drinking out of a fire hose to a certain extent, but now we’re much more strategic,” Mitchell says.
Mitchell promoted David Miller to COO and president two years ago, and plans to gradually take things off his plate over the next three to four years. But he admits letting go hasn’t been easy.
“I’m trying to find what is that right place? What are the right things to let go of? What are the right things to keep hold of? That will naturally take some time,” he says.
The growth of his business offers evidence that he has at least some idea of how to proceed. Mitchell admits that if he had never been able to let go, the company wouldn’t have all the restaurants it has today.
Beyond the ongoing challenge of managing capital in a capital-intensive industry, Mitchell says he’s gotten in trouble twice by trying to grow too fast. The first was in 2000 and 2001 when the company doubled in size and caused unnecessary hardship.
Then in 2008, he sold two of his most popular themes, Mitchell’s/Columbus Fish Market and Mitchell’s/Cameron’s Steakhouse — a total of 22 restaurants — to Ruth’s Hospitality Group for $92 million. Mitchell wanted to rebuild that EBIDTA.
“We went out and signed a bunch of leases and just got all crazy — and that took years to recover from,” he says.
Because the company was overanxious, it picked some locations it shouldn’t have, Mitchell says.
“When you’re growing that fast, one of the lessons I’ve learned over the years is that human capital, mental capital is the same as physical capital. You can overspend both,” he says.
Mitchell says that kind of environment can lead you to start cutting corners.