“The Ocean Prime brand itself has got one of the highest average unit volumes of any restaurant company in the country — definitely in the top 10 — and it has got a great return on investment,” Mitchell says. “It’s very capital intensive. It costs a lot of money to build those big, grand restaurants, if you will, but if we get the right location and can do the business volume, it’s got a nice economic model to it.”
Exporting the culture
Another way Cameron Mitchell Restaurants has honed its craft, compared to its earlier days, is exporting its culture out of town.
Twice a year, the company does an in-depth survey that evaluates its associates and their opinions on management, the company, the culture, etc.
“Back in the days of the Fish Market, if we took our top 10 restaurants in terms of culture impact, nine out of 10 or 10 out of 10 would be here in Columbus. And inevitably, the ones out of town would be further down the line,” Mitchell says.
Today, out of 30 restaurants, seven or eight of the top 10 scores might be out town.
“There is no difference now between the operating culture in our restaurants in Columbus and operating culture in our restaurants in Beverly Hills or New York City. That is probably the biggest thing we learned and have applied toward our national growth,” he says.
The difference comes from how the company staffs its new restaurants.
Mitchell says even if you train new managers in your company culture and values, they won’t know how to operate within that at first. Now, when Cameron Mitchell Restaurants opens restaurants, of the eight people on the opening management team, six or seven are transfers who know the culture well.
“That way we establish that culture, that operating culture in that restaurant from day one, out of town. No matter where it is, no matter what locale it’s in,” Mitchell says. “So that’s our calling card — the single biggest point of differentiation for Cameron Mitchell Restaurants is our operating culture, our associate-comes-first, service culture. If we don’t have that going for us in an out-of-town store, we’re in big trouble.”
In order to grow and create a business built to last, like Mitchell has, he believes you have to be prepared for the long haul.
“We never had any delusions that, ‘Hey we’re just going to pop a few restaurants up around the country and it’s going to go great and it’s going to be easy, etc.’” Mitchell says.
If Cameron Mitchell Restaurants is going to be around for 100 years, it will continue to be based on its people — built on its people by its people for its people.
“We have so many people who are building their careers with our company and so forth. So, growth becomes an integral part of who we are,” he says.
Growth isn’t a five-,10-, 15-year deal; it’s a long-term commitment.
- Growing too fast can overspend both your physical and human capital.
- Don’t make exceptions; be selective with your development.
- When expanding, remember, your people establish the culture.
Name: Cameron Mitchell
Title: Founder and CEO
Company: Cameron Mitchell Restaurants
Education: Culinary Institute of America, Hyde Park, New York
What management skill was the hardest for you to learn?
I’ve always been a student of the industry. I read the trade journals and I’ve had lots of mentors in the business — I’ve read their books, even if I hadn’t met them — learning about leadership and business. But one of my hardest lessons came when I was a young general manager.
I was 24 years old and the GM for a white tablecloth restaurant in downtown Columbus. I was working my tail off and thought I was doing a great job. My boss calls me into the office one day and says, ‘Hey, about eight servers just left and we’re having a mutiny on the Bounty down there at the restaurant. They said either you need to go or they’re going.’
I was shocked. It totally threw me — no one wants to hear that about themselves, especially when I thought I was doing a good job. I thought the restaurant’s success was dependent on how hard I worked and how good of a job I did. But I realized then the restaurant’s success is dependent upon how successful all the people are that work in it. So, instead of spending all my time on top of them, managing them and the restaurant, I turned it on its head. I spent my entire day supporting everybody and helping everybody. That caused the restaurant to rise and therefore I rose.
That’s where I became the people person that I am today. I understood right then and there that our associate is the most important thing in our company and restaurants. I never looked back and it was the biggest turning point in my career. I had no idea what leadership was prior to that.
Do you have a favorite food, or something you don’t like to eat?
I don’t think I could follow Andrew Zimmern around and eat some of the stuff he chomps on. Generally speaking, in America, is there any foodstuff I don’t like? Not really, no.