His empire, worth more than $100 million, spans eight soon to be nine states. What’s even more impressive is that he’s done all that in a highly competitive some might even say cutthroat industry notorious for chewing up and spitting out wannabes by the dozens every year.
Clearly, Cameron Mitchell knows how to build a brand.
“It’s amazing the power of the concept,” says Mitchell, president of Cameron Mitchell Restaurants. “We have multiple concepts, and some are better than others. Some outperform others. If you can get that concept to be just right, you can build a hell of a brand. But it takes a lot of work.”
Here’s how Mitchell has successfully built his collection of diverse brands, from retro diners to Pan-Asian bistros, from supper clubs to sophisticated steakhouses. It’s a formula that’s proven to drive growth and is based on some universal concepts.
Mitchell says the foundation for any brand must be built upon a company’s core values and philosophies.
“I think any business venture has to ask themselves, ‘What do they want to be?’” he says. “We want to be an extraordinary restaurant company.
“Any organization also needs to define itself and say, ‘Who are we?’ You need to be able to answer that basic question. We answer that by saying we’re great people delivering genuine hospitality.
“Our third plank of our philosophy is, even though we have 2,500 associates and we all have different job descriptions, we all have the same role in the company. And that is to make raving fans of the five groups of people we do business with: our fellow associates, our guests, our purveyors, our partners and our community. If we make raving fans out of those five groups of people, we will succeed in making raving fans of anyone we come into contact with.”
Those three core philosophies go a long way in driving the brands that Mitchell creates.
And although he acknowledges that each restaurant concept he’s created has become a brand of sorts, the underlying, unifying brand behind all of them remains Cameron Mitchell Restaurants itself. Every restaurant concept has to adhere to that brand.
“What is our brand? Our brand is quality food, quality ambiance and, hopefully, great service to go with it,” he says. “We want our guests to be able to count on that.”
So no matter if that guest is dining at the Columbus Fish Market or the swanky M, customer expectations should be exceeded on all fronts.
“We try to be consistent with that throughout,” Mitchell says.
He makes it sound so easy, but the introspection required to start building a brand can’t be taken lightly. It’s the identity of your business. It’s your calling card. Your signature.
“What do you want your brand to be known for?” Mitchell says. “You have to develop that brand promise. The brand promise is what you want to deliver to people.”
Once your core philosophies and values are clearly defined, the next step in building a successful brand is holding fast to them in every little detail.
“Be true to yourself. Stay focused,” Mitchell says. “It’s easy to get going on all these different tangents.”
Mitchell knows of what he speaks.
“Look at our Fish Market, for example,” he says. “We opened those in 2000, 1999, 1998, and we were very, very profitable. We’d done a good job. But we started to not be true to ourselves. The concept was built on fresh fish, a daily menu, doing creative presentations of fish. We started to change, slowly but surely.”
The company, for instance, found it could save money by doing away with daily printed menus. Then someone noticed how many complex items were on the menu and it was simplified.
“Then we went and got too pricey,” Mitchell says. “Before we knew it, our profit was in the toilet. We went on this way for two or three years. And then we finally looked at the Fish Markets and said, ‘What are we doing here?’ We pulled out the old menus and we kind of got our way back. Now we have our profitability back, and the business is growing.”
Mitchell’s Fish Market, which already has a presence in 12 cities outside Central Ohio, is slated to open four more locations this year and a fifth in 2008.
Mitchell was lucky he caught things when he did, though. That rolling snowball of simple, well-intentioned missteps could’ve spelled disaster.
“Quality is like a path through a dense forest,” Mitchell says. “If you step off that path very far, before you know it, you have no idea where you started. You’re lost.
“In the case of the Fish Market, we were breaking the brand promise left and right. We broke it for not having a daily printed menu. Fresh fish, fresh market, fresh daily that was the whole concept. I just want to kick myself for that blunder.”
Sweat the details
A brand and the promise ingrained in that brand should be clear to the public at any point of contact.
That means using the right font style on all signage and letterhead, conveying a consistent image through carefully selected advertising avenues and smartly crafted messages, giving all physical facilities an appropriate look and feel, making sure employee’s dress codes and demeanor reflect the brand ... the whole ball of wax.
“Everything has to be congruent,” Mitchell says. “You can’t not have white tablecloths and charge $60 per person for food. That would be a disconnect. You can’t have real loud, energetic music in a fine-dining restaurant. It doesn’t make sense. It goes all the way through to the details of the china and the music. It needs to match the environment, which needs to match the concept, which needs to match the service level and guest expectations, which the price needs to match. All the way down through the line, we want everything to be congruent. If it’s not, we have disconnects.
“The brand has to appeal subconsciously to people, too. They may not realize consciously that the music is too loud or the lights are too bright, but subconsciously, they pick that up, and it kind of agitates people. So they may not have a good feeling or may not be completely endeared to that restaurant.”
The same could happen to any company that overlooks seemingly minor details in building a brand such as the hold music callers hear or the paint color and style of furniture greeting customers in the lobby. Everything must carefully and consistently add to the brand. “This is a business of 1,001 details,” Mitchell says. “It’s true. All your T’s have to be crossed and all your I’s have to be dotted. It’s very challenging to have it all work together and have that magic happen.”
Never rest easy
Even when a brand finds success and infiltrates every nook and cranny of a business, ongoing work is needed to keep it fresh.
Take, for example, Mitchell’s original Ocean Club restaurant in Easton Town Center.
“We closed the Ocean Club, which was doing about $4 million a year in business, and totally reconcepted it,” Mitchell says.
Management decided the restaurant’s whimsical underwater theme came off as kind of cold, he says, and the menu needed more beef items so it would appeal equally to fish lovers and steak lovers.
“We opened Mitchell’s Ocean Club two months later, and it has been a phenomenal success,” Mitchell says. “It resonates with people. It’s tracking to do $7 million in ’07. And not only did we take a restaurant that was moderately successful and make it very successful, but we feel we’ve birthed a new concept. Maybe that becomes a $100 million brand.”
In similar fashion, Mitchell recently raised $3 million through a capital campaign to remodel additional restaurants in his ever-expanding chain, some of which date back more than a decade.
“It was imperative that we put that money back into our system to maintain the quality of our dining rooms and our physical spaces,” he says.
“Because part and parcel of that brand promise is we want to have great-looking interiors and we want to exude quality within those interiors when you walk into the space.”
Watch your time
Anything worth doing comes at a price, and branding is no exception. Yet, it’s not the corporate wallet that takes the biggest hit when building a new brand. “The biggest cost is time,” Mitchell says. “One of the things I’ve learned is there are two forms of capital: mental capital and physical capital. Mental capital has a price to it. If we’re spending all our mental capital over here, we’re not spending it over there. So what does that cost you?”
Mitchell points to his latest branding concept, Marcella’s, a Tuscany-themed wine bar set to open in the Short North this month, to illustrate his point.
“It’s going to cost us in the ballpark of $1.2 million to open Marcella’s, which is very inexpensive for a restaurant,” he says. “Typically, we spend about $2.5 million. But I think the physical expense kind of pales in comparison to the amount of mental capital we’ve put into it. Our corporate chef is in the test kitchen for six weeks working on the menu, another two weeks for the opening, another four to eight weeks following up on that, so our corporate chef is spending four months of their time on this project. That means four months they’re not spending on other projects within the company.
“There’s a lot of energy devoted to it. I think that’s the far greater cost, because you basically have to put the rest of the company on hold for a little bit while you’re doing this.”
That’s why it’s so important to be sure the brand you are pursuing truly fits with your company and is worth the labor-intensive effort.
“I opened a little bread company that ended up taking up way too much of our time,” Mitchell says of his 2002 purchase of Tapatio Bread Co. in the North Market area. “It took 20 percent of our time for 1 percent of our sales. I pulled the plug on that in about four months.
“If I had it to do over again, I would be more focused. For a while we were just all over the place. But that happens in organizations. You get teams of people together, teams get off on a tangent, and one thing leads to another and before you know it, the whole team is over there for one reason instead of being over here. That’s where leadership steps in. I try to keep myself above the fray so I can have some clarity of vision, but even with me, I get sucked into it sometimes.”
That’s why keeping your company’s philosophy in the forefront at all times is imperative.
“Anybody that’s involved in working in your company has to know your brand promise and be able to execute that,” he says. “You have to know your vision and be able to articulate your vision to anybody.”
It’s a formula that’s allowed Mitchell to grow from a single American bistro in 1993 to a 28-location, multibranded empire that’s on pace to do $125 million in 2007.
“You have to have the patience and the discipline to stick to your guns,” he says. “Not that you can’t change, but remember where you came from. What is the brand promise?
“I’ve learned a lot over the years. Probably one of the biggest is the power of the concept.”
HOW TO REACH: Cameron Mitchell Restaurants, (614) 621-3663 or www.cameronmitchell.com