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The taste of success Featured

5:02am EDT March 11, 2003
You might think that in the restaurant business, your primary concern should be pleasing the customer, but that≠s not exactly the approach 39-year-old restaurateur Cameron Mitchell uses.

Instead, he focuses on his employees, making sure they are happy with their jobs and the work environment. He feels that if employees are happy with their jobs, the good will generated will spread to the customers, and so far, that strategy has worked.

"The time and energy we spend on our employees comes back to us many times over in the form of happy customers," says Mitchell.

Mitchell founded his first Columbus-based restaurant, Cameron's, in October 1993 after climbing the management ladder at Fifty-Five Restaurant Group. Today he runs a conglomerate of nine separate concepts -- 19 units strong -- in three states. While the company hasn≠t been immune to the downturn in sales experienced by other white tablecloth establishments across the country, Mitchell continues to expand, with Fish Market restaurants in the planning stages in Chicago, Indianapolis and Michigan.

Mitchell calls the Fish Market concept the workhorse of the company, the restaurant experiencing the most financial stability and success. He plans to strengthen the company by betting on this horse in the near future before expanding into additional concepts. And he≠ll continue to focus on his associates, as well as what he calls his insurance policy.

"Our goal is to be better today than yesterday, and better tomorrow than today," Mitchell says. "We plan to be around for many years."

Why did you go into the restaurant business?

It's the only job I've had, really. Before working in a restaurant, I mowed lawns and delivered newspapers. I started washing dishes at a restaurant in high school and fell in love with the business. I went to college for it, and the Culinary Institute of America in New York. I have worked as a chef -- I was executive chef at 55 on the Boulevard -- but I am not a chef today.

What do you think makes Cameron Mitchell restaurants successful?

Our people and our culture makes us successful. We have a unique culture. We take care of our people, and our guests reflect that. We try to make our company a great place to work, and that feeling is reflected on our guests. Our associates continue to come first with us, not our guests. We take good care of our associates and provide a good work environment.

What makes your restaurants unique?

It's a dog fight out there. We try to have restaurants that are great-looking and have great food and service. That's how we define ourselves -- great people delivering genuine hospitality. That has become the differential.

How do you develop new concepts?

We travel the country to see what's hot, and we look at what's going on in trade journals. When we narrow down a specific concept that we're interested in, we look at current restaurants in that concept. We take ideas we see elsewhere and add our own creative touches. It does take a lot of work, and does not come easily. The more defined the concept is, the more successful the restaurant will be.

More restaurants are offering takeout and delivery. Do you plan to step up efforts in those areas?

No. I don't understand it. For us, takeout is very problematic. The food doesn't travel well. We can have 500 people in the restaurant and two takeout diners. It is easier to make mistakes on those two people. I see takeout as a mistake. You can go to a lot of trouble to add 3, 4 or 5 percent to your sales, and it's fraught with problems. I'd rather focus on the people in the dining room.

How do you plan to stay ahead of the competition?

We have five tenets in the company. One of them is our definition -- great people delivering great hospitality -- and our No. 1 business goal is to be better today than yesterday, and better tomorrow than we are today. We are not happy with the status quo; we change our menus and our entire concept when needed. We always embrace change. Our changes stem from many people. We do a lot of guest management, and we listen to our chefs and staff members and pay attention to our sales abstracts. We look at what≠s selling and clean out the dogs. We try to measure everything.

Will you be introducing any new restaurant concepts in the next few years?

Right now, we're building Fish Markets in Chicago, Indianapolis and Michigan, and we'll continue to build them. That concept is our best economic model right now. We plan to build those, strengthen the company and then come around and look at new concepts.

What are your biggest personal challenges?

To balance everything in my life -- family, work, community, self. I always want to be a good leader, that's continually a challenge, but I also want to be a good father and husband. It is a lot to juggle.

What is your favorite part of the day?

My favorite part of my day is coming home and seeing my wife and kids.

How to reach: Cameron Mitchell Restaurants, (614) 621-3663 or www.cameronmitchell.com