Yes Man

By
From the July 2014 edition

Chances are, at this very moment, Cameron Mitchell is thinking up new ways to send you out of one of his 19 Columbus restaurants with a smile and a full belly. Twenty years ago, Mitchell launched his empire from a construction trailer plastered with the values on which he would base his company: Employees are valued. The product is great. The answer is yes. He doesn’t care that critics ding his concepts as derivative and neither do thousands of diners. Can the restaurant king of Columbus make a raving fan out of you?

It’s Friday night at Spagio, and the restaurant is packed. Chef Hubert Seifert drags a peel in and out of a fiery pizza oven with a swiftness honed by years of muscle memory. Every now and then, he pauses to greet guests with a jovial, mustached smile.

At a nearby table, 28-year-old Cameron Mitchell watches Seifert closely. Mitchell’s on a date with a girl who, in the 21 years since this night, has faded into the background of Mitchell’s memory. He surveys the dining room with a critical eye—a habit he’ll never break—as he sips on his drink, probably a gin and tonic or glass of chardonnay. He’s trying to take the edge off another frustrating week as the No. 2 of restaurant company the Fifty Five Group. His boss is a micromanager. The company owners are businessmen, not restaurateurs.

Mitchell is one promotion away from the goal he set for himself as a teen—to be the president of a restaurant company by his mid-30s. And yet, he can’t fight the feeling that this wasn’t where he was supposed to be. He’d do so many things differently if these were his restaurants.

“I could do this,” Mitchell thinks to himself, as his eyes follow the restaurant owner working the floor. A jolt of life shoots through Mitchell. He could do this. He’s running five thriving Columbus restaurants right now. Certainly he can run his own.

Mitchell experienced a similar moment of lucidity at 18, caught up in the pandemonium of a shift change in the kitchen at Max & Erma’s on Henderson Road, where he was kitchen manager. “It turned me on,” Mitchell says. It was the moment he stopped working for beer money and began working for his life. It was the first time the former high-school dropout had solid direction.

Now, for the second time, the front of house bustling at Spagio, Mitchell had a moment of clarity. And he couldn’t keep it to himself. “Anybody who knows me knows that when I get an idea, I start telling people about it,” says Mitchell, who made no secret over the coming months that he was working on his own restaurant concept.

So it was no surprise to him that a few weeks later, in July 1992, he was fired from the Fifty Five Group with a forceful but kind shove out the door. Two days later, Mitchell started working on his company. He didn’t start by developing a cuisine concept or scouting potential spaces or charting a list of investors. No, he spent the first three weeks in his one-bedroom apartment on the Northwest Side working on a manifesto of his company’s culture. He thought back to the shortcomings of companies he’d worked for—from how much he hated working on Super Bowl Sunday as a dishwasher at Cork & Cleaver to hearing that his boss, a new father by two days, had to head out on a business trip because he didn’t have paternity leave.

If the company is values-driven, Mitchell thought, it will be successful. It was never about opening a restaurant. It was about building a company.

Today, Mitchell fosters perhaps the happiest cult in town. One whose 3,000 employees drink chocolate milkshakes instead of Kool-Aid. One you’re free to leave anytime, but probably won’t. If you do, Mitchell will wish you the best of luck and welcome you back with open arms if you return. It’s nearly impossible to burn a bridge with him, says Stacey Connaughton, Cameron Mitchell Restaurants vice president of corporate affairs, who’s been with the company from the day Cameron’s American Bistro opened in 1993. “He definitely believes in second chances, or sometimes third chances, sometimes fourth chances,” she says.

No doubt this is an attitude born from mistakes Mitchell made in his youth—dealing drugs, stealing, running away from home. That juvenile delinquent is a far cry from the man his employees and executive team call the toughest boss they’ve ever had. A guy who can drive you to the edge of a cliff with only two ways out—jump or turn around and face him. (Though Mitchell, now 51, says he’s mellowed over the years.) Still, it’s hard to find a person who'll say a negative word about him.

He doesn’t take shortcuts. He believes good is the enemy of great. If he gives you a compliment, savor the seconds, because in the next breath Mitchell will want to know how you can make it better. He operates at 50,000 feet, says company executive vice president David Miller. He knows what he likes, what he doesn’t, and he’ll be frank with his opinion. But he doesn’t get involved in the minutiae. He’s focused on the big picture, seeing all the pieces of the puzzle, knowing where they need to go, but he won’t put them in place by holding anyone’s hand.

His hardnosed attitude is perhaps the reason the Cameron Mitchell Restaurants (CMR) name has become synonymous with polished and well-researched restaurants with attentive servers and consistent food. The reason his 19 restaurants in Columbus—a number that could grow by five by the end of 2015—turn thousands of covers every Saturday night.

Learning to please the lauded restaurateur is no easy feat. But if you can, you’ll have his loyalty for life. The only question is: What does it take to make Cameron Mitchell happy?

Mitchell’s rags-to-white-tablecloths story, and the plain way he delivers it, makes him immediately relatable. It’s his sense of humor, says his wife, Molly. He can be completely candid and humble about his sordid past. “You just never know what he might say,” she says.

The youngest of three boys, Mitchell grew up in Upper Arlington (in the “have nots” section, as he fondly calls it). His parents’ divorce deeply affected 9-year-old Mitchell, who found himself angry and unable to relate to his mom, who had custody of him.

By 15, he was engulfed in the local drug scene, experimenting with marijuana, speed and cocaine. He knew where to buy drugs, and soon classmates were turning to him as a supplier. Even then Mitchell had a talent for entrepreneurship, sometimes turning $1,000 a week. When the teen returned home from a weeklong trip to Key West—a failed attempt to graduate to big-time drug dealing—Mitchell stayed on the streets instead of returning home.

He shared a one-bedroom apartment on Olentangy River Road with seven or so guys, affording his $60 share of the rent (which allotted him half of the bedroom) by committing petty crimes like breaking into cars and, once, stealing a gumball machine outside a Kroger. These weren’t lucrative adventures for the long-haired and mustached teen, though. He remembers crawling on the floor of his apartment searching for pennies to afford a 28-cent box of mac and cheese, which he made without butter and milk. “When you haven’t eaten in a couple of days, that’s a pretty good meal,” he says.

Broke and with nothing but the clothes he was wearing, Mitchell returned home in 1979. He’d been gone four months and was ready to start his junior year, this time with focus. By senior year, he was class president. He had a knack for fitting in with every crowd, says Connaughton, a former classmate of Mitchell’s. “He was very hospitable and creative,” she says. “When I look back on it, I realize he was a natural [for the restaurant industry].”

He’d fall just short of graduating with his class (the only class president in the school’s history with that distinction), and when he did, he was dead last, No. 597 out of 597. With a newfound passion for restaurants at 18, he’d spend the next two years at Columbus State Community College trying to earn the marks to get into the Culinary Institute of America (CIA). He wanted to graduate from the top culinary school, then become an executive chef by 23, a general manager by 24, regional manager by 26, vice president by 30 and be running the company by 35. He would hit every single goal.

“I could tell he was a man with a purpose,” says Richard Stopper, former operating partner of the Fifty Five Group, who hired Mitchell as sous chef of Fifty Five on the Boulevard fresh out of the CIA in 1986. Mitchell was confident, driven. He told Stopper he wanted to be earning $100,000 by his 30th birthday.

Stopper offered him the position on the spot. When he asked Mitchell to send a list of menu ideas for the new restaurant, Mitchell sent him four legal pad pages full of ideas. He knew food in the kitchen. And he knew how to take care of guests when he shifted into a general manager post.

When he fired Mitchell on a Saturday morning, he told him it would be the best thing that had ever happened to him.

It was a grueling 15 months to get to the opening day of Cameron’s American Bistro in Linworth: Potential locations fell through, nine out of 10 investors said no. Mitchell refused to go on unemployment because, while he could work, he simply chose not to. His savings were dwindling.

“It was very difficult,” Mitchell says. “I was depressed. And in your depression, you get tired. And sometimes I’d run out of things to do. I’d be in my apartment at 2 in the afternoon, and I’d be sound asleep on the couch.” The phone would ring, and Mitchell would stand up, shake it off, wait until the third ring and answer with a breathless, “Hello!”

“I didn’t want anybody to think for a minute I was sleeping in the middle of the day,” he says. “It’s that little detail, that nth-degree detail.”

This is the Cameron Mitchell whom Connaughton recalls meeting in September 1993 inside a construction trailer outside the soon-to-be Cameron’s. She hadn’t seen Mitchell in 10 years, but he had barely changed. He was welcoming, frenetic, if a little more serious and mature. Interviewing her for an accounting position, Mitchell babbled on and on about the company’s eight philosophies—blown up on posters hanging in the trailer. Those same eight principles, word for word, hang on a poster in the CMR home office in the Arena District. They remind employees to put each other first, foster open communication, and they express Mitchell’s commitment to promote from within, to serving quality products and his faith in the creative process.

“We define ourselves as great people delivering genuine hospitality,” Mitchell says. “We want to be the bar by which others are measured. We want to be looked up to. We want to set the pace. We want to lead.”

Mitchell had a company to build, not just a restaurant to open, and it grew quickly by design. With the opening of every new restaurant came the announcement of the next venture. Cameron’s in Linworth to Cameron’s in Bexley. Cap City Fine Diner to Martini Modern Italian Cuisine. By 2001, he had a dozen restaurants in the city. That number could grow to 47 nationwide by the end of 2015.

It didn’t come easy, says Molly, who met Cameron on a blind date a few months after Cameron’s opened. Six months later, they were engaged (his extravagant scavenger-hunt proposal involved a limo, a mini shopping spree and a surprise party with her family). Mitchell worked long hours, was never home and was tired all the time. She saw him struggle to make tough decisions, questioning what was right.

“But when he rams into a wall, he finds a way to cut a window and climb through,” Molly says.

Leaning back in his chair, Mitchell says he wouldn’t trade for anything the days they had to use milk crates for bedside tables. His Arena District office is windowless, but he makes it warm with shelves and walls covered in framed photos of smiling faces. There’s one of him and Molly with George W. Bush, another with the couple dressed up at fundraiser. His kids grow up as you move counter-clockwise around the room.

He shifts forward, elbows on his desk, spotless except for a yellow legal pad, black ink scratched in nearly illegible handwriting all over it. Mitchell isn’t a computer guy. His voice softens as he points to the most recent picture of his family hanging on the wall. Those are his kids, he says. Charlie, Ross and Louise, who are in 11th, eighth and sixth grade, respectively. “It’s hard to believe,” he murmurs. “You snap your fingers, and there it goes.”

Molly chokes up when talking about Mitchell as a father. “I think he’s really the kind of dad he never knew he could be,” she says. “I’m amazed every day at the father he is to our children, because he was not taught those things. Those are inside of him.”

Of course, she says with a laugh, it doesn’t hurt that Mitchell applies his always-say-yes philosophy at home, too. He’s the fun-loving dad who reminds his kids to surround themselves with good people. He’s not concerned whether or not his kids will want to go into the restaurant business. He just wants them to find a passion. “Hopefully it’s not being a world master yo-yo champion,” he jokes.

Chuck Kline swore he’d never work for Cameron Mitchell—a pompous CIA grad who, the first time they met, poked fun at Kline’s Columbus State culinary training. That impression changed years later in 1995, when Kline, then 23, was reintroduced to Mitchell by a friend who worked for him.

Standing in the kitchen of Cameron’s in Bexley, Kline proudly slid a cheeseburger in front of his new boss. It was the first rollout for an urban diner concept Mitchell had planned for Grandview Heights.

“Is this really how you want it?” Mitchell asked the chef, who’d trained under chefs Richard Blondin of The Refectory and the late Charlie Trotter. After a week of attempts, not one cheeseburger was up to snuff. Kline’s fuse was about to blow. What did he have to do to please this guy?

“Do me a favor,” Mitchell said, throwing a $100 bill on the line. “I want you guys to go out to Champps, Cooker, Friday’s, Max & Erma’s and eat a burger at every one of those restaurants. Then I want you to tell me about them. How’s the meat? Where’s the lettuce? Is the tomato here or here? Is the bun toasted or grilled?”

Kline, now the vice president of operations at Cameron Mitchell Restaurants, sees the lesson plain as day now. Mitchell wanted him to think. He wanted to see the sweat spilled to make the dish; he wanted to spark a dialogue. “We weren’t going through that process,” Kline says.

Working with Cameron Mitchell means shoving your ego in your back pocket. It’s not about what you like—it’s about what the masses will enjoy.

“It’s not acceptable just to do something,” Mitchell says. His employees call him fair. But he’s simultaneously difficult to work for. The key is always to do it with a caring touch, Mitchell says, to let your employees know you are demanding so they become better. It must be the reason all of his employees laugh when asked: What kind of boss is Cameron Mitchell?

“He has high standards. He’s always pushing,” Kline says. “It’s the kind of thing you love to hate about him. Just when you’re ready to choke the guy, he’ll do something extraordinary for you.” For Kline, it was loaning him the money to adopt his son. For executive vice president David Miller, it was offering to shut down one of their restaurants on a Saturday night when the venue hosting his son’s bar mitzvah canceled at the last minute. When he sold Mitchell’s Fish Market and Mitchell’s Steakhouse to the Ruth’s Chris chain in 2007, Mitchell gave a meaningful gift to every member of the executive team, like Santa Claus dishing out the present they had always wanted—season tickets to Ohio State football games, a first-class trip to Vegas.

“You work hard for the guy and, in turn, you have a good life,” Kline says.

The way Mitchell treats his associates (associates, not employees) immediately caught the attention of Michael Bloch, who met Mitchell at Fifty Five. “He talked very highly about his associates,” says Bloch, a food purveyor who quickly became a mentor to Mitchell. “They seemed to come first.”

Mitchell’s not a yeller, employees say. But he can lose his cool. He’s been known to “fire” guests if they mistreat employees or attempt to take advantage of the “Yes is the answer. What’s the question?” philosophy. For example, Bloch recalls a customer waiting impatiently for his car outside Mitchell’s Steakhouse Downtown. “Some guy was giving the valet a tough time, giving the guy all kinds of heck and hell,” Bloch says. Confronting the man, Mitchell suggested he talk like that to somebody who was bigger than the valet. “He wouldn’t let his help be pushed around,” Bloch says.

Nowadays, Mitchell’s main job is to police the company culture. One of the main ways the company does this is through surveys in which associates rate the company and their bosses. Mitchell also hosts President’s Roundtables at each restaurant. For the latter, Miller and Mitchell (or someone high on the food chain) meet with representatives from the front- and back-of-house staff. No managers are allowed to attend. It’s designed to be an open forum during which associates on the ground can talk about what’s working, what isn’t and suggest new ideas. Every one of these meetings begins with a chocolate milkshake.

Sure, the culture has wavered over the years. The recession in 2008 wasn’t easy. They sold off restaurants, made some poor expansion choices out of state, closed restaurants.

“Listen, we are not perfect,” Miller says. “We’ve made a lot of mistakes. We’ve learned from them, but we made a lot.” But, he adds, people don’t stick around if they’re not treated right. The culture is the reason Miller left his Los Angeles post with the Stouffer Restaurant Co. in 1996. Mitchell had a magnetic personality, collecting employees who had worked with him elsewhere. “It immediately showed me, Cam must be a person with high integrity.”

Employee retention is a defining characteristic of CMR. Vice president of marketing Heather Leonard jokes she’s the newbie of the team, and she’s been with the company 13 years. Promoting from within is also common, says Amberlyn Heiney, general manager of The Pearl. She started with the company in 2007 as a server at Marcella’s in the Short North. Within a few months, she was promoted to dining room manger, then dining room bar manager and finally assistant general manager.

“It’s just this well-known fact that CMR promotes from within and they treat their associates well,” Heiney says. “I worked in a lot of other companies, and people talk about CMR.”

Mitchell’s biggest concern today is what would happen to the culture if he ever left. He admits he doesn’t know whether the attitude would carry on the same way.

“I don’t want to be that type of company where the CEO leaves and the company falters because it was such an autocratic company,” Mitchell says. “I have to figure out a way to make sure when I leave and go to that great restaurant in the sky that we’ll continue to climb and do well.” That means the company can’t be solely driven by the bottom line.

The energy is high at orientation day for Hudson 29 Kitchen + Drink. The bass is turned up on a Britney Spears song, which echoes through the unfinished second-floor office space along Lane Avenue in Upper Arlington. Nearly a dozen rows of banquet tables are set up classroom-style, facing a projector that welcomes the more than 100 people gathered here. These cooks, servers and bartenders will spend the next week learning the ins and outs of a Cameron Mitchell restaurant.

They’ll spend hours learning how to approach a table, the right way to make dish recommendations (first, ask what the diner likes, then steer them to what’s popular because everyone wants to be popular). They learn that presentation is all in the details (never tuck a menu under your armpit; it’s an unappetizing gesture). They’ll taste every dish on the menu, learn all the ingredients. Oversize sticky notes on the wooden wall of the new Upper Arlington restaurant will remind them of the CMR culture. And just in case they forget, every employee will get a six-page red booklet called “The Little Raving Fan Book.” It’s a pocket-size reminder of the company culture and its core philosophies.

There to educate them about CMR is the founder himself, dressed down in a blazer and jeans. Mitchell takes the microphone and speaks in a stream-of-consciousness way that begins one sentence before another ends. If you were to punctuate his dialogue, it would be filled with semi-colons and ellipses. And yet, he’s not hard to understand. He’s polished, but not perfect. It’s easy to see why so many call him an average guy.

Maybe that’s why this group of 20-somethings are all so glued to his speech. He’s told this story hundreds of times, and yet new details always emerge. Longtime employees will ask one another after: Did you know that about Cam?

He tells his story in a series of anecdotes. A restaurant that wouldn’t serve his eldest son a milkshake because it wasn’t on the menu. An exchange that inspired the company motto to say yes first, then ask for the question. The purchase of two types of pickles for an investor dinner—even as his bank account dwindled to $70 before Cameron’s opened—to prove the point that it’s always worth spending the extra buck for quality.

He gets personal easily, swiftly. The Cam he was at 16 is still the Cam he is now, just with better direction and a steady bank account. He isn't proud of the crimes he committed, but he isn't ashamed, either.

It took a long time to get to the point of opening a restaurant in Mitchell’s own backyard. To open Hudson 29, the executive team traveled to New York City, Napa Valley and Dallas, searching for the best of Californian and American cuisine. Research trips are something Mitchell has encouraged since his start. He’s known for sending his chefs to cities like New Orleans, Boston and San Francisco “to broaden their skills while lifting ideas and recipes,” the Grumpy Gourmet, aka Doral Chenoweth, wrote in The Columbus Dispatch in April 1995. The results of these early trips were used on themed city menus at Cameron’s.

Now, the ideas they pull result in full restaurant concepts. Typically, there are two to three trips—one with the executive team to home in on inspiration, the second and third with the regional manager and opening team. They’re analyzing a million details on these trips, Miller says, down to parking, light fixtures, the kind of towels in the bathroom and music overhead. They flip plates over to see what brand is being used.

The ideas they collect are used to create what they call the DNA of the restaurant—differences, nuances and attributes, Miller says. Once the overall idea is there, the restaurant gets a punch list detailing the menu, the dishware, the uniforms, the brand. The Barn at Rocky Fork Creek, slated to open in Gahanna later this summer, pulls from the Angus Barn in North Carolina. The Guild House, a farm-to-table concept connected to The Joseph Hotel in the Short North, could pull inspiration from places like Chez Panisse in San Francisco and Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s ABC Kitchen in New York City. The executive team began traveling for research at the end of June to start the process on the restaurant that will open mid-January 2015.

A bar was installed in the company's test kitchen a little over a year ago as development began for The Pearl. Bar programs have never been as big of a focus as the food at CMR, but seeing the trend of craft cocktails becoming mainstream, they needed to adapt, says executive corporate chef Brian Hinshaw. Now, cocktail and dish development happen simultaneously just 10 feet from each other. It’s a design that, Hinshaw says, creates a seamless flow between food and drink.

“We wanted to make sure that whenever we are creating a new concept, the food and beverage go hand in hand,” says Hinshaw, who typically creates dishes with a regional chef and the restaurant’s executive chef. They take pictures of plates, streaming the final product on a flat screen TV in the kitchen, reviewing and dissecting what they’ve done. They’ll plate on four or five different pieces of dishware before they settle on the one that fits the concept and complements the food.

It will take two to three months to reach the opening menu. The chefs hear the first opinions about the food during a series of menu rollouts to the executive team, restaurant employees and focus groups (for Hudson 29, it was a group of Molly’s girlfriends).

As the guinea-pig diners taste dish after dish, Mitchell won’t say a word. Instead, he’ll look around the table at the reactions of diners. Did they need a fork and knife to eat this dish, or just a fork? Did they push it away or go back for more? Finally, he’ll ask for opinions, letting everyone speak before chiming in: “I hated it.”

Hinshaw laughs as he describes the way Mitchell acts during menu testing. “Sometimes he’ll set you up like that,” he says. After cooking for Mitchell for 15 years, Hinshaw knows he’ll never hit a home run on the first try. “He’s super critical,” he says. “He likes to say that—I’m going to be your worst critic.” Hinshaw compliments Mitchell’s palate, calling it both unbelievable and also mainstream. He knows what will please the masses. It’s the reason why there’s a chicken dish at every CMR concept, why you’ll never find anything spicy unless it’s clearly marked.

“But we didn’t get to be this large of a company without him knowing what he’s talking about,” Hinshaw says.

CMR is in an obvious growth spurt. Hitting an oversaturation point is a common concern for Mitchell. They’ll open four new restaurant concepts, plus another Rusty Bucket, just in Columbus over the next two years. He plans to continue this rapid growth.

The company has been mocked by critics for stealing ideas from other restaurants. Most recently, The Pearl was criticized for putting Crack Pie—a rip-off of the famed (and trademarked) Momofuku Milk Bar dessert—on its menu. The dish is now called Brown Sugar Pie. Mitchell says, despite the overlap in name and concept, he guarantees The Pearl’s pie was nothing like Momofuku’s. “It was our interpretation of it, our version of it,” he says.

Despite the ding, Mitchell doesn’t think they’ve received unfair criticism over the years. After a review in Columbus Monthly last year accused The Pearl of feeling too much like New York City and not enough like Columbus, Mitchell just laughed. “I wanted to tell them that’s precisely the point,” he says. “I want people to step off the sidewalk and into The Pearl and feel like they are in New York City.”

He doesn’t concern himself with the negative remarks as much as he once did. (Though he does admit to leaving a few irate voicemails for the reviewer who bashed Marcella’s when it opened.) At the end of the day, if their dining rooms are full, he’s satisfied. For today, at least.