Cameron Mitchell on what he’s learned after 20 years in the restaurant biz

In the last 20 years, Cameron Mitchell has opened nearly 70 restaurants in eight states.

The Upper Arlington native has more than a dozen restaurants in Central Ohio alone, including Marcella’s Ristorante, M, and Martini Modern Italian. Next month, he will unveil his first new concept in five years: The Pearl, an urban gastropub complete with a raw bar.

So what better time to sit down with the restaurateur and talk about what he’s learned after decades in the hospitality industry? In our interview with Mitchell, he talks about the challenges he’s faced, why he doesn’t pay bonuses, and how he starts his day.

The Metropreneur: What sort of qualities are necessary for the leader of an organization that has grown from one where you had to wear every hat to something much larger?

Cameron Mitchell: Sometimes with entrepreneurs, the hard part of becoming a leader is letting go. What I’ve always prided myself on is the ability to paint the vision to where we’re going. I work backwards essentially. I can see the picture of where we want to be, and then deconstruct the picture from there and that becomes the pieces of the puzzle that we’re trying to put together. But I never want it to be about me. It’s all about the company.

Just this morning, I was in a meeting where someone asked me which photo I liked on a website and I said it doesn’t really matter which one I like; I’m concerned with which one 100 people like. I think leaders sometimes think its on their shoulders, and its all their decisions and I lead much more through collaboration and pulling people together towards a common vision. I think that’s the key.

I also think leading by example is very important. It’s so cliche, but it’s absolutely true and people forget about it. How you carry yourself and the standards you set are the standards that everyone else will set. So I always aim for 110 percent knowing full well that we’ll never get there, but hopefully we’re performing at 95 percent.

[M]: What obstacles or challenges did you face along the way?

CM: One of the big challenges has to do with branding. We didn’t really understand branding in the beginning. If you look at Cameron’s American Bistro now, you think, “What is that?” But if you look at Mitchell’s Fish Market, you know that means market fresh fish. Our Ocean Prime concept says prime beef and prime seafood. So there’s a lot of branding components that we really didn’t understand in the beginning. So that’s always been a challenge. The stronger the brand, the more successful the business. So we’re continually trying to learn and practice.

Another big challenge has always been capital. We are an extremely capital-intensive business. To try to keep those sources of funding coming in and be able to grow with internal cash flow and make distributions to our partners is a constant battle that even to this day that we juggle constantly.

[M]: We were talking earlier about the original Cameron’s turning 20 this year, which is a huge milestone. Knowing what you know now, is there anything you’d do differently if you were re-opening Cameron’s today?

CM: That’s really an impossible question to answer because you have hindsight, but it still wouldn’t have changed the fact that I had very little capital so we were limited to what we could do with that space. I didn’t know as much as I know now about branding, so I couldn’t really change anything if I wanted to.

I will tell you that I made some major mistakes in my time that cost the company dearly and I’d say that if I could do those over again I would, and that would be twice in my life we’ve really overgrown. If I could go back, I would have eased up on the throttle and not been so aggressive.

It’s funny, we talk about not going around the same track twice, but I do it every once in awhile and still make those same mistakes twice. We were sitting in The Pearl recently with the new menu, and we were going to have this wooden clipboard for our menu presentation. Well, when we opened Ocean Club back in 2006, we had these zinc menu boards and they were clunky and there was no room for customers to put four of them down on the table, and we got rid of them.

So we’re sitting in this meeting at The Pearl and I asked if anyone recalled the menu boards at the Ocean Club, and I voted that we should just go with the paper menu before we spend $5,000 on these clipboards. We just don’t want to continue to make the same mistakes, but we’re all human so we sometimes do.

[M]: Are there any things that you do to reward excellence in the workplace?

CM: There are dozens of stories of people within the company who have doubled or tripled their salaries they started with, and a lot of people who have become operating partners. I always say, “Act like an owner and I’ll make you an owner.” Those sort of behaviors we reward.

We recognize our people tremendously, but I don’t pay bonuses. I believe bonuses are like carrots to horses and I don’t want to treat our people like that. I operate under the assumption that everyone is going to perform great and work their butt off until they prove me otherwise. Bonuses, a lot of times, are based on the performance of a lot of people, so why should your pay be tied to other people’s performance?

Do a great job and I’ll pay a great salary. We pride ourselves that no one ever asks for a raise in this company. Raises just come and we take care of our people.

[M]: What sort of advice do you give to aspiring entrepreneurs or restaurateurs when they ask for your guidance or input?

CM: I literally could not work at all and spend my entire day consulting on ideas with entrepreneurs who ask for help, and I just can’t do that. But I do try to reach out and help because people helped me along the way, so I try pass the baton. With speaking engagements, I try to limit them as much as I can because otherwise I’d spend my entire day doing those and take my eye off the ball. I love to help people as much as I can.

As far as questions go, everyone is a little bit different. I was just talking to someone today about raising capital for a concept, and I asked her if her concept failed, how much would it ruin her life.

Back when I started, I had nothing. I was single, had a one-bedroom apartment. My first piece of advice is to assess the risk. And number two, I talk to people about how being an entrepreneur is the hardest thing that can be done. I couldn’t do it again. You put so much into it, and if it doesn’t work out, it can be very hard to pull yourself back up by the bootstraps.

Those are the kinds of things I talk about. I’m not trying to talk anyone out of it, because at the same time it can be very rewarding. You just have to be careful and really think about it.

[M]: How do you start your day? Do you have a routine?

CM: If there is a typical day, I’m up at 5:30 to exercise and see my kids off to school. I sometimes go back to the gym and work out more before going off to work. So I’m sometimes into work at 8:30 or I come in around 10:30 after I’ve gone back to the gym. Can’t eat and drink like I do and not exercise.

To learn more about Cameron Mitchell’s new restaurant, The Pearl, read the Columbus Underground interview with him here.