Cameron Mitchell is CEO of Cameron Mitchell Restaurants, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this month. In his book YES IS THE ANSWER. WHAT IS THE QUESTION?: How Faith In People and a Culture Of Hospitality Built a Modern American Restaurant Company, Mitchell shares the keys to his company’s 25 years of success: including a steadfast commitment to a nurturing culture, a “people first” philosophy, and the humility to recognize reckless and ego-driven decisions.
Once a homeless drug addict, Cameron is now a nationally renowned restaurateur who runs a US$300-million restaurant empire, with 60 restaurants coast to coast. He shares the secret to his longevity and industry-leading retention rates below.
You were a high school dropout and teenage runaway and are now a nationally-renowned restaurateur. How did your early life shape how you run your businesses and how you lead?
My struggles early in life shaped me as a leader. All strong leaders have certain qualities such as perseverance and grit, but my rough start gave me an extra edge—a drive and determination to always advance and be better today than we were yesterday. I have overcome adversity and built a resilience that has gotten our company through some tough times.
My rough childhood along with my life experience learning on the job has been incredibly valuable to my success. My story also is an important reminder that we cannot judge someone’s potential at such an early age and assume they won’t amount to anything. I have a compassion for my associates and others who are working to grow and improve their situations. That’s why I am so passionate about finding ways to help them succeed.
You write that the title of the book, Yes Is the Answer: What Is the Question?, has been the cornerstone of how you’ve done business since your earliest days. What does this philosophy mean to you?
Yes Is the Answer. What is the Question means an overarching attitude of “yes, we can do it.” To say “no” requires no action and no thinking. We want to empower our associates to think and find ways to serve our guests that fulfill any reasonable request. It is our culture of “yes” that creates raving fans, and it is the difference between service and true, genuine hospitality.
I am reminded of an experience where wine-maker Michael Honig came to dine with us and he asked for a certain bottle of wine. We didn’t have it at the time, so the server took it upon himself to go to the store down the street and purchase the wine. Michael was blown away. This is a great example of our culture of “yes” in action.
How has the culture of putting associates first helped you as a company?
There are foundational values of our culture that we practice every day which have led to one of the highest retention rates in the industry. One of those values is communication. When you communicate with each other openly and honestly, people respect that and get on board with your mission. I believe that 95 percent of all restaurant issues can be traced back to poor communication.
We treat our people like family and they, in turn, treat each other that way. At one point, our Ocean Prime Naples location passed the hat around to raise money for associates after the restaurant was closed because of hurricane Irma. It is times like this that our culture gets us through. We get through it together.
CMR has some of the highest retention rates in an industry known for high turnover. What’s your secret?
Many people believe that when you choose a career in the restaurant business, you are choosing a career of long hours and low pay, with a poor quality of life. CMR has debunked this idea by building a restaurant company for its people, by its people. In fact, the national average for management turnover is 50 percent. Ours is 5 percent.
All one has to do is look to their left or their right and they will see an example of someone who has built their career with this company and has enjoyed the benefit of our great culture.
I have been told by our associates that they feel like they are a part of something larger than themselves and that is very motivating. We take care of each other. In fact, when our Cap City Grandview remodel occurred, we decided it was the right thing to do to keep paying the associates even when the restaurant was shut down. We even placed some folks at our catering company, Cameron Mitchell Premier Events, to earn some extra money during that time.
You write that leaders should regularly tell employees about the state of the company’s finances—especially when it’s bad news. Why?
Open and honest communication builds trust. Bringing your people “under the tent” with you also underscores that you are operating with integrity. I believe people want to know what is going on in the company, good or bad. Understanding the whole picture creates tremendous buy-in.
Our associates always have access to the executive team and exposure to the CEO through two roundtables each year as well as open forums and of course, an open door, policy. Also, our general managers participate in quarterly cabinet meetings with their staff.
If people understand what is happening they are more likely to believe in the mission.
Cameron Mitchell Restaurants celebrates its 25thanniversary this fall. What is your advice for entrepreneurs to achieve such longevity?
My advice for longevity is to always stay tuned to your values. When developing a business plan, be sure to write down what your company culture and values are first. You will need them during the hard times.
Be thoughtful about growth. It’s about mixing patience with your determination to succeed. The entrepreneurial drive is wonderful but not when it comes at the expense of your people. I have learned that mental capital is just as valuable as financial and physical capital.
You believe that leaders should embrace their culture and values more deeply in a crisis and cite the 2008 Great Recession as an example. Reflecting on the 10th anniversary of the recession this fall, how did this philosophy get the company through that rock-bottom moment?
There were a few major things that saved our company during the recession. One is that we have fostered strong relationships with our vendors over the past 25 years, so they were more willing to offer extended grace periods for payments. We also were intentional about remaining open with our staff and communicating with them to ensure we didn’t spiral into a toxic work environment.
At one point during the recession, I heard there were rumors going around about layoffs. I called an emergency staff meeting at the home office within five minutes. I told the team that I would cut the advertising budget before I would cut any people. And if we needed to cut more, I would leave the room and everyone could vote if we would all take pay cuts or lay some people off. It never came down to that, but if it did, I bet I know how our people would have voted.
This is an example of our culture at work during the hardest times. We get through it together.
You believe in the power of second chances, and you train your employees to follow the “Three As.” What are those “As” and why are they important?
We all make mistakes. If I fired people for making mistakes, I’d be the first person to go. No one in our company has made bigger mistakes than me. I say all the time the damage is usually not the mistake that was made but how it was handled afterwards. When we make mistakes and use the 3 A’s—acknowledge, apologize, and act—with humility and honesty, 95% of people can find a way to forgive us.
That said, there is a difference between mistakes of the mind versus mistakes of the heart. For example, when I heard that a chef was being verbally abusive to a server and calling her terrible things, that is a mistake of the heart and we have no tolerance for this kind of behavior. I escorted him off the premises within minutes of him admitting to it even though we had no one to replace him. This was a defining moment in our culture.
You are investing time into training the next generation of leaders. What are your innovative and creative approaches to attract millennials and turn them into “raving fans?”
Every human being wants to feel needed, wanted, important and valuable. Millennials are no different in that respect. We have programs in place to help our younger people learn, grow and see this industry as a great and rewarding career.
We created a Young Leaders Initiative which is an innovative program with 24 associates selected to provide input and perspective on company operations and new projects. Several of last year’s participants have since been promoted to general manager or executive chef positions.
In addition, I occasionally meet with our young leaders to break bread and talk with them about the industry. Honestly, I bet I get even more out of it then they do. I enjoy learning about their lives and budding careers. Our young people are really the reason why I decided to write this book. I wanted to leave a piece of what I have learned over the past 25 years with them.
What’s next for you and for Cameron Mitchell Restaurants?
I am in the fourth quarter of my career so I will be moving into more of a stewardship role. As our company continues to grow with new restaurants and concepts such as Harvey & Ed’s and the upcoming Budd Dairy Food Hall, I am focused on helping the restaurant leaders of tomorrow succeed.
Food halls are a major trend in the restaurant industry and we are currently working to open the Budd Dairy Food Hall in the spring of 2019 in Columbus’ Italian Village community which will feature 8 to 10 entrepreneurial, chef-driven restaurant concepts. Central Ohio embraced me as a young restaurant entrepreneur and I want to do the same for the next generation.
In addition, we have pledged $2.5 million to Columbus State Community College to go toward the new Hospitality Management and Culinary Arts building. Mitchell Hall is expected to be completed by fall 2019. It is an incredible honor to give back to the community that has embraced our company for 25 years and provided the foundation for thousands of our associates to build meaningful and rewarding hospitality careers.