Restaurant Company CEO Cooks Up Company Culture

Cameron Mitchell
Cameron Mitchell

Cameron Mitchell remembers exactly where he ranked in his high school class of 597.

“I was 592 out 597. I had a 1.05 GPA. I only got one C because it was in debate and public speaking.”

While kids in his town went off to college, Mitchell spent the summer after his senior year attending summer school and working at a restaurant as a busboy/dish washer/eventual cook. After high school, Mitchell floundered for a few years—even getting suspended for three days as a cook for showing up to his job at the restaurant late. When he returned from suspension, Mitchell was working a double shift at the restaurant and had an epiphany.

“I looked across the kitchen and I said to myself, I love the action. I love this business. I’m going to be in the restaurant business for the rest of my life. I went home and wrote out my goals.”

Mitchell planned to own his start and own a restaurant company by the time he turned 35. He beat that goal by seven years and started his own company at the age of 28, back in 1992 after quitting a job as the general manager across four restaurants. Today, Mitchell owns the Cameron Mitchell Restaurant Group, which takes in $300 million in revenue across 60 restaurants—most of which are in Ohio.

Putting it all on the line

Mitchell, who recently wrote a book, “YES IS THE ANSWER. WHAT IS THE QUESTION?: How Faith in People and a Culture of Hospitality Built a Modern American Restaurant Company,” says he wrote out the company culture as soon as he started the company. He was aiming to create a company where people would want to work and thrive—and a company that could grow.

It took a year from when he wrote that company culture to when he opened the first restaurant under his company. To get that first restaurant opened, he scraped together $400,000 from various sources—including taking on a lot of personal debt. Through a wing and a prayer, Mitchell made it happen. The restaurant was successful enough that he opened a second one the next year, and then another and another.

“I had 40 restaurants in 2008, and we sold 22 of them to Ruth’s Chris for $92 million,” says Mitchell. “I was able to pay off my debt, my partners, and give them a nice return, and take care of our management team.”

After selling those restaurants, Mitchell said he was going to rebuild the company’s EBITDA and signed seven new leases with a plan to build out a new national restaurant brand. And then the crash of 2008 happened.

“And the restaurants I thought were going to perform well didn’t and I ended up putting everything I had back into the company to keep it afloat,” says Mitchell, who was once again back on the edge. “We almost went off the edge of the cliff in ’09, and we didn’t build a restaurant in 2010. And we started to heal. And then in 2012, we continued to work and continue to grow and our [national] brand was doing well, but I thought it could do better. We did a brand overhaul in 2012 and 2013.”

Once that brand was refurbished, things were on the way up—which is the trajectory it’s been ever since. A few years back, the company opened restaurants in Boston, New York and Beverly Hills. “We’re one of the largest privately held, multi-concept restaurant companies in the country,” Mitchell says.

Company culture drives success

Mitchell really says the company culture is what drives the company forward, allowing it rank in the upper quartile in profitability against similar publicly-held restaurant companies and have well-above industry average rates of retention. He says he drives profit hard, but not at the expense of company culture.

“Most restaurant companies, you want say the guest comes first and that’s not true. I look at it as a triangular relationship. The company takes care of its people. Our people take care of our guests. Our guests take care of our company. And that’s kind of unique.”

Every associate—all 5,000—goes through an orientation about the company culture and values. Employees are given a survey twice per year on their opinions and culture of the company. The survey has 97 percent completion rate, Mitchell says.

“We will never ever let our culture not permeate through the deepest depths of our organization,” he says. “Our company culture and values is truly the most sacred thing we have in our company. We hold it on such high ground and tend to it every day, and it is truly the backbone of our success.”

Culture has never been more important for Mitchell because today’s challenges around retention are harder than ever before. Mitchell says companies like his can’t raise their prices fast enough to cover increased labor costs that have come out of this competitive environment.  “I couldn’t imagine operating in an environment without a great culture and great values, you’d be finished,” he says.

Along with retention, technology is another major challenge for Cameron Mitchell. He says the company has invested a lot in not just internal tech talent, but IT consultants and cybersecurity defenses as well. He also says the company is constantly adapting to stay on top of the ever-changing restaurant business. Luckily, the value and culture of the company is so that the company is constantly tweaking and improving what it’s trying to do.

“To build a successful company, you better be a values-driven organization and have a great company culture. And what I see all along, I even see it sometimes internally in our people, but I see people fall into the trap of running the business from their office,” says Mitchell.

Read more: Inside DaVita’s Corporate Culture: ‘A Community First And A Company Second’

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