Cameron Mitchell credits his success to aggressive marketing and positive employee relations

Cameron Mitchell knew from a very young age that he was destined for the restaurant business, and once he had his plan in place, nothing could stop him. Today, Mitchell owns more than a dozen award-winning restaurant locations across the nation under the Cameron Mitchell Restaurants ( umbrella and shows no signs of slowing down. His concepts include Marcella’s Italian Kitchen and Martini Modern Italian, both in Columbus, Ohio, along with Cameron’s American Bistro, Molly Woo’s Asian Bistro, Cap City Fine Diner & Bar and Ocean Prime.

His success can be attributed to a combination of factors, including the company’s dedication to its employees, Mitchell’s natural-born marketing instincts and a deep love for the restaurant business.
Mitchell recently sat down for an interview with PMQ Pizza Magazine to discuss the challenges of running multiple concepts, his most successful promotions, and one of the biggest mistakes he has seen restaurant marketers make.

How did you get started in the restaurant business?
I started washing dishes as a junior in high school 32 years ago, and I fell in love with the business. After high school, I was working at a local restaurant in Columbus and had an epiphany that this was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life—I wanted to be in the restaurant business. I went home and wrote out my goals and woke my mom up at 1:00 in the morning and told her my plans to attend the Culinary Institute of America, become executive chef, general manager, then regional manager, then VP of operations. But the ultimate goal was to be president of a restaurant company by the time I was 35. So that’s what I pursued. By the time I was in my late 20s, I got hired as a sous chef at a local restaurant company, which had one restaurant. They built a second restaurant, and I became executive chef. Then, after four or five more restaurants, I grew into the general manager [role] and oversaw operations of six restaurants. I eventually hit my head on the ceiling and decided it was time to start my own restaurant company. We opened my first restaurant (Cameron’s) in October 1993, when I was 29 years old.

Wood-fired pizzas are among the signature menu items at Marcella’s Italian Kitchen, a Cameron Mitchell restaurant with two locations in Columbus, Ohio.

How did you get the idea to develop several different concepts?
I saw Rich Melman with Lettuce Entertain You, Buckhead Life Restaurant Group in Atlanta, and other multiconcept operators around the country. That’s where I got the idea and decided to become a multiconcept operator here in Columbus.

What are the pros and cons of a multiconcept setup?
In all the restaurants I equate it to the chassis being the same—the accounting system, the cultural philosophy, the way we operate, etc. The window dressing is the body of the car, meaning that, with each different concept, the window dressing changes a little bit. But you don’t get to focus on the brand like you do with a singular brand. Maybe you don’t get some of the same economies of scale, [which are the] results of singular focus. But for us, it’s more of a labor of love. We love the restaurant business, and whether I’m doing a great cheeseburger or a soufflé or anything in between, it’s a lot of fun.

Your restaurants run like well-oiled machines. To what do you attribute this success?
If there’s a secret at all, it’s our company values and culture. One of our guiding principles is that our associates come first. We don’t really have a direct relationship with the guest; we have a direct relationship with our associates. So I look at the guest relationship as a triangle. We take care of our people; our people take care of our guests; our guests take care of our company. So I think that’s unique. Most restaurant companies would probably say that the customer comes first. It’s not that we don’t care about great guest service—it’s paramount to any successful restaurant. But we achieve great guest service through taking care of our people and putting our people first. It’s all based on the “golden rule.” We’re not open on the major holidays because I don’t think our people want to work on those holidays. I don’t want to work on those holidays, so I don’t ask anyone else to work. People love working for our company, so they feel a duty to take care of the company. Also, making a profit is not our No. 1 goal. Our No. 1 goal is to maintain our culture and our values. I think the key to long-term success is to be a values-driven organization. Not that we don’t care about profit, but it’s job No. 1A, not job No. 1.

“For every one vegetarian dish we sell, we sell 10 gluten-free dishes. If you’re not doing gluten-free right now, you’re really behind the curve.”

How are the menus chosen for your concepts?
We travel the country and look at what’s going on. We try to keep fresh and study the trade magazines. Our corporate chefs have been with the company for a lot of years and know what’s needed to keep the menus fresh and invigorated.

What was your first experience with restaurant marketing? 
I guess I’m a natural-born marketer. I’ve always believed in the shotgun approach. I equate our marketing programs to being up in the crow’s nest with a .50-caliber machine gun, shooting at everything, as opposed to having a laserlike focus. My goal is to have something in the press every week, whether it’s a special promotion or a radio drop. We’re very aggressive marketers, but we spend only about 1% of our revenue on marketing, because, ultimately, the best form of restaurant marketing is execution at the table and word-of-mouth. We’re very aggressive on the local-store marketing level and in ad campaigns and marketing campaigns, and we always make sure to have something to talk about in our restaurants.

What do you think is the most important aspect of marketing in the restaurant business today?
Staying top-of-mind more than anything and giving your staff and your guests something to talk about.

Do you handle marketing differently in today’s economic climate? 
No, I just think we’re a little more sophisticated and have become better marketers over the years in deciding what works and what doesn’t work, which is hard to do.

What have been some of your more successful promotions?
We’ve done periodic discounting to generate trial of a restaurant, and then hopefully we’re able to maintain some of that business after the discount program. We do half-price wine nights on Mondays and Sunday spaghetti suppers. We like to reward our guests for being there.

How do you accommodate gluten-free customers?
We were pioneering gluten-free years ago. All of our restaurants offer gluten-free menus. The response has really surprised us. It used to be that you always made sure that you had a vegetarian item on the menu. Now, for every one vegetarian dish we sell, we sell 10 gluten-free dishes. A lot of people come to our restaurants specifically for the gluten-free offerings. I’m not sure what’s happening to cause this shift, but I think that if you’re not doing gluten-free right now, you’re really behind the curve.

How do you focus on your community?     
One of the pillars of our company culture is to support our community. We’re very charitable and have given millions of dollars over the years to our communities. We’re always involved in fundraisers and charity events. It’s the give-back that I think any responsible business would do. It’s a natural for us. We have an off-premise catering company that handles a lot of that, which was also a natural evolution of the business.

How long have you had the catering company?
About 10 years. It made sense to be able to handle parties, charitable events, etc. It’s been a terrific business for us over the years.

What advice do you have for today’s restaurant marketers?
Be aggressive. Try just about anything: radio and TV demonstrations, charitable events, etc.

What’s one of the biggest marketing mistakes restaurateurs make?
Placing ads in newspapers or magazines when the ad doesn’t really say anything, doesn’t make people think, doesn’t have a call to action, doesn’t represent the restaurant well and doesn’t help drive the identity. In all of our ads, we’re always working our company image. We have a healthy, strong image as a very charitable company and as a great company to work for. If we win an award as one of the best places to work, that in itself is a great marketing piece. The brand image is everything, and that takes years to build and days to ruin. We handle all of that with kid gloves and tend to it like a farmer would tend to his crops. 

Liz Barrett is PMQ’s editor at large.