If you are interested in the restaurant industry and what it’s like to develop a restaurant concept and expand it from one restaurant to many across the country. They have 3,000 employees and restaurants of a variety of different names, probably best known is Ocean Prime. Their portfolio of restaurants generates over $300 million a year in revenue in 60 different locations across 15 different restaurant themes.
Mitchell, a Culinary Institute of America graduate, just celebrated his 25th running the firm. The genesis of his Mitchell’s philosophy comes from his experience of trying to order a grilled cheese sandwich and a chocolate milk shake for his son in a restaurant in a very Jack Nicholson moment (Five Easy Pieces). He quickly came to the realization that being able to say yes to customers was the very premise of a good restaurant — and often for many a missed opportunity. Mitchell also reveals the secret of spotting talent and hiring great people. His approach is to hire entry-level employees, and then teach them the company’s culture and philosophy. CMR prefers to promote from within, with each new server or bartender looked at as a potential supervisor, manager, and VP.
BARRY RITHOLTZ, HOST, MASTERS IN BUSINESS: This week on the podcast, I have a special guest. His name is Cameron Mitchell, he is the author of a new book about his career in the restaurant industry and he also happens to be the founder and CEO and soon to be Chairman of Cameron Mitchell Restaurant Group.
I found our conversation quite fascinating. If you are interested in the restaurant industry and what it’s like to develop a restaurant concept and expand it from one restaurant to many across the country. They have 5000 employees and restaurants of a variety of different names probably best known is Ocean Prime, generate over $300 million a year in revenue, you’ll find this to be a fascinating conversation.
So with no further ado, my conversation with Cameron Mitchell.
My special guest today is Cameron Mitchell, he is the founder of the Cameron Mitchell Restaurant Group, now 25 years old and employing 5,000 people in 60 restaurants across the country, Cameron Mitchell Restaurant Group generates over $300 million in annual sales. Mr. Mitchell was named entrepreneur of the year by Ernst & Young as well as small business person of the year by the US SBA. He was also named to 50 New Tastemakers by the “Nation’s Restaurant News” magazine and he is the author most recently of “Yes is the Answer, How Faith In People and a Culture of Hospitality Built a Modern American Restaurant Company”, Cameron Mitchell, welcome to Bloomberg.
CAMERON MITCHELL, FOUNDER, CAMERON MITCHELL RESTAURANT GROUP: Thank you, Barry, it’s a pleasure to be here.
RITHOLTZ: So let’s discuss a little bit about your background. You didn’t seem when you were growing up like somebody who is going to find his way into a chef’s toque. How did you get interested in restaurants and cooking? It doesn’t appear this is something you are very passionate about as a child.
MITCHELL: No, it depends on how far back you want to go but I had a troubled childhood and troubled youth, and struggled in high school and ran away from home and dropped out of high school when I was 15. My folks were divorced and my mom didn’t have any money. And so when I came back in my junior year, I didn’t have any money for lunch money, she couldn’t give me lunch money, and I needed to work, I need to get a job and so I got a job in 1980 in a local steakhouse washing dishes for 2.65 an hour and did and bus tables and prepped a little bit through my junior and senior year in high school and that’s how I found my entrée into the restaurant business.
RITHOLTZ: So let’s talk about that, because you described in your book sort of being a terrible employee constantly being laid, you were suspended, you were put on 30 days’ notice, and you described an epiphany where you realized “hey this restaurant thing is really interesting.” What – explain what that moment was like and how it changed your whole life?
MITCHELL: Well I was – I just turned 19 at the time, I’ve been out of high school for about a year and I was living at home with mom working for beer money, working for the man, not a boy but not yet a man and just really squandering, and I was working two jobs in the restaurant business and I had trouble getting to work on time in the morning and I got from for a three-day suspension and 30 days probation.
So midway through that probationary period, and I’m just trying to figure out what I want to do in my life and I just have been struggling. And so I didn’t want to go right off to college because I don’t want to go to college not knowing what I wanted to do.
So I was suspended for three days, put on 30 days probation and during the middle of that probationary period, it was a Friday afternoon and it was during shift change, I was working as an am cook that day and a pm host at the same restaurant.
RITHOLTZ: Double shift?
MITCHELL: Yes, and that restaurant was a very busy restaurant, probably do a thousand people that day between lunch and dinner and 4 o’clock in the afternoon, shift change, the restaurant is half full, the bar is packed with happy hour, the am shift is trying to leave, the pm shift is trying to come on, the managers are barking orders and it’s kind of pandemonium in the kitchen, and time froze, I looked across the line in the kitchen and I said “I absolutely love this, this is what I’m going to do the rest of my life, I want to be in the restaurant business.”
So I worked my double shift and I went home that night and I wrote up my goals, I said I was going to go to the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, I heard about that, I’m 19 years old, and I was going to graduate, I was going to become an executive chef by the time I was 23, general manager at 24, regional manager at 26, vice president of operations at 30 and president of a restaurant company by the time I was 35.
RITHOLTZ: Those are ambitious.
MITCHELL: Yes, and I woke my mom up at one in the morning, said “I know what I want to do with myself the rest of my life.” and she was quite relieved needless to say and I got up the next morning and now I was working for my – did a complete 180 degree turn, I was working for myself, for my future, for my career, I have the best attitude in the kitchen, I was the hardest working guy in the kitchen, and the day before, I was the laziest guy in the kitchen, lousy attitude and working for the man and working for beer money.
RITHOLTZ: Now, you’re…
MITCHELL: 180 degree change, yes I guess so.
RITHOLTZ: So for people who may not have ever worked in the kitchen and I was a waiter and a short order cook in college, there’s really especially during a rush, there’s a tremendous amount of energy and sort of a controlled chaos, is that a good way to describe it?
MITCHELL: Exactly, that’s a great way to describe it.
RITHOLTZ: And for people who haven’t experienced it, I could see how there’s a tremendous lure there because it’s always different every day and there is so much stuff going on…
RITHOLTZ: What was it about that moment in time that had you flip from being the bum in the kitchen to the hardest working guy in the building?
MITCHELL: Well I just needed to find my way, I need to have my goal…
RITHOLTZ: That was a key difference.
MITCHELL: That was totally the key difference and once — you know, I’ve been goal oriented ever since, I still have on my desk today my fourth quarter goals for my career for the next 15 years. So I’ve been a goal setter since day one and it’s worked well for me and I’m still doing it today.
RITHOLTZ: So at the culinary Institute of America has been described as the Harvard of food prep, you had written “There are three kinds of CIA students, those who are going to be chefs, those who want to be in the restaurant business, and those who were lost.”
How did you know that you didn’t want to be a chef but wanted to actually be in the restaurant business?
MITCHELL: Well, it goes back to my goals, I knew I want to be president of a restaurant company and I said to myself…
RITHOLTZ: At 19.
MITCHELL: Yes, so I said if I’m going to be president of a restaurant company, I better know about food and I was already working in the kitchen but I didn’t know anything about food, so I said I’m going to go to the CIA and lean about food.
RITHOLTZ: And you – they turn you into a chef even if you don’t want to be a chef.
MITCHELL: Yes, yes.
RITHOLTZ: And if you want to be in the management side, they still teach you how to cook?
MITCHELL: Exactly, exactly, those fundamentals, and those basics I still work with today and have been formed the base for my knowledge to build my career from.
RITHOLTZ: Let’s discuss a little bit the process you go through in “Finding great people” a lot of executives say that’s the most challenging thing they do is hiring and sometimes you never know who is going to turn out to be great or not, you think you came up with a solution, tell us about it.
MITCHELL: The two questions I get asked thousands of times is where do you get such great people and how do you deliver such great service? And I tell people the answer is the same to essentially both questions, we get the same people everybody else gets.
I actually don’t think it’s that hard to get great people because I think everybody – we’re on a premise almost everybody’s great, we just treat people great and we inspire people to grow and learn and we care about them tremendously and they in turn care about us and they want to deliver great service and they get excited about our company, they want to build their career and it’s such a positive momentum that permeates the entire organization.
RITHOLTZ: So you don’t hire great people, you hire people and allow them to become great.
MITCHELL: Correct, that is exactly right.
RITHOLTZ: That seems like that’s a challenge to do. How do you take a regular person in jobs that could be long, tiring, stressful, and make sure that those folks always have a good attitude and always are striving for the sort of greatness you described?
MITCHELL: Well, I think those long hard hours, and having a great attitude is a standard image of the restaurant business if you will. But in our company, it’s not quite the same, our company, our number one value is “Our associates come first.”
I tell people that our company is built by its people for its people, we are not built for investors, we are not built for me, we are built for our people.
RITHOLTZ: You described in your book, a book that you found very influential which was “The Customer Comes Second” which is somewhat counterintuitive and very much not how the usual management books discuss treating customers, explain what “The Customer Comes Second” actually means to your corporate culture?
MITCHELL: Well, we’ve all heard “The customer comes first” that is preached almost everywhere and here I am, a CEO of a restaurant company, I would say our customers do not come first, our associates come first, I’m even brazen enough to say we don’t even have a direct relationship with our customers.
We have a direct relationship with the people we work with day in and day out, our customers who I call guests come to see us once a week, once a month, once a year, sometimes once in never god forbid, but we have a direct relationship with our people. So I look, I describe it as a triangular relationship. We take care of our people, our people take care of our guests and our guests take care of our company. So that’s how we do it.