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Pedal to the Kettle

It’s mid-afternoon in Grandview. A grey food truck dozes outside a brewery, its generator putt-putting gently above the rear bumper. A grill sizzles and the air is punctuated by bright, intermittent singing. Inside the truck, Brian Thornton is doing what he does best: jammin’, creating great food, and being his own boss. Oh, and making [...]
Jeni Ruisch

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It’s mid-afternoon in Grandview. A grey food truck dozes outside a brewery, its generator putt-putting gently above the rear bumper. A grill sizzles and the air is punctuated by bright, intermittent singing. Inside the truck, Brian Thornton is doing what he does best: jammin’, creating great food, and being his own boss.

Oh, and making the best damn potato chips in the land.

A Hilliard native, Thornton attended the Cooking and Hospitality Institute of Chicago, before returning to his native city to serve some time in the restaurant trenches. After honing his craft in Columbus brick-and-mortars like Hyde Park and The Refectory, Thornton struck out on his own to create the Oh! Burgers food truck, where he sells a multitude of creatively-topped mini burgers. Years behind a line in a kitchen have their way of grizzling most people, and turning their bright, starry eyes into coal in their sockets. Not Thornton. He keeps his cool under heat and pressure, and he’s taking his positive attitude into the big leagues when he opens a potato chip factory this fall in the heart of downtown.

From the start, he made his own chips from scratch to accompany the burgers he was serving, but pretty soon, the crunchy side dish stole the spotlight.

“I was selling out,” he said. “I couldn’t keep up with demand, so I purchased a larger fryer and talked Food Fort into letting me run it in their kitchen. Laura Lee (owner of Korean street food truck Ajumama) really pushed me to start making kettle chips. That’s where my first specialty chips came from…they were Korean barbeque.”

Thornton’s strengths lie in his creative recipes and his tie-ins with other local businesses: spent grain chips from North High Brewing, taking grains from the brewing process and grinding them up in a coffee grinder to use for seasoning; tomato basil chips from Blue Olive food truck; and barbeque chips for Kenny’s Meat Wagon.

Thornton tries to stay crisp by doing specialty chips for himself, like garlic parmesan and cinnamon sweet potato chips. Once the plant fires up this fall, there are plans for “Black Bag” chips, seasonal flavors produced for a few month run, akin to seasonal beers from craft brewers.

The OH! Chips facility will be a full-scale manufacturing and distribution center for his crunchy creations, and will initially employ about four people, but that may change quickly.

As for distribution, the aim is small retail markets like Hills and Weiland’s, or co-ops like those in Clintonville and Bexley. The cost of shelf space at the chain supermarkets coupled with the local-centric attitude of the clientele at the small shops made it an easy decision, Thornton said.
“We want to stay out of the big grocery stores. The competition is fierce in potato chips. I’m not going into an easy market. I figure if I can get people to try them at restaurants first, and off the food truck, that’s how we’re going to build a solid brand.”

Thornton is poised at the beginning of a project that could eventually evolve into a big facility. Oaks from tiny acorns grow, and soon, Columbus will have its very own potato chip factory.

For more, visit www.facebook.com/OHChips, or follow @OH_Chips on Twitter.

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Restaurants

Candid Cameron

Let’s be honest. You’re probably better off not knowing what happens behind the scenes in most restaurants. But sometimes you should. And that’s the case with Cameron Mitchell Restaurants, whose bona fide empire of Columbus-based brands has arguably enhanced our culinary scene’s national credibility. From Cap City to The Pearl, Marcella’s to Molly Woo’s—on the [...]
J.R. McMillan

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Let’s be honest. You’re probably better off not knowing what happens behind the scenes in most restaurants. But sometimes you should. And that’s the case with Cameron Mitchell Restaurants, whose bona fide empire of Columbus-based brands has arguably enhanced our culinary scene’s national credibility.

From Cap City to The Pearl, Marcella’s to Molly Woo’s—on the surface, their concepts couldn’t be more different. The thread that binds them together is their training, and not just the kind you get in the kitchen or on the house floor.

Between colossal chains and dinky diners, the American restaurant industry is absolutely inordinate, racking up more in annual sales than airlines, agriculture, and the movie industry combined. Nearly half of us have worked in food service at some point. Often it’s our first job, something on the side when times are tight, or just enough hours in retirement to stay active and connected to our community.

But for others, it’s a first calling, or a passion stumbled into on the way to something else. And if that’s you, Cameron Mitchell might be the best mentor in Columbus—maybe anywhere—because he’s been there.

There’s a fine line between corporate culture and a corporate cult, and I have to confess as an outsider slipping into the second story ballroom at The Joseph among the new staff of the then pending Harvey & Ed’s, I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect. I’d paid my dues decades ago on both sides of the grill, but never in posh digs like these. I presumed it would be all about teambuilding and imbuing everyone with a shared purpose. But it was much more intimate and illuminating than I ever anticipated.

Cameron Mitchell Restaurants fosters legendary loyalty, with most leadership promoted from within. But how they build that fierce following has always been behind a curtain. Would it go too far and get weird? Should I be ready for some trust falls or prepare for a trunk full of kitsch and delusional enthusiasm like those leaving an Amway seminar?

Fortunately, this wasn’t either of those scenarios, far from it. And it was surely no canned college orientation either, though the sense of camaraderie was pretty close. No, that loyalty starts with the guy whose name is on every paycheck—Cameron Mitchell, the headliner and head honcho all rolled into one.

With a brand that has become locally synonymous with fine dining, Cameron Mitchell wasn’t supposed to succeed by every empirical predictor. He didn’t have the grades, the money, or the work ethic to keep a job, much less create them. (His restaurant ranks now top 4,000 employees and counting.)

It’s an unlikely story, but one he shares with a surprising honesty and humility with those just starting out in the industry he’s helped to innovate, despite his early struggles and shortcomings, personal and professional.

 

“I remember coming home from school when I was nine and asking my mom when my dad was coming home, and she said, ‘He’s not’,” Mitchell recalled. “That’s how I learned my parents were splitting up.”

He saw less and less of his father over time before fading from the picture entirely, and the stress of the situation often put him at odds with his mother. School wasn’t a priority and by junior high he’d already fallen in with the wrong crowd—smoking, drinking, and worse.

“I was spiraling downward. My mom and I were fighting constantly. I came home one day and she said, ‘Tomorrow we have a meeting with Franklin County Childrens Services; we’re going to straighten you out,’” he revealed. “I wasn’t really sure what that meant, but I didn’t like it. So when she left for work the next morning, I took everything I could and moved out.”

Mitchell settled in a tiny apartment near campus that was a flophouse for runaways, over-occupied to keep everyone’s share of the rent low. He was only 15-years-old, and on his own.

“I’d work odd jobs, mow lawns. I stole and sold drugs,” he confessed. “At one point, I hadn’t eaten for a few days, so bought a 27-cent box of macaroni and cheese and made it without any milk or butter, just water. I was a troubled kid, on the run.”

Out of money and options, Mitchell eventually returned and reconciled with his mother. He went back to school the following day, wearing a dress shirt and slacks, the only clothes he’d left behind, having come home with only jeans and the t-shirt on his back.

“My mom was an administrative assistant, and my dad had quit sending any child support, so she literally couldn’t afford to send me lunch money,” he admitted. “For a while, I worked in the school cafeteria just to earn enough to eat there.”

He picked up a part-time job after school washing dishes at a local steakhouse, but his grades still suffered. He failed the same English composition course three times and wasn’t able to walk for graduation, only barely earning a diploma after summer school.

“I graduated 592nd out of 597 in my class with a GPA of 1.05; only because I got one C—in public speaking,” he chided. “That’s when I went to work at Max & Erma’s as a fry cook.”

Back in 1981, Max & Erma’s wasn’t the struggling shadow of its former self that it is today. Some nights they’d serve upwards of 1,000 guests on a weekend. It was bustling and brisk, with an energy Mitchell ultimately embraced after his friends mostly left for college or better jobs elsewhere.

“I was working a double shift, an AM cook and a PM host, on a Friday afternoon. The place was about half full at 4 p.m. during the shift change, and the bar was already packed. There was pandemonium in the kitchen. The managers were barking orders, and I looked out across the line and time froze,” he recalled. “I decided this was what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. I wanted to be in the restaurant business.”

The “laziest guy in the kitchen,” by his own admission, had finally found his calling and wasted no time. At the end of his shift, he went home and mapped out the next decade of his life on paper, as well as the goals it would take to get there, from executive chef to president of a restaurant company.

After picking up a couple of classes at Columbus State, he was accepted at the Culinary Institute of America in New York after an initial rejection due to his lackluster high school performance. Returning to Columbus, he landed a new job at 55 at Crosswoods, the restaurant group’s second location, which at the time was among the premiere white tablecloth restaurants in the city. From sous chef to executive chef by age 23, general manager a year later, and an operations executive by 28, his unlikely rise reached a hard and sudden stop.

“I started hitting my head on the ceiling. I knew my boss wasn’t going anywhere, and it was a hip-pocket business for a group of investors who really didn’t care about the restaurants,” he explained. “I was waiting on a friend for drinks watching patrons and employees pass by when I had another epiphany. If I wanted to become president of a restaurant group, I should start my own.”

Mitchell tapped into the insight of his younger self, this time mapping out the future of the company that would ultimately bear his name. Though most won’t believe it, Cameron Mitchell Restaurants was started out of an apartment at The Continent with a few thousands dollars in savings and a yellow legal pad.

Now with industry connections and a proven track record, he pulled together a business plan and the financing needed to make his destiny a reality. But it nearly fell apart, twice.

“It was never my goal to open just one restaurant. This was the start of something bigger. I found a space near the North Market and put a deal together,” he revealed. “I’d raised $600k for the project, and we were ready to sign the lease. Then the landlord went silent on me.”

Mitchell was bootstrapping the project with every dime he could scrape together just as his fears were confirmed. The building’s owner was filing for bankruptcy. The bank was taking it over and had no interest in assuming any further risk with a first-time restaurateur still shy of 30.

The setback was crushing, worse by having come so close. Mitchell started sending investors back their checks. He’d put everything into the project, even moving back into his mother’s condo, but practically living at Kinko’s. There was another space in Worthington he’d initially discounted when he couldn’t pull the financing together fast enough. But because of the legalities of creating a company, he essentially had to start over from scratch.

“I’d already dismissed it, but then their tenant fell through. I met with the landlord, who took a liking to me and decided to take a chance,” he admitted. “I was rolling change on my mother’s dining room table to have enough money for groceries. It was do or die.”

Enough investors still had faith in the restaurant concept to get close to the necessary funding to move forward. But the change in location and way the previous deal collapsed forced some to sit this one out. Mitchell was still short and scrambled to schedule one final meeting with a prospective investor to close the gap the day before the financing was due.

“He asked me how much. I told him I only needed $30k, hoping I might get half of it and have enough to buy some more time to raise the rest,” he confessed. “He wrote me a personal check for $30k and told me to buy more stock in the company for myself. That’s when I knew I’d get my start.”

Cameron Mitchell Restaurants was born, and that first project that nearly never happened, is Cameron’s American Bistro, celebrating its 25th anniversary this October.

Since then, new concepts have become part of the family, as well as a catering company and their own restaurant construction business. Rusty Bucket Restaurant and Tavern and Ocean Prime have expanded the brand nationwide.

“I think it’s important to know the history of the company, one based on people. Associates come first. Associates take care of the guests, guests take care of the company,” he explained. “That’s the key, a company built on culture and values—not on me—one that I hope will survive long after I’m gone.”

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Restaurants

You’ll Have What You’re Having

It’d be easy to hear a handful of quotes from Veritas owner/chef Josh Dalton and get the wrong idea. A rigid ideology. Fiercely-trained specs on quality control. A less-than-light dusting of profanity lacing his passionate, on-the-fly speeches about culinary excellence—in Columbus and beyond. He cares about his staff more than he does his reputation, and [...]
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It’d be easy to hear a handful of quotes from Veritas owner/chef Josh Dalton and get the wrong idea.

A rigid ideology. Fiercely-trained specs on quality control. A less-than-light dusting of profanity lacing his passionate, on-the-fly speeches about culinary excellence—in Columbus and beyond.

He cares about his staff more than he does his reputation, and now, in a move that many are already defining as “ballsy,” he’s doing once again trying to set a new tone for chefs and restaurateurs in the city.

He’s getting rid of his menu.

I don’t mean he’s changing it for the season.

It’s gone. 86’d.

From this fall on, when you walk into Veritas, you’re in the capable hands of Dalton and his talented team’s two tasting menus; the only question you’ll need to answer is: how much money and how many dishes. As much as moving entirely to a no-choice menu might seem to indicate an egotist lording power over his plebian patrons, it’s actually quite logical, coming from Dalton’s vantage point.

With each tasting menu being dictated by the season’s offerings and what’s on-hand and fresh, Dalton insists his staff will be able to care for the customer better—but not having to cater to each of their individual preferences.

Part of that is weighted in Dalton’s preference as a customer, where other restaurants, in his mind, are his chance to turn-off-and-tuck-in to someone else’s cooking.

“You have enough shit to worry about throughout the day,” he said. “What time do I need to pick this up? What time is this meeting? Why don’t you just stop, relax, and enjoy the company that you’re with and let me worry about the next two hours of your life?”

Veritas, who made their much heralded move downtown from their mini-but-mighty space in Delaware, is also partially making the adjustment after beginning this phase with an a la carte menu riding shotgun with a pricier, multi-course tasting menu. Often diners would order a la carte by the pair, and in a desire for more, would sometimes order two more, and two more after that, causing havoc in a kitchen that’s also potentially following a nine-course meal for diners at different time intervals.

“The hard thing here is we don’t really know [what] to prep for,” he said. “On one night we’ll have four tasting menus and then you start putting in ala carte and now people are waiting longer and it really wasn’t the experience we wanted to offer to people. So by taking it down and doing these tasting menus, we really get to dictate and determine what menu they want, exactly how long it should take, what kind of portions are coming out, and when to fire things.”

Translation: the new plan replaces guesswork with guest work.

“I want everything to be looked at or scrutinized,” Dalton said. “I want us to be making the decision; I don’t want the guest making the decision.”

This is where an interview with Dalton always gets fun. Some may find it a little prickly, but I often find it refreshing. He’s doing something very specific, but also something he’s passionate about sharing with a large audience. His stridency on principles and approach appear to be as much about setting healthy expectations as anything. And for those who have been, or may be off-put by such limited choice in their meal, there is a quintessential Dalton response to that, too. He gets it—but that doesn’t mean he’s prepared to change it.

“I do believe that sometimes it’s good to ‘fire’ a customer,” he said. “It’s good for business and it’s good for the morale of the team. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not in the habit of asking people to leave, but sometimes [whether] it be they don’t understand what we’re doing, or they just want to complain or they treat the staff like shit, it’s okay to say, ‘You know what? This isn’t a relationship that is going to be positive.”

He’s fielded those complaints a few times since Veritas’s opening, happy to point them in the direction of other like-minded chefs like Watershed’s Jack Moore or Service Bar’s Avishar Barua, for those wanting creative fare, but through a traditional infrastructure.

“There’s only so much space in this building that you can’t offer everything to everyone,” he said. “You gotta find what your principles are and stick to them. We know we’re not for everybody, but there’s a difference between giving everyone what they want and hospitality. We are in the hospitality business. We need to care about people, we need to consistently meet their needs. It’s not a matter of them being right, or us being right, or them being wrong, or us being wrong—I think that’s where people have that offset connection. This is the hospitality business. My business is to make sure that you are taken care of and that you enjoy your time.

“We sell experience—that’s the most important thing.”

Oh, and you’ll be sold some of the finest food anytone is serving in Central Ohio, consistently for half a decade now heralded as the best in the region. There’s no telling what the menu will be from now until the end of the year, as Dalton is clearly unafraid of tweaking his own formula. It’s about the guests and the food, equally, and if diners enjoyed the brown butter ice cream topped with caviar as much as we did, it’s an experience that will your belly with something more memorable that that clamshell you forgot about in the fridge.

In a way, increasing quality by limiting choice has already been embraced by Columbus, as evidenced by the appeal of food trucks and pop-ups that now dot the culinary landscape.

“If you go somewhere and there’s 30 things on the menu, you should probably get up and leave because how are they going to make all 30 of those things at least decent?” Dalton said. “If there’s four things on the menu—that’s where you want to eat. Those four things are going to be amazing.” 

 

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Restaurants

You’ll Have What You’re Having

It’d be easy to hear a handful of quotes from Veritas owner/chef Josh Dalton and get the wrong idea. A rigid ideology. Fiercely-trained specs on quality control. A less-than-light dusting of profanity lacing his passionate, on-the-fly speeches about culinary excellence—in Columbus and beyond. He cares about his staff more than he does his reputation, and [...]
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It’d be easy to hear a handful of quotes from Veritas owner/chef Josh Dalton and get the wrong idea.

A rigid ideology. Fiercely-trained specs on quality control. A less-than-light dusting of profanity lacing his passionate, on-the-fly speeches about culinary excellence—in Columbus and beyond.

He cares about his staff more than he does his reputation, and now, in a move that many are already defining as “ballsy,” he’s doing once again trying to set a new tone for chefs and restaurateurs in the city.

He’s getting rid of his menu.

I don’t mean he’s changing it for the season.

It’s gone. 86’d.

From this fall on, when you walk into Veritas, you’re in the capable hands of Dalton and his talented team’s two tasting menus; the only question you’ll need to answer is: how much money and how many dishes. As much as moving entirely to a no-choice menu might seem to indicate an egotist lording power over his plebian patrons, it’s actually quite logical, coming from Dalton’s vantage point.

With each tasting menu being dictated by the season’s offerings and what’s on-hand and fresh, Dalton insists his staff will be able to care for the customer better—but not having to cater to each of their individual preferences.

Part of that is weighted in Dalton’s preference as a customer, where other restaurants, in his mind, are his chance to turn-off-and-tuck-in to someone else’s cooking.

“You have enough shit to worry about throughout the day,” he said. “What time do I need to pick this up? What time is this meeting? Why don’t you just stop, relax, and enjoy the company that you’re with and let me worry about the next two hours of your life?”

Veritas, who made their much heralded move downtown from their mini-but-mighty space in Delaware, is also partially making the adjustment after beginning this phase with an a la carte menu riding shotgun with a pricier, multi-course tasting menu. Often diners would order a la carte by the pair, and in a desire for more, would sometimes order two more, and two more after that, causing havoc in a kitchen that’s also potentially following a nine-course meal for diners at different time intervals.

“The hard thing here is we don’t really know [what] to prep for,” he said. “On one night we’ll have four tasting menus and then you start putting in ala carte and now people are waiting longer and it really wasn’t the experience we wanted to offer to people. So by taking it down and doing these tasting menus, we really get to dictate and determine what menu they want, exactly how long it should take, what kind of portions are coming out, and when to fire things.”

Translation: the new plan replaces guesswork with guest work.

“I want everything to be looked at or scrutinized,” Dalton said. “I want us to be making the decision; I don’t want the guest making the decision.”

This is where an interview with Dalton always gets fun. Some may find it a little prickly, but I often find it refreshing. He’s doing something very specific, but also something he’s passionate about sharing with a large audience. His stridency on principles and approach appear to be as much about setting healthy expectations as anything. And for those who have been, or may be off-put by such limited choice in their meal, there is a quintessential Dalton response to that, too. He gets it—but that doesn’t mean he’s prepared to change it.

“I do believe that sometimes it’s good to ‘fire’ a customer,” he said. “It’s good for business and it’s good for the morale of the team. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not in the habit of asking people to leave, but sometimes [whether] it be they don’t understand what we’re doing, or they just want to complain or they treat the staff like shit, it’s okay to say, ‘You know what? This isn’t a relationship that is going to be positive.”

He’s fielded those complaints a few times since Veritas’s opening, happy to point them in the direction of other like-minded chefs like Watershed’s Jack Moore or Service Bar’s Avishar Barua, for those wanting creative fare, but through a traditional infrastructure.

“There’s only so much space in this building that you can’t offer everything to everyone,” he said. “You gotta find what your principles are and stick to them. We know we’re not for everybody, but there’s a difference between giving everyone what they want and hospitality. We are in the hospitality business. We need to care about people, we need to consistently meet their needs. It’s not a matter of them being right, or us being right, or them being wrong, or us being wrong—I think that’s where people have that offset connection. This is the hospitality business. My business is to make sure that you are taken care of and that you enjoy your time.

“We sell experience—that’s the most important thing.”

Oh, and you’ll be sold some of the finest food anytone is serving in Central Ohio, consistently for half a decade now heralded as the best in the region. There’s no telling what the menu will be from now until the end of the year, as Dalton is clearly unafraid of tweaking his own formula. It’s about the guests and the food, equally, and if diners enjoyed the brown butter ice cream topped with caviar as much as we did, it’s an experience that will your belly with something more memorable that that clamshell you forgot about in the fridge.

In a way, increasing quality by limiting choice has already been embraced by Columbus, as evidenced by the appeal of food trucks and pop-ups that now dot the culinary landscape.

“If you go somewhere and there’s 30 things on the menu, you should probably get up and leave because how are they going to make all 30 of those things at least decent?” Dalton said. “If there’s four things on the menu—that’s where you want to eat. Those four things are going to be amazing.” 

 

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