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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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What it’s like to work at Buckeye Donuts for 24 hours straight

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It was late. I didn’t plan it. It just happened. It always just happens, right? I don’t recall many of the details, but I know I left happy and satisfied, with a big smile on my face. From that moment on, I was in love—with Buckeye Donut that is.

For the uninitiated (assuming there are any of you out there) Buckeye Donuts is a 24 hour restaurant located in the campus area, on High Street. It’s a place to grab a quick meal on the cheap. But for a Columbus girl like me, Buckeye Donuts is so much more than just a place to eat. It’s a local institution. Nothing says “home” to me more than driving down High Street and spotting its big, red sign with the picture of a giant donut on it.

Buckeye Donuts is a gathering place to sit and talk about the weather, politics, or just about anything else on your mind over a plate of some very satisfying, down home comfort food. Eat there often enough, and the staff will start treating you like family.

So, one day, when my editor magazine came up with the idea to write about some of Columbus’ finest round the clock institutions, I shared my idea: I would try my hand at working there—for 24 hours straight! “Go for it,” he said. Somehow, the good folks at Buckeye Donut agreed, and before I knew it, I was there, ready to make it happen.

First Shift
“Go wash up or put some gloves on,” says Jimmy, the owner of my new place of employment for the next 24 hours. I chose the first option and headed off to the bathroom at the back of the kitchen, where I scrubbed like Leonardo DiCaprio in The Aviator. Beats a pair of latex gloves, two sizes too big for my hands.

7:00am
1970’s disco pours out of the sound system. The percolator pops in time to the beat as coffee bubbles out onto the burner. Bacon and eggs hiss and sizzle on the grill. Cookware clatters. Above the chaos, Jimmy’s mom Tula shouts out orders in Greek. It’s busy and the breakfast crowd is full of regulars. Jimmy introduces me to one named Johnny Boy. Johnny Boy has eaten there every day—sometimes twice a day—since the place opened in the 1970’s. He drinks ten coffees a day and eats four donuts.

7:30am
I meet Yanni, the head baker. He has been working here since 1977. He holds out a floury hand for me to shake. He is a master donut maker and
the backbone of the operation. I also meet Victor and Miguel, the first shift cooks. They are master chefs in their own right and their grill game shows it. I can already tell they will be great teachers.

8:00am
Jimmy asks me if I am ready to try my hand at preparing a couple of orders. Um, no. He convinces me to frost some freshly baked Buckeye Donuts instead. The iconic item is a crowd favorite, along with newer offerings like the maple bacon cream filled variety. Beside me, dough is being rolled out in giant sheets and glazes of all sorts are being prepared in vats. Frosting donuts seems simple enough: fill a spoon and spread. It melts on contact and oozes down the sides and onto the countertop, leaving me with a chocolate mess. Yanni comes to my rescue.

8:30am
I switch to the grill and squirt a generous amount of liquid butter (literally the grease that keeps the wheels of Buckeye Donut spinning) onto the surface. My first hash browns look decent but I flub the omelet flip, so into the trash can it goes. Victor nudges me aside and prepares a textbook version.

10:30am
The restaurant slows down enough for Jimmy to give me a crash course on sandwich prep. I do my best to turn out gyros, Philly steak and Greek sausage. After rolling five or six, I feel like I’ve got the hang of it. At least, if I’m making one order at a time.

11:00am
Lunch break. I have the falafel wrap—a pita filled with grilled veggies, onion, lettuce, tomato and tahini sauce. It’s pretty good, but the falafel is overcooked and the wrap comes undone, causing some to land in my lap. I’ve got no one to blame but myself—I made it.

12:30pm
The lunch rush is in full swing. Johnny boy is back, along with another regular, known as Yanni the Maintenance Guy. He got this name because he fixes things at the restaurant as often as he eats there. Jimmy pauses from his orders long enough to tell me the story about the time Andy, a nightshift manager who happens to live upstairs, passed out drunk with his shower running. Water came pouring through the kitchen ceiling right in the middle of donut production. It was Yanni who came and saved the day.

Second Shift
16 hours to go! My feet hurt and my face is greasy but thanks to all the donuts I’ve sampled, my blood sugar is soaring and I’m feeling pretty damn good.

5:00pm
The dinner crowd has begun to arrive and Dave and Gary, the second shift cooks are getting ready for action. “Want to clean the grill” Dave asks? Ugh. I roll up my sleeves and do it. Shower please!

6:00pm
Some other important customers have arrived. My kids. One laughs. The other two look shocked. Do I look that bad? I serve them perfectly formed glazed donuts and milk – no doubt the best ones I have made all day.

6:30pm
The dinner rush is still going strong. The next order is mine and I’m shaking. Seating is limited, so the goal is always to get people in and out quick. I give it my best shot.

7:30pm
My best friend shows up and I fix her a perfect veggie wrap and fries. She is impressed. Thank goodness somebody is!

Third Shift
It’s getting late and I’m getting nervous. Not too much longer before the crazies start coming. During a brief lull, the night crew takes a moment to tell me about the time a baller limo pulled up at 2am and Prince got out. “He spent half an hour in the bathroom and then ordered donuts for his entire entourage,” they explained.

11pm
The calm before the storm. As I brace myself for the bar rush, I remember that today just happens to be Friday the 13th. I start thinking about every horrible thing my friends and I did to restaurant employees back when we were teenagers. My karma is coming for me. I can feel it. I pray silently that Curtis, Bunny and the rest of the late crew will have my back.

Midnight
I dare not sit down for fear of falling asleep. I start to open my heart and mind to the coming chaos. I need it. It’s my only hope of staying awake.

2am
The witching hour is well in the rearview. And just like that, they start to come. The talk is louder and orders crazier than during the day. There are tables full of booze soaked college students. Laughter rings out and F-bombs fly. The place is packed and I help out in the kitchen. My wraps are Instagram-worthy! Bring it on!

3am
An OSU t-shirt wearing kid orders and a few minutes later, his food is in his lap He is hunched over. I have come to call this the Buckeye Donut lean. He’s pale and in bad shape. Gary, the late cook fixes him a new plate, on the house. Once he gets some of it in his stomach, his color improves and smiles woozily at his friends. Thankfully, it all stays in his belly and he and his wasted buddies hit the door. All hail Gary, the savior of the night shift.

4 am
The late rush is over and the staff receives deliveries. Yanni is back and donut production is in full swing again. Overall, it was a pretty tame night. No fights or thrown food. Everyone who works at Buckeye Donuts has stories. “Back in the old days, the cops would typically come rolling in around midnight, and the ambulance would get here by two,” Gary explains. But for now, all is well.

5-6am
This period is little more in my memory now than a distant and faded spell of delirium punctuated by black coffee. I recall my ramblings on a litany of subjects ranging from the bizarre to the intellectual only because I’ve recorded them in voice memo.

7am
I made it! 24 hours at Buckeye Donut! Jimmy is back and he slaps me a high five. I stumble to the bathroom sink where I had scrubbed in the morning before, splash water on my grease soaked face and somehow manage to drive home.

After 24 hours on the inside, I can still say that Buckeye Donut is one of my favorite places to eat. Why? Because its more than just a place to grab food. It’s an experience. It’s filled with people from all walks of life, all looking for a little bit of happiness and community—like a microcosm of the city itself. And although its not always perfect, it’s a beautiful thing. Just ask Jimmy.

Oh, and if you have never been there, get going! Trust me, you will never forget your first time.

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Food & Drink

“Eco-chic” healthy eats restaurant opening in Easton

614now Staff

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Searching for the truth? Find it at Easton's newest restaurant.

True Food Kitchen is a relaxed, "eco-chic," health-conscious food chain opening at 4052 Worth Ave. this spring, according to the company website.

Without sacrificing flavor, creativity, or indulgence, True Food Kitchen offers vegan, vegetarian, and gluten-friendly options on its brunch, lunch, and dinner menus.

Guests can enjoy their gluten-friendly Lasagna Bolognese or vegetarian pizza from the bright dining area or outdoor covered patio.

Craving a cold libation with your meal? Hit up the scratch bar featuring fresh-pressed fruit and vegetable juices, seasonal cocktails, local beer, and wine.

To learn more about True Food Kitchen Columbus, click here.

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Tastebud Traveling: Free tasting event coming to North Market

614now Staff

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Take a family tastebud trip with the return of Kalamata’s Kitchen Tasting Tour at the North Market this weekend.

Kalamata’s Kitchen will kick off a 12-month, 12-city tasting tour in Columbus on Saturday, February 22. This premier event for kids and families will feature tasty bites from North Market vendors representing food from around the world.

According to a release, every child participant is treated like a VIP as they discover new foods and learn about unique perspectives from celebrated chefs. Kids receive a VIP badge and a Food Adventure Passport that is stamped each time they try a new food. They will also have the opportunity to meet Sarah Thomas, co-founder and author of the Kalamata’s Kitchen book series.

This event is free and open to the public.

For more information, visit kalamataskitchen.com and/or northmarket.com.

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