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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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Food & Drink

Italian Lebanese hybrid restaurant coming to German Village

Regina Fox

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What do you get when you cross Italian food with Lebanese fare? Bistrolino.

The new hybrid restaurant will take over the spot formerly occupied by Harvest Pizzeria at 495 S 4th St. in German Village. A December open date is expected.

Columbus Business First reports Bistrolino is owned by Samer Chedid and Francesco Todisco, who worked together at Aladdin's Eatery. As immigrants, Chedid will bring is Lebanon roots to the concept, while Todisco will contribute his Italian influence.

Todisco told Columbus Business First the menu will be small, offering single-serving baking dishes including zucchini parmesan, braciola, and a Lebanese flatbread called man'oushe.

Keep an eye on Bistrolino's Facebook for updates.

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Food & Drink

Taft’s on Draft: Cinci Brewporium opens first Columbus location in Franklinton

Linda Lee Baird

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After hearing all the hype about Cincinnati’s up-and-coming Over the Rhine neighborhood a few years back, I went to see it for myself. The first stop was Taft’s Ale House, a gigantic brewery inside of a church originally built in 1850, fully renovated for guests’ reveling pleasure. After spending the next few hours sampling beverages and snacking on beer cheese pretzels, I was inclined to believe the neighborhood hype. Did I fully explore OTR that night? I don’t actually remember. But I’m certain that I had a great time at Taft’s. So when I found out that Taft’s was coming to Columbus, the news sounded even sweeter than their Maverick Chocolate Porter.

Taft’s Brewpourium Columbus spans nearly 6,000 square feet in the Gravity development, including over 2,000 square feet of patio space. Like the development itself, Taft’s is building an artistic theme into its new offering. “Our actual design is going to be kind of focused on ‘80s/‘90s pop art,” said David Kassling, Managing Partner for Taft’s Brewing Company. “Being that Franklinton definitely has its art roots, we think that’s a great way to ingrain ourself in the community.”

Kassling said that the word brewpourium literally means the place where the brew is poured. That they’ve chosen to make “brewpourium” part of their name tells you everything you need to know about what Taft’s wants to be known for: its carefully crafted suds. The brewpourium will have at least 10 taps serving Taft’s original varieties, including its signature Gavel Banger IPA, which was voted best beer in Cincinnati last March by the city’s residents.

Taft’s will offer a full food menu as well. Kassling is particularly proud to introduce New Haven-style pizza to Columbus. “We’re recreating a style that doesn’t exist anywhere else in Ohio,” he said. (The style is also known as apizza, which is pronounced "a piece," as in, I’d like a piece of that crisp coal-red cheesy goodness right now, please.) Kassling describes it as a cross between New York and Neapolitan style. Taft’s version features our and tomatoes imported from Italy.

Rounding out the menu is another ‘90s-inspired treat, this time in dessert form. Remember Dunkaroos, those cookies that came in a package with icing designed for dipping, perhaps consumed while you watched episodes of Saved By the Bell? Taft’s will serve up Taftaroos, its unique take on the snack.

Kassling plans to use the brewpourium’s large space to offer patrons activities beyond food and drink. The stage will be open for games of darts when not in use for performances. On the floor, guests will find shufflepuck and Killer Queen, an arcade game utilizing 8-bit graphics in line with the old-school theme. Video game fans will also find gaming stations inlaid in the bar, with several retro options to choose from.

With three Cincinnati locations in operation, Kassling is not new to the business. Even so, expanding to Columbus marks a milestone, and one he wasn’t always seeking to meet. “We didn’t necessarily look at this as we needed to expand to a new city or we needed to expand to Columbus,” he said.

But when the opportunity to join the Gravity Project presented itself, Kassling said it proved too good to pass up. “We’re really excited, not only because of the nature of the building being so modern and unique, not just to Columbus, but to anywhere. But also the shape of our space is funky, and that led to different ideas in what we wanted to do with our build out.”

Kassling acknowledged that in coming to Columbus, Taft’s is joining a few of our communities: the community of Franklinton, to be sure, but also the well-established community of independent breweries operating across the city. An installation built into Taft’s countertop will pay homage to this fact, incorporating crushed cans and packaging from breweries like Seventh Son, Land-Grant, and North High. “It’s gonna be totally an art piece,” he said.

Rather than focusing on the potentially competitive aspect of the brewing scene, Kassling emphasized the camaraderie and common goals within the industry. “At the end of the day, craft beer is a great way to bring people together,” he said. “And at the end of the day, we’re all preaching community and good times.”

While Taft’s new location may not be in a church, Kassling’s words are the type of preaching that I can get behind.

Taft’s Brewpourium Columbus is located at 440 W Broad St. in the Gravity project. For more details about Taft’s, visit taftsalehouse.com.

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Food & Drink

New “relaxed” wine house now open in Dublin

614now Staff

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Next time you're in Dublin, make sure to stop and smell the rosé at the city's newest wine bar. Coast Wine House recently opened at 75 S High St., offering a contemporary wine bar + bottle shop inspired by a blend of the spirit of coastal California and traditional wine country cafés, markets, and bodegas, according to the website.

Coast assures they don't take themselves too seriously "in contrast to the conventional wine world," describes the website.

"The mood is decidedly relaxed. The wine is pleasantly chilled," Coast says.

The wine bar is run by Dustin Snow, who his wife, Molly, believes brings a "warm and relaxed" feel to Coast.

"A visit to our house is by no means fancy, but Dustin makes it special, because he genuinely wants to make you feel at home," she wrote on Instagram. "And since Coast is an extension of our home you will have this same warm and relaxed experience."

https://www.instagram.com/p/B2r1Q5OgbAT/

Coast is open Wednesday and Thursday from 12pm- 9pm, Friday and Saturday from 12pm- 10pm, and closed Sunday through Tuesday. To learn more visit coastwinehouse.com.

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