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 a brand as revered as Cameron Mitchell, you may expect a pretty and proud path leading to the success of the franchise. But, you’d be wrong.
In an intimate sit-down interview with Mitchell himself, (614) dove into the restauranteurs challenging upbringing, desperate early adulthood, and eventual breakthrough that paved the way for his impressive career.
“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 began. “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.
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“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.”
At the end of his shift, he went home and mapped out the next decade of his life on paper.
He was accepted into the Culinary Institute of America in New York and took a job at 55 at Crosswoods upon returning to Columbus.
At the time, it 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.”
It was back to the drawing board but this time, he was going to be his own boss.
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.
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.
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.”
He reinstated some backers but because of the collapse of the previous deal, he lost some crucial funders.
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.”
By J.R. McMillan / (614) October, 2018