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One on One: Cameron Mitchell

By James Wright
May 01, 2007

Cameron Mitchell's success in the restaurant industry has exceeded even his own expectations. As a teenager, the Columbus, Ohio, native mapped out his future late one night after a shift washing dishes at a local steak house. His goals were lofty: Graduate from the Culinary Institute of America - which he did in 1986 - and, by the age of 35, become president of a restaurant company.

It seems he was a little ahead of schedule. Mitchell, president and founder of the privately held Cameron Mitchell Restaurants in Columbus, climbed the corporate ladder at The 55 Restaurant Group, also in Columbus, until he "ran out of rungs." Mitchell ventured out on his own in 1993 with Cameron's, a contemporary American bistro.

Today, Mitchell, 43, oversees 28 restaurants in eight states and has more on the way. While there are nine different concepts that operate under the company umbrella, Mitchell's Fish Market is the chief expansion vehicle.

CMR operates 15 upscale Mitchell's Fish Markets with three more openings slated later this year. The menu is updated twice a day and is dotted with the specific harvest ports of the day's fresh-fish selections. There are even compass points etched on the walls for the seafaring guests.

The company is enjoying success with its mainly Midwest customer base. After generating $106 million in sales in 2006, Mitchell says 2007 could eclipse $125 million. I caught up with Mitchell in March to talk about seafood and its important role at his restaurants.

WRIGHT: As a one-time dishwasher who became a company president, do you teach your employees that they can climb the company ladder?

MITCHELL: Absolutely, I wouldn't have it any other way. In fact, 85 percent of managerial associates started as hourly associates - cooks, line cooks, servers - and we're proud of that fact. The 
upward mobility of our team 
is phenomenal.

 

How much time do you spend 
in R&D kitchens?

Not much, but what I do is serve on a panel for new-items tasting. I'm just one person, and I care what 100 people think, not just one. When we do tastings, I'm just one opinion, like everyone else.

 

Why are you relying on seafood 
to drive the company's success?

Clearly our No. 1 concept is the Fish Market. We decided a long time ago that we were pretty good at it and I've been to seafood restaurants everywhere - Boston, San Diego, Miami. We're profitable at it, too; we have a good economic model. We love being a seafood restaurant. I've always had a passion for seafood.

Why do Fish Market menus list seafood origins?

Mostly it's for marketing purposes to add a bit of romance for the guests, to show that we're bringing [great seafood] to them. It furthers the concept and further enhances the guests' experience.

 

What is your philosophy 
on sourcing seafood?

We want to bring seafood from the coast quickly and easily to protect its integrity. We want Lexus-quality fish that's straight from the ocean to the menu. What differentiates us is we have a separate butcher and prep room for fish. It's a refrigerated kitchen set at 35 degrees. There's true market differential there. We may get the same fish as our competitors, but we know ours is not coming out of the prep room until it's ready to be served.

 

What percentage of your fish is fresh vs. frozen? Does it vary by season?

We shy away from frozen products with the preference for the freshest products for our guests. At least with finfish; we do buy frozen king crab. But when fresh Lake Erie walleye season is over, we're out.

 

Do you buy seafood with 
sustainability in mind?

Absolutely. Our thoughts are sustainability first. As the years go on, there are more options open to us. We serve Chilean sea bass harvested in South Georgia that is certified by the Marine Stewardship Council. Two years ago we switched from Atlantic cod to Pacific cod. The average guest may not see it, but many realize the reasons behind those changes.

 

What makes Mitchell's Fish Market successful in the Midwest?

A couple of things come to mind. The largest fashion retailer in the world is not based in New York, but Columbus, Ohio: Limited Brands. I keep that in mind with what we're doing. With shipping and technology, and the speed at which product is moved, there's little difference in the quality of the product that we get than what they get in Boston. From there, it's what we do with the product that sets us apart. None of our competitors do what we do with the dedicated fish kitchen. It's a 250-square-
foot space.

When you add it all up, you're talking about hundreds of thousands of dollars of investments to ensure quality and freshness. Whether you're in Indianapolis or Seattle or Columbus, the process that we deliver is unparalleled.

 

You're tapping into new markets 
like New England and Florida, where seafood restaurants abound. Does your strategy differ for these regions?

Our No. 1 volume [restaurant] is in Detroit; No. 2 is in Tampa, Fla. We feel we've broken the ice in Florida. At many coastal areas, the restaurants are kitschy, mom-and-pop style.

That is what we're not. [Fried fish] is just one aspect of our menu, but we're broader and up to scale with our presentation. In Tampa, we use more Gulf Coast fish like pompano. In the Great Lakes, we'll do walleye pike. That's where the "regionality" comes into play, but it's a small part of the overall picture. There's a deviation of maybe 5 percent [from region to region].

 

What will Cameron Mitchell 
Restaurants look like in 10 years?

Growth is the exhaust of running a great company. We have no specific numeric goals. Our goal is to be an extraordinarily good restaurant company.

 

Assistant Editor James Wright can be 
e-mailed at jwright@divcom.com

 

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