« May 2007 Table of Contents
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
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
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
Why are you relying on seafood
to drive the company's
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
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'
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
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-
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
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
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