Cameron Mitchell is a name synonymous with restaurants in Columbus. Over the past twenty years, this restaurateur has successfully opened nearly 70 restaurants across eight states, including over a dozen here in Columbus that include popular destinations such as Cap City Fine Diner, Marcella’s Ristorante, M, and Martini Modern Italian.
After spending the past five years growing existing concepts into new markets across the US, Cameron is ready to unveil his first new concept in a half decade: The Pearl. Opening on February 5th, The Pearl is a cozy urban gastropub featuring high quality food in a laid-back atmosphere.
We had the opportunity to sit down with Cameron recently for an in-depth interview, where we talked about his early days in the business, how he achieved his life-long career goals, and why he thinks The Short North is the best location in Columbus for launching his latest restaurant venture.
Walker Evans: To start, let’s rewind all the way back to the beginning. When did the restaurant bug first bite you?
Cameron Mitchell: I started when I was a junior in High School, washing dishes at the Cork and Cleaver, which was up on Old Henderson Road where Hyde Park is now. I was working for spending money, but after High School I didn’t want to go off to college right away. One day in early 1982, I was working at Max & Erma’s and I had an epiphany during a busy Friday shift change. I realized that this is what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I went home and wrote out my goals: I’d go to college, make certain career steps and I was going to be president of a restaurant company by the time I was 35. So, I was working for beer money on Friday and working for my career on Saturday.
WE: How old were you when you made these decicions?
CM: I was 18. So, everything in my career has been geared towards being president of a restaurant company. I went through chef school, and then got into operations, and worked my way up from there. I had another epiphany in May of 1992. I was working for the 55 Group at the time as operations manager for our six restaurants and I was frustrated with the way things were going with the company. My boss was a good guy, but a micromanager. While I was in Spagio one night, Chef Hubert was working the dining room and I said to him that “I’m going to start my own restaurant company”. I left the 55 Group on July 11, 1992 and got my first restaurant open, which was Cameron’s of Worthington on October 5th, 1993. So we’re on our 20th year now and we’ll have opened 70 or so restaurants by the end of this year. It’s been a great run, and we’re still going.
WE: It sounds like you must enjoy it. But having made those first decisions at a very early age is something a lot of people aren’t able to commit to.
CM: Well, I was blessed for sure to know what I wanted to do. It made everything a straight line to where I was going. After I decided what I wanted to do, I really never “worked” a day after that. I come to work every day, but I don’t really delineate between this and spending time with my family or playing golf or travelling; it’s all the same to me. I just love what I do. I don’t really think of it as a job, it’s more of who I am. But all along I’ve said that if this gig doesn’t work out, I’m in big trouble because what else am I going to do?
WE: Some people decide early on that some day they want to open a single restaurant, but it sounds like you had the larger goal of running a restaurant company with multiple concepts from the beginning.
CM: I saw guys like Rich Melman in Chicago and other guys like him in most every major city where a local operator had multiple concepts. I saw that niche in Columbus, so it was never about just opening the first restaurant. It was about getting started. That’s what the first restaurant meant to me. We opened our second store 11 months later, which was Cameron’s of Bexley, but we never really made a dime out there. The third restaurant opportunity came along, and that was Cap City Diner and that was really a pivotal moment, because if that one didn’t go well I probably wouldn’t be able to raise any more capital to do anything. But Cap City took off like a house on fire and still to this very day is our busiest restaurant as far number of customers through the doors. That really solidified our foundation as a company. So then we opened Martini Downtown which also took off, and that’s when I was able to start hiring support people. We’ve been really blessed and fortunate to have a tremendous group of people that I work with who’ve known me for years. We’re really building the company together.
WE: You’ve got so many different concepts now, where do you draw inspiritation?
CM: We travel all over the place. When we planned The Pearl, we took our entire operations team and went to New York for a couple of days, then Chicago and DC. We read trade journals all the time and so we get pieces and parts from all sorts of different folks, which is sort of the way anyone in the industry does it. There’s very few original ideas left. It’s mostly something you put your own interpretation to it. We haven’t done a new concept in Columbus in five years because we’ve been busy building Ocean Prime and Rusty Bucket locations around the country and really didn’t have the time to focus on some new concepts.
WE: From a business perspective, how different is it between opening an existing concept in new markets versus launching a brand new concept in Columbus?
CM: There is not much difference if you think about it. You still have to find a site, you still have to design it and build it and go through all of those gyrations. The culture is the same, the operating and accounting systems are the same, human resource practices are the same, et cetera. With a new concept you don’t really know exactly what you’re building, so that’s a little different, and then there’s always the creation of the menu in a new concept. So there’s a learning curve with a new concept and there’s more mental capital that you have to put into it. It’s really all about the mental capital and energy you need to create rather than replicate.
WE: Do you find it more enjoyable to create a new concept?
CM: Yeah, to a certain extent, it’s more fun. I’m not really as interested in doing “Store #74″… I like the creation of something new much better. There’s a lot to be said about the focus that is created for just one brand. You really have a lot of laser-like focus, and that’s where the challenge comes in with multiconcept operations.
WE: When The Pearl was first announced, my immediate reaction was surprise, as it is located so close to Marcella’s. Are you worried at all about the proximity?
CM: The cannibalization? No, you can’t worry about that because someone was going to go into that spot either way, so it might as well have been us. The Pearl was actually a unique situation for us. When that space became available, we called up the property owner Mark Wood and said we want to do a restaurant there. He asked what we want to build there, and I said I had no idea. So we signed the lease without having any idea what we were going to build. We’ve never done that before. I just knew that since the Short North is doing so well, and with the new Hilton Hotel and Joseph coming across the street, and all the vibrant activity there, it’s a great restaurant location.
WE: You’ve got concepts in many different states. How does the restaurant scene or the food scene in Columbus compare to other cities where you operate?
CM: I think they’re all about the same to a certain extent. With the advent of The Food Network, it’s all really exploded everywhere. There’s a proliferation of culinary schools around the country, and I happen to be on the Board of the Culinary Institute of America, and our numbers are up. But again, with all of the cooking shows on The Food Network, there’s a huge amount of interest out there in food. I think the only difference in Columbus versus Los Angeles or Denver is that it’s really our form of entertainment for the most part. Other cities have some geographical features like oceans or mountains, so going out to eat in the midwest is a bigger part of the fabric of our society. And with people being more and more educated about food, it continues to drive the evolution of the business. You have to be on your game and you have to continue to strive and push yourself to be better and to change, because the whole scene is changing around us. We always want to be on edge of what’s happening. When we talk about The Pearl, we’re bringing to the table some new ideas and new twists on food and beverage that people haven’t seen in this city before.
WE: The grand opening of The Pearl is coming up on February 5th. Are there any specific things about this new concept that you’re really excited about?
CM: I have a laundry list of things I think are exciting about the new concept. But you know, it’s not new in a sense… it’s a gastropub. The term is relatively new, but the food is the same culinary technique and expertise that we use at M. It’s all fine dining culinary technique and everything is made from scratch with the utmost detail and delicacy, but its still tavern food and there’s a lot of whimsical things in there too. We’re very serious about the restaurant, but its not a serious restaurant. It’s a place where you can go and have fun and try new beers and cocktails. For example, our fried chicken is served with these great collard greens and a sticky bun as sort of a play on chicken and waffles. We have a raw bar, which again isn’t something new per se, but it flanks the bar and has a dozen seats to it and it’s a lot of fun. We’ve got some great hot and cold seafood coming off the raw bar area. We’re-barrel aging some of our liquor and doing some fun things with antique punch bowls where people can order a bowl for their whole table to share.
You know, I was at Curio the other night, and to me that’s the best bar in Columbus right now as far as taking cocktail science to another level goes. I tried this bourbon that was macerated with peanuts and served with a little bit of honey and curry with a single ice cube and it tasted like a Bit-O-Honey candy bar. It was terrific. So there’s some of those kinds of cocktails and unique presentations at The Pearl.
The other thing about The Pearl, is that when you think about a tavern, you come in from the cold and the windows are a little frosty and you’ve got this nice warm cozy tavern, and that’s what we want to be in the winter time. In the summer time the windows all open in the front and we want to open up to the street and be an indoor-outdoor place. It’ll have a couple of different faces throughout the year and the menu will change accordingly to the season. Our chefs have really put together a terrific menu and I’m really excited to see what the public thinks. Again, it doesn’t matter what I think. It matters what our guests think.
WE: Last but not least, what other local restaurants are on your radar right now, either new or long-time favorites?
CM: The Rossi is probably one of my favorites that I go to all the time with my wife. There’s some really great operators out there in Columbus. Liz Lessner is doing some great stuff, Craig Barnum is moving in a good direction and there’s Chris Doody with Piada. I haven’t been to Natalie’s Pizza yet, but I hear that’s great. Rigsby’s is always one of my standbys along with Lindey’s. And we try to get out there and explore a little bit. We had a fun time the other night in El Camino, and I really love the food right next door at Little Palace. And you throw in Dirty Frank’s right door and you’ve got a collection of those types of places to fit whatever your mood might be. That’s where Columbus is starting to get some depth to it.
WE: Sounds like a good list of current favorites. Thanks for taking the time today, Cameron.
CM: My pleasure.