The restaurateur's new book traces the ups and downs of his culinary career.
Cameron Mitchell’s success did not come easy. In his new book, Yes is the Answer. What is the Question?, the renowned restaurateur tells of his rough-and-tumble upbringing, of barely graduating from Upper Arlington High School, of losing his father just as the two were beginning to reconcile, of starting his restaurant career at Max & Erma’s, the jarring roller-coaster ride of success and disaster, then success again. Here are some of the ups and downs revealed in his book, which was released in November.
From Drug Dealing to Dishwashing
“Being on my own meant that I had to find work, and I was finished with my drug-dealing career, so I got a job as a dishwasher at a steakhouse called the Cork & Cleaver, making $2.65 an hour. I had no idea at the time what this would mean for the rest of my life. All junior year, I worked there for pocket money while struggling to get through school.”
The Dishonor Roll
“Despite being class president and senior class trip hero, I didn’t get to deliver a speech or walk with the class of 1981 on graduation day because I missed passing sophomore English by less than one point on my third try. After summer school, I finally graduated, ranking 592 out of 597 in my class. My grade point average was 1.05.”
Flirting with Disaster
After the sale of Mitchell’s Fish Markets to Ruth’s Chris for $92 million in 2008, Mitchell had about $10 million cash in the bank. “For the first [expansion], at the turn of millennium, I’d been young and made rookie mistakes, opening restaurants scattershot without understanding branding the company, selecting the sites and making a realistic plan. In 2008, after our sale to Ruth’s Chris, I drove an expansion based on my hubris and nearly led us to disaster.”
In 2009, he opened a Marcella’s in Arizona: “Marcella’s Scottsdale was a head-on disaster. As soon as I arrived, I could see that we’d made a grave mistake. The reality was sinking in that we’d opened a 10,000-square-foot pasta restaurant in the middle of a desert. This restaurant lost $100,000 the first month it was open and $100,000 every month after that.”
As Mitchell opened several new restaurants in the teeth of the Great Recession, he ran through all of his own money to keep the company afloat. “I was personally broke.” He owned his mistakes, though, telling his executive team, “It took some shitty entrepreneuring to get us into this situation, and it’s going to take some great entrepreneuring to get us out of it.”
Culture Is King
“By the end of the year , the most important thing was that we’d survived five grueling years of recession. I was very proud that we had not had any layoffs. I now felt we could face anything. Through difficult times, some of the most difficult of my career, our culture was not only alive and well, it was stronger than ever.”
JD Malone is a freelance writer.