How Faith in People Built a Restaurant Empire

A Q&A with Cameron Mitchell

November 7, 2018
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Free airline flights for an employee to spend time with her terminally ill sister. A manager who turns away a customer for mistreating a front-line worker. These are real-life stories from a company that has built a wildly successful business in the restaurant industry, which is known for high turnover and low morale. In Yes Is the Answer. What Is the Question? (Ideapress, 2018), Cameron Mitchell, CEO of Cameron Mitchell Restaurants (CMR) and chairman emeritus of the Culinary Institute of America, shares lessons he learned from building a successful business that employs 5,000 people in 60 restaurants across the country.

He recently spoke with HR Magazine's Book Blog about what makes his company unique and what business leaders in any industry can learn from his organization.

You were once a high school dropout and teenage runaway and are now a nationally renowned restaurateur. How did your early life shape how you run your businesses and how you lead?

My struggles early in life shaped me as a leader. All strong leaders have certain qualities such as perseverance and grit, but my rough start gave me an extra edge—a drive and determination to always advance and be better today than we were yesterday. I have overcome adversity and built a resilience that has gotten our company through some tough times.

My childhood, along with my life experience learning on the job, has been incredibly valuable to my success. My story also is an important reminder that we cannot judge someone's potential at such an early age and assume they won't amount to anything. I have a compassion for my associates and others who are working to grow and improve their situations. That's why I am so passionate about finding ways to help them succeed.

You write that the title of the book—Yes Is the Answer. What Is the Question?—has been the cornerstone of how you've done business since your earliest days. What does this philosophy mean to you?

Yes Is the Answer. What Is the Question? means an overarching attitude of "yes, we can do it." To say "no" requires no action and no thinking. We want to empower our associates to think and find ways to serve our guests that fulfill any reasonable request. It is our culture of "yes" that creates raving fans, and it is the difference between service and true, genuine hospitality.

I am reminded of an experience where wine-maker Michael Honig came to dine with us and he asked for a certain bottle of wine. We didn't have it at the time, so the server took it upon himself to go to the store down the street and purchase the wine. Michael was blown away. This is a great example of our culture of "yes" in action.

CMR has some of the highest retention rates in an industry known for high turnover. What's your secret?

Many people believe that when you choose a career in the restaurant business, you are choosing a career of long hours and low pay, with a poor quality of life. CMR has debunked this idea by building a restaurant company for its people, by its people. In fact, the national average for management turnover is 50 percent. Ours is 5 percent.

We all have ketchup in our blood. All one has to do is look to their left or their right and they will see an example of someone who has built their career with this company and has enjoyed the benefit of our great culture.

I have been told by our associates that they feel like they are a part of something larger than themselves and that that is very motivating. We take care of each other. In fact, when our Cap City Grandview remodel occurred, we decided it was the right thing to do to keep paying the associates even when the restaurant was shut down. We even placed some folks at our catering company, Cameron Mitchell Premier Events, to earn some extra money during that time.

You write that leaders should regularly tell employees about the state of the company's finances—especially when it's bad news. Why?

Open and honest communication builds trust. Bringing your people "under the tent" with you also underscores that you are operating with integrity. I believe people want to know what is going on in the company, good or bad. Understanding the whole picture creates tremendous buy-in.

Our associates always have access to the executive team and exposure to the CEO through two roundtables each year as well as open forums and, of course, an open-door policy. Also, our general managers participate in quarterly cabinet meetings with their staff.

If people understand what is happening, they are more likely to believe in the mission.

You believe that leaders should embrace their culture and values more deeply in a crisis and cite the 2008 Great Recession as an example. How did this philosophy get the company through that rock-bottom moment?

There were a few major things that saved our company during the recession. One is that we have fostered strong relationships with our vendors over the past 25 years, so they were more willing to offer extended grace periods for payments. We also were intentional about remaining open with our staff and communicating with them to ensure we didn't spiral into a toxic work environment.

At one point during the recession, I heard there were rumors going around about layoffs. I called an emergency staff meeting at the home office within five minutes. I told the team that I would cut the advertising budget before I would cut any people. And if we needed to cut more, I would leave the room and everyone could vote if we would all take pay cuts or lay some people off. It never came down to that, but if it did, I bet I know how our people would have voted.

This is an example of our culture at work during the hardest times. We get through it together.

You believe in the power of second chances, and you train your employees to follow the "3 A's." What are those A's, and why are they important?

We all make mistakes. If I fired people for making mistakes, I'd be the first person to go. No one in our company has made bigger mistakes than me. I say all the time the damage is usually not the mistake that was made but how it was handled afterward. When we make mistakes and use the 3 A's (Acknowledge, Apologize and Act) with humility and honesty, 95 percent of people can find a way to forgive us.

That said, there is a difference between mistakes of the mind versus mistakes of the heart. For example, when I heard that a chef was being verbally abusive to a server and calling her terrible things, that is a mistake of the heart and we have no tolerance for this kind of behavior. I escorted him off the premises within minutes of him admitting to it, even though we had no one to replace him. This was a defining moment in our culture.


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