In today's industry, millennial employees are often disregarded by senior leadership. At Cameron Mitchell Restaurants, it's just the opposite.

Perspective has led David Miller to hate the word millennial. He easily recalls the scene some two decades earlier, when he shared a table with Cameron Mitchell and tossed around aspirational ideas. The two young men relied on ambition more than experience, and those earnest beliefs poured the foundation for what would some day become one of the nation’s premier restaurant groups.

“Certainly we were the millennials, if you will, of our time,” Miller says.

Now the president of Cameron Mitchell Restaurants, a 26-restaurant, 13-concept organization, Miller understands the barriers of demographics. But instead of ignoring the gap between the company’s senior brass and its newcomers—chalking it up to “generational differences”—Miller wants to fill the divide in. Scrap that: he wants to construct a bridge.

“You’re always reading something about millennials, about their influence over today and their influence over tomorrow—in life, in the industry, in their values, and in everything they believe in and the differences they want to make,” Miller says. “Cameron felt that we needed to find a way to connect with these folks. And I fully agreed with him.”

Miller knows there’s mutual gain at stake, and he also identified one of the younger generation’s biggest gripes: that today’s job market, all too often, has both a creative and palpable ceiling. Cameron Mitchell’s answer to this was some good, old-fashioned competition.

The team created The Millennial Concept Challenge, an internal program that allows employees to conceive and develop an actual restaurant. Cameron Mitchell broke it up into three teams for three markets—Chicago, Denver, and New York City—and assigned an executive mentor to each squad. The winner will have their concept brought to life in the form of a pop-up restaurant in the company’s home market of Columbus, Ohio, sometime in 2017.

These groups include everyone from sous chefs to marketing managers. The genesis being, Miller says, to flip the employer-employee conversation on its head.

“We wanted it to be something where we’re not telling them what to do, they’re telling us what to do,” Miller says. “Instead of us putting boundaries on the thought process, we wanted people to feel like they have the ability in our organization to be entrepreneurial.”

Director of operators and operating partner Walter Carpenter joined the Chicago team. Regional chef and operating partner Ian Rough partnered with Denver, and regional chef and operating partner Michael Denton joined New York City.

Cameron Mitchell wanted the young employees to understand the entire process and learn first-hand what it takes to develop an effective concept. Ocean Primes don’t just materialize out of thin air.

Cameron Mitchell’s Ocean Prime concept.

“It’s like going to school. You have to figure out what you want to do and what you think is going to be relevant in five, 10 or 20 years from now,” Miller explains. The teams took trips to their respective markets and studied the landscape, trying to glean inspiration from the city and their surrounding competition.

In January, at an executive retreat, they will present their ideas to Cameron Mitchell executives, who will have 100 points to score the concepts based on the development trip, teamwork, menu, restaurant design, ROI, viability of concept, construction plan and budget, logo, name and marketing, sales modeling, and overall presentation.

Regardless of what happens, Miller plans to extend the experience to other outlets of the organization.

“If it goes as well as I think it will, I will have all three teams present their ideas to our general manager and executive chefs at their leadership conference,” Miller says. “It will show them just how powerful it is when you take down the walls and lead by vision, not by telling people what to do, but by sharing with them, and then allowing them to take that vision and run with it. They can see how powerful that message can be and how powerful people’s thoughts can be.”

Miller isn’t ruling out the possibility that the pop-up could become permanent, either. “If it’s something that we would want to do then we would do it, absolutely, and figure out a way to make it right for everybody,” he says.

But the overarching point of this exercise is likely to produce the real lasting impact. A couple of years ago, Mitchell and Miller took around 20 millennial managers to the National Restaurant Show in Chicago. They spent two days walking the floor, meeting with vendors, and taking in different educational sessions. Miller says it opened the employees’ eyes to how vast and diverse this industry is, and how much opportunity is available if you just reach for it.

“Trust me, I told [the millennial teams], ‘I guarantee we learn more from this than you will,’” Miller says. “The ability to challenge these young managers and give them the forum to think freely and have a voice, and be able to put their own creative thoughts forward is really going to be able to speak ways for everybody.”

There are around 3,000 employees at Cameron Mitchell, including 258 managers. Miller expects this event to be the start of an annual event, although he’s not sure where it will take place or how the details will evolve. Despite the logistics, he feels this is something the company needs to invest in to remain current and ensure longevity.

“That’s how this company was built,” he says. “It’s a collaborative effort. It’s a team effort. We need to empower and give all members of our team a voice in order to accomplish our goals and keep our company relevant for another 23 years—another 40 years. The only way you’re going to do that is by empowering our associates to feel like they’re part of an environment where they have that voice, and we’re more than willing to listen.”

Feature, Labor & Employees