At the height of the coronavirus pandemic in March 2020, Cameron Mitchell Restaurants ceased operations and furloughed 4,500 employees. It was a low point unfathomable before COVID-19.
But today, the multi-concept group has recovered and is a leading model of how operators can attack and overcome a pandemic, as well as the buzzing labor shortage. The secret, CMR says, lies in its culture, which resulted in an estimated 50 percent retention rate for hourly employees.
Originally, founder Cameron Mitchell set out to create a restaurant company that was employee-driven, built by its people for its people, group president and COO David Miller says. Twenty-five years ago, when Miller joined, he did not foresee CMR growing to nearly 100 restaurants.
But concerning the past year, Miller is straightforward. In one word, getting through COVID was “horrible,” he says. However, the pandemic finally appears to be in the company’s rearview.
And the culture that distinguished CMR held steady. Cameron Mitchell restaurants are closed for seven major holidays each year. As Miller says, how can he expect to spend holidays like the Fourth of July with family and friends and then expect others to work?
In essence, Miller says the restaurant group has fostered a “warm, genuine hospitality from the heart” that CMR is known for. When employees feel well-compensated and have an enjoyable work environment, they will do an extraordinary job, Miller adds. In fact, the restaurant group doesn’t even call workers employees.
“I think if we had kept it open that six-week period of time, we could have really bled our cash and hurt our ability to reopen the way we were opened,” Miller says. “What it enabled us to do is regroup and understand what we are dealing with.”
What started as a decision solely for safety reasons revealed itself to be the company’s right step forward. Carryout orders soared 400 percent, and managers were able to secure raises for both 2021 and 2020.
Even with an employee-first culture at its foundation, the labor shortage is the most challenging dynamic Miller has faced in his career. Still, for him, it comes down to perspective. He’d much rather deal with a hiring shortage than close down restaurants and put people on unemployment lines.
“We call our employees ‘associates,’” Miller says. “We don’t call them employees; associates are your partner in business and employees are not.”
For six weeks during COVID, CMR shut down. Slowly, the company began to reopen and gifted employees with proceeds from gift cards and a $600,000 fund for groceries. The company also continued to pay insurance for employees who qualified.
“You imagine having heart challenges or going through cancer treatments or obviously, getting sick with COVID,” Miller says. “Not having insurance would have been horrible.”
One of the smartest things CMR did, Miller says, was to cease operations, as difficult as the call was to make. While the company could have attempted to stay open with a skeleton crew and carryout orders, if the group did, CMR might be in a far different situation.
To meet the increased demand in restaurants and limited supply of workers, CMR revitalized what it offers to potential employees. For example, it lowered the insurance qualifying number of hours worked to 25.
“We’re recruiting, we’re changing our benefits, we’re adjusting our pay, we’re doing everything we have to do to make sure that we are appealing to every potential great associate out there to get them to come work for Cameron Mitchell restaurants,” Miller says.
Here’s a breakdown:
- Referral bonus incentives
- 50 percent off discounts
- Closed seven major holidays (as noted)
- 401K, health benefits
- Relocation benefits
- Competitive wages for non-tipped associates based on their experience, anywhere from $15–$25-plus/hour depending on the position and location
- $500 signing bonus at select locations
- President’s roundtable
- Cabinet meetings (hourly associates’ meeting with general manager)
- Pulse Surveys
- Onboarding surveys and exit interviews.
- Culture Club events company wide, including hosting an annual Taco Throw Down at the Home Office where all associates are welcome to come with their families for a fun event full of eating, drinking and music, Holiday Parties, team outings.
- Leadership conferences throughout the year for every level of management, these are thee-day events filled with training, food, drinks and team building.
In fact, the culture of CMR is ingrained now more than ever due to the pandemic, Miller adds.
“You go through a horrific thing like COVID, it does one of two things,” he says. “It either brings your team closer together or pushes you apart, and our culture has brought us closer together.”
The best advertising you can get, Miller says, is praise coming from your workers. For CMR, it’s the camaraderie and employee appreciation for the work environment that brings a tangible reality to the company’s stated values.
“I can give you a nice beautiful red book: it’s about our culture and philosophy,” Miller says. “It’s a nice book, you carry it on you and that has all our values in it. But if we don’t act upon that every single day in our restaurants, it’s just a piece of paper.”
The group boasts a “Pass the Plate” program that enables employees to try different positions out within the company. For example, a line cook could shadow a GM for a day. It also offers a relocation option that gives managers an opportunity to experience new cities across the country in the 14 states CMR operates in.
A strong culture will only benefit CMR as it opens five new restaurants this year and looks ahead to growing at around the same rate next year. Both new concepts and the expansion of existing brands will be in the mix. The next two locations to receive a new Cameron Mitchell dining experience will be Kansas City, Missouri, and Naples, Florida.
Only time will tell how connected the labor shortage remains to unemployment benefits. Miller says CMR has seen an uptick in job applications, but many restaurant staff members pursued other careers when their former workplaces were shuttered by government orders and safety precautions. Miller believes once the fall comes around, the restaurant industry will continue to heal and grow, including more people returning to work at restaurants.
He rejects the idea that there will be any lasting effects from the hiring shortage that will hurt the industry. He says restaurant managers must find the best ways to manage their business, whether it’s by closing on Mondays so the restaurant is staffed efficiently the other six days a week or managing the number of reservations available to create an appropriate volume.
Some restaurants ran head first into being reopened, immediately trying to capture all the business they could since they lost so much money in the months after COVID. But this can have unforeseen consequences.
“The challenge you have with that is that if you’re not staffed for it, you’re not going to execute,” Miller says. “You’re not going to be able to deliver a great guest experience, but we will manage our business to handle the volume that we can do with the staff we currently have.”
Execution is vital, as Miller believes a restaurant is only as good as the last plate served. The restaurant company remains confident this value will serve it well as more and more consumers look to restaurants for a social experience again.
“We are very bullish on the restaurant industry over the years in front of us and I think the country and the world truly has a profound appreciation for the restaurant business like they never had before because it got thrusted and pulled away from everybody overnight and they missed it, and they missed the social interaction.”