What is your management style?
I’m definitely more of a macro manager. This is a business of a thousand details, and I’m detail-oriented—I have to be—but by the same token, I don’t like the minutia. For example, my desk is spotless; I have nothing on my desk except for a computer screen and my telephone. That’s kind of the way I operate, I don’t allow myself to get caught up in the minutia. I get great people to take care of it for me.”
You’ve said that any business has to have a mission and goals, what are yours?
Ours is quite simple: to thrive with fiscal and cultural responsibility. As the CEO of a restaurant company, you’d think my No. 1 goal would be to make a profit, but it’s not.
Our No. 1 goal is to maintain our company culture and values. We want to be around 50, 60, 70 years—and the only way we’re going to do that is to be a values-driven organization. I call it a 51:49 relationship: 51 percent of our goal is to maintain our culture and values; 49 percent of our goal is to make a profit—and make a damn good profit. We will never go for profit at the expense of values; I always leave a penny or a dollar on the table before I’ll sacrifice our values.
We have many goals, but the one that never changes is: to be better today than we were yesterday, and better tomorrow than we are today.
Tell us about your company values.
The core value statement that is most important to us is that our associates come first. You’d think I would say the guest comes first. We all know the Nordstrom rule: Rule No. 1, the guest is always right; Rule No. 2, refer back to Rule No. 1. In our organization, I don’t believe that.
In fact, I’ll even be as brazen as to say I don’t think we have a direct relationship with our guests. We have a direct relationship with our associates; we work with them day in and day out. They’re the ones who take care of our guests, and so I look at it as a triangular relationship: We take care of our people; our people take care of our guests; our guests will take care of our company. It’s not that I don’t care about guest services—it runs deep in my heart and I love to take care of people—but in order to achieve great guest service, we have to take care of our people first.
We have 4,000 associates in our company and we hire the same people everyone else does. The difference is we treat ’em great. They aren’t numbers; they’re real people.
A simple example of that is if an associate says her parents are coming in on Saturday night and she’d like off, we’d say the same thing every other restaurant company would say: If you get your shift covered, you can have Saturday off. The one thing we say that’s different is: If you can’t get the shift covered, plan on taking it off and just let us know. We’ll get it covered for you, but you try to get it covered first. What happens then is she’s not going to call in sick or lie to us. And, lo and behold, next week when we’re jammed up and others call in sick, she comes in extra to help us out.
It’s that Golden Rule, that two-way-street management that creates an unbelievable work environment. We have some of the lowest industry turnover and the average length of tenure on our management team is 16 years. That’s how we deliver genuine hospitality.
How is your restaurant group structured?
We operate like a holding company. There are four pillars of our business: our specialty restaurant group, our national brand Ocean Prime, our sister company Rusty Bucket Tavern, and our catering company. In the specialty group there are 11 concepts with a total of 14 restaurants, and we’re opening three more this year and six are slated to open in 2018. Ocean Prime has 14 locations, coast to coast, and Rusty Bucket Tavern has 24 units in five states.
The Rusty Bucket Tavern is a different partnership, but we run it and operate it through Cameron Mitchell Restaurants (CMR). One of my original partners asked me to help him start a sports bar, and I brought in one of our general managers at the time, Gary Callicoat, to run it. (I dated Gary’s sister for six years, and she and I didn’t work out, but Gary and I did.) CMR takes a 5 percent royalty fee/management fee and owns 25 percent of the Rusty Bucket. Gary runs the day-to-day operations and CMR does virtually everything else—accounting, real estate, development, marketing, human resources.
The catering business we just sort of backed into. We got so many requests and it was taking so much of our time that I asked one of our general managers if she’d start a catering company for us, which we did in 2002, and last year it did $15 million. You add up the top five caterers behind us in Columbus and, all totaled, they probably wouldn’t do that much, so it gives you an idea of our market share.
The point is: We’re a $250 million company and catering is less than 10 percent of our business—but here in Columbus, our $15 million is a big deal for us, and it’s highly profitable. We just spent $1.2 million expanding our catering facility. We now have a 20,000-square-foot catering facility with kitchen, offices, a huge warehouse, and eight trucks.