Backed by restaurateur Cameron Mitchell, the state-of-the-art facility has the potential to grow the workforce pipeline through high-quality yet affordable educational programs.
The idea of culinary education can be a divisive one in the restaurant world. Some may argue that chefs need formal instruction to execute at a high level while others insist that on-the-job experience far outweighs any classroom training.
But restaurateur Cameron Mitchell doesn’t view it as an adversarial dynamic but rather a complementary one. “That's the beauty of the restaurant business,” he says. “You don't need a master's degree or four-year degree to be successful in the restaurant business; I'm living proof of that. But I always say the [Culinary Institute of America] laid the foundation for me to build my career. That foundation is not absolutely essential, but it certainly helps. The stronger the foundation, the stronger the career can be.”
It was this conviction that led Mitchell to become involved in Columbus State College’s new School of Hospitality Management & Culinary Arts, which debuted in August 2019. Not only did the new school boast a larger, state-of-the-art facility, it also more than tripled its student body capacity.
The entrepreneur behind Cameron Mitchell Restaurants (CMR) began his foodservice career as many do. Mitchell worked as a dishwasher to earn “beer money” but quickly realized the restaurant world was where he wanted to build a career. He applied to the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) but was rejected, which he credits to poor high school grades. So he took some courses at Columbus State Community College in Columbus, Ohio, to boost his GPA and then reapplied to the CIA, this time gaining admission.
In the years to come, Mitchell would go on to establish an award-winning restaurant group, which today comprises 18 different concepts with locations across more than a dozen states. In reflecting on his career, Mitchell says he feels a strong sense of gratitude and pride toward both the CIA and Columbus State College (the latter recently dropped “community” from its moniker, given that its size—some 30,000 students—rivals many four-year universities).
So when the president of Columbus State approached Mitchell about building a new hall and expanding its culinary program in 2014, he was eager to join the project. He already had close ties to the school through an eponymous scholarship but saw an opportunity to do more for the school and the greater restaurant industry.
“I did it first and foremost to give back to this industry. I'm a large supporter and donor at the CIA and gave a tremendous amount back to that, but I really felt I could make a much bigger impact on the industry here in Columbus through Columbus State,” he says.
Cameron, along with CMR president and chief operating officer David Miller, led the charge in raising $10 million for the school, $2.5 million of which he donated.
Columbus State’s new School of Hospitality Management & Culinary Arts held its first semester of classes in the new building, named Mitchell Hall, in fall 2019. At 80,000 square feet, the building is more akin to something found at the CIA or other college dedicated solely to culinary curriculum. The facility boasts four state-of-the-art teaching kitchens, a beverage lab, baking lab, innovation kitchen, and a culinary theater among other amenities. Mitchell is especially fond of the main concourse, which serves as a central hub for the culinary school.
“You know when you go to someone's house or a party, everybody congregates in the kitchen? This is really the kitchen of the Columbus State community. So we built the building to allow for all that congregation,” he says. “There are lots of airy, open spaces for students to sit and mingle and do their work.”
But for all its visual appeal, Mitchell Hall is ultimately a place for hands-on education. In addition to its teaching kitchens, students gain real-world experience at two on-site concepts that are professionally managed, student-staffed, and open to the general public. Degrees restaurant puts a gourmet twist on American classics like fried chicken sandwich, cheeseburger, and carrot ravioli while Blend Cafe & Bakery serves coffee as well as cafe fare like sandwiches, soups, and pastries.
Before Mitchell Hall opened, Columbus State’s culinary program was capped at 350 students; now its capacity is closer to 1,500. And just as its physical capacity expanded so too has its curriculum. The school has long offered concentrations in culinary arts, baking and pastry arts, and restaurant and foodservice management, but it is now developing new courses and certificates in niche areas like mixology, brewery science, hotel management, and wedding management/catering.
The upgrade to Columbus State’s culinary program comes at a time when four-year universities are coming under scrutiny, in part due to the mounting national student debt. Even if industry leaders like Mitchell extoll the value of a formal education in a foodservice career, pricy degrees can be a tough pill to swallow, especially when prospective students see a debt-free path in on-the-job training. The hope for Mitchell Hall is that it offers an attractive alternative wherein culinary and foodservice management students can pursue a formal education but at a lower cost.
“The CIA is very expensive. It is a world-class hospitality management school and culinary arts school. I wanted to create a facility here in Columbus that could access 80 percent of that education with 80 percent less cost to the students,” Mitchell says. “This allows young people to get the best education they can right here in their backyard.”
It’s not uncommon for industry leaders, whether they be C-suite executives, restaurateurs, or chefs, to collaborate with educational institutions but the level of Mitchell’s involvement is rarer. Though his primary motivation was to give back to the industry and the Columbus restaurant community, he also sees a long-term benefit for CMR and other restaurants. By offering a high-quality education at an affordable cost, Columbus State is filling the hiring pipeline with qualified individuals who already have the fundamental skills and knowledge base. And given how acute the workforce shortage has become, there’s a certain urgency in building the next generation of foodservice professionals.
“When we started this process [in 2014], there was a labor shortage, but nothing like we have today. This is kind of Armageddon right now. It's everywhere,” Mitchell says. While the labor shortage is a complex problem that goes beyond foodservice specifically, Mitchell does see education programs helping stabilize conditions now and in the future. To wit, CMR has a number of students and alumni on staff.
Columbus State’s School of Hospitality Management & Culinary Arts only enjoyed one semester of “normal” operations before COVID-19 came into play. The school held no in-person classes in spring 2020 but was able to delay labs to the summer when some students returned to campus (others had the option to do labs at home). As of fall 2021 enrollment was at 600, which is still less than half capacity. But after pandemic-era hiccups the school is gaining momentum and continuing to grow. For his part, Mitchell is proud of what they’ve accomplished. He hopes other restaurateurs will take note and perhaps follow this example.
“At the end of the day, the $2.5 million and all the energy and sweat and hard work we put into it—you can't put a price tag on that. We'll get more out of this than we ever dreamed possible,” Mitchell says. “I would encourage other companies out there to think about how they can make an impact. The more we make an impact on this wonderful industry, the more we get in return. It just goes full circle.”