Q&A with Ocean Prime’s Cameron Mitchell
The mega-restaurateur on why Naples for his latest upscale bastion of seafood and steak.
Cameron Mitchell in The Guild House, one of his restaurants in Columbus, Ohio
On-point timing aside, members of the local food community really did feel like kids at Christmas awaiting the Dec. 19 opening of Ocean Prime on Fifth Avenue South. The restaurant, which overlooks the picturesque Sudgen Plaza (perennially adorned with twinkle lights) in Old Naples, is a national chain—but it’s a tier-one luxury chain, dahling. All of the steaks are USDA Prime, the seafood is fresh and everything is cooked from scratch on-site. The kitchen is also known to cater to any whim (want a butter cake that’s not actually on the menu? Just ask; it’s a best-seller in the Tampa location).
A figure whose inescapable presence permeates every aspect of the experience—most importantly the can-do (and customer-is-always-right) approach to service—is Cameron Mitchell, the Ohio-based restaurateur with 14 concepts in his Midwestern empire (several restaurants have multiple locations, and with the exception of Ocean Prime and a few others, most are in and around the Columbus area).
Every employee training for any Cameron Mitchell restaurant includes the milkshake story: Years ago when his family was dining out and his young son wanted a milkshake and was told no, Mitchell vowed not to do that in his own restaurants. If you have a blender, ice cream and milk, why not give the person what he wants?
For tales from that cornerstone to his background as a chef to why Naples has personal significance to Mitchell, read on.
Gulfshore Life: Tell us how you decided to expand Ocean Prime into Naples.
Cameron Mitchell: We’ve wanted to be here for years. We’ve been looking for five years. We were hot-to-trot on the Capital Grille spot in Mercato, and when we didn’t get that, we looked elsewhere and waited.
Once of my best friends—mentor, surrogate father, golfing buddy—he lived here in Naples. His winter home was in Naples, and he wanted us down here in the worst way. I was down here in March visiting him; he passed away in May; and we got the call from Phil [McCabe, the owner of the Inn on Fifth in which Ocean Prime is located] in the middle of June. And you can extrapolate if that was divine intervention.
There are lot of people from the Midwest who come down here. This one is personal for me. I have a place in Siesta Key. I’m down here a lot—I come down here to play golf. It’s an extension of our Midwestern values.
Gulfshore Life: It’s impressive that you have a chef background and graduated from the Culinary Institute of America. How involved are you with the various restaurants?
Cameron Mitchell: I have a chef background, but I knew that I wanted to be the president of a restaurant company from when I was a kid.
Yes, I was an executive chef, but I mainly went to culinary school to learn about the food side of the food business.
Our corporate chef started here in 1999 and is one of the most junior members of our company. We have a great culinary team in the organization. I used to lead that group up until a few years ago. Menu, concept, direction—I’m still involved in that across the board. But on the same token, I let our people run with the ball.
Gulfshore Life: The name "Ocean Prime" reflects the restaurant’s focus on a mix of dishes from the land and sea. When you started it, did you envision an even balance, or the scales tipping slightly to one side?
Cameron Mitchell: In different markets, it’s different. I assume we’ll sell more fish here. It’s usually a 60/40 range meat vs. seafood. Tampa is seafood-heavy.
The concept was the combining of a great steakhouse with a great seafood house with a great cocktail bar and hospitality—and therein lies the challenge.
Gulfshore Life: What’s your favorite dish?
Cameron Mitchell: I know it’s a weird answer, but I don’t have a favorite dish. Unfortunately, I can’t look at food that way. I look at it scientifically—I notice everything from the way it is cooked to the way it is plated. It’s hard to sit back and say, “It’s just really great.” I can’t achieve that per se. I love all food, and I love good food. And I’m just as critical about my own food as others’ food.
Gulfshore Life: One of the basic tenets of your company is the milkshake principle you speak so often about. It involves a request from your son when he was a child. Is he now involved in Cameron Mitchell Restaurants?
Cameron Mitchell: No. He’s my oldest. He just started Fordham University in New York City. He wants to be in high-end fashion merchandising—he’s working at Bergdorf Goodman right now, and he’s met the CEO. He’s a hustler. He’s a good kid, and that’s what he wants to do. All three of my kids, I say to them, I don’t care what it is, I want you to follow your passion. There’s no pressure. I was lucky to do that myself.
Gulfshore Life: It’s impressive how much service plays into the corporate culture of your company. How do you impress that upon everyone?
Cameron Mitchell: We’re in a very difficult labor market in the United States. If you’re not taking care of your people, they won’t stay. We had 3,000 applicants for 120 positions. Our turnover is literally less than half of what the industry is, and it’s because we treat our people great. We hire the same people as everyone else, but we just treat them great and turn people onto the concept of great hospitality.
Yes, it’s hard. But follow the golden rule and treat people with respect and dignity, and they’ll do the same. They have to know how much we care first.
Gulfshore Life: How does Ocean Prime fit into the framework of the company?
Cameron Mitchell: It’s our national brand. It’s our nicest car in the garage. I personally don’t delineate or rank them, but it is our flagship brand—our highest dollars, our highest revenue, everything. But it doesn’t mean the other restaurants are second-class citizens. I love all of our restaurants. I get excited over them all. The fact of the matter is we’re all the same level in the company. They’re all important. Those restaurants all contribute the growth of the company and the growth of the people working there.
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