Four entrepreneurs who already made it big once talk about building another success story after the first act is over.It’s hard enough building just one successful career in this business, let alone follow up your initial attempt with yet another one. We’d like to introduce you to four entrepreneurs who managed to do just that: Cameron Mitchell in Columbus; Bob Amick in Atlanta; Paul Fleming in San Francisco; and Damian Mandola in Austin. Each found success—and then set out to find it again.
Cameron Mitchell, Cameron Mitchell Restaurants
Unload to rebuild
In November, Cameron Mitchell reached a deal to sell two-thirds of the multi-concept restaurant company he’d spent 14 years building to Ruth’s Chris Steak House, Inc. Sale price: a cool $94 million. Such a windfall might send another person in search of R&R someplace tropical. But Mitchell, 44, was back at work the next day, jazzed about being debt-free and flush enough to plow money into three new concepts he’s confident will take his downsized Cameron Mitchell Restaurants even farther, faster. “We’re going to ramp right back up,” he says.
True blue restaurant entrepreneurs get their kicks creating and building. But what happens when you build as big as you can get? You’re a success, but that in itself isn’t what you’re passionate about. So what do you do? For Mitchell, it was to go back to building, just with more resources behind him. Early inspiration for Mitchell came from Richard Melman of Chicago’s Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises. “I saw what Rich did, building not just a multi-concept restaurant company, but also the [LEYE] brand. That’s what I’ve tried to do. Originally, my number one goal was to be king of the hill here in Columbus, where I grew up. A secondary goal was to stumble on a concept or two that we could grow out of town with.”
After opening six casual and fine dining concepts in the Columbus market, Mitchell hit upon his growth vehicles: Mitchell’s Fish Market grew to 19 units; Mitchell’s Steakhouse, launched in Columbus, was renamed Cameron’s Steakhouse for two subsequent units opened in suburban Detroit and Milwaukee. A recent retooling of the steakhouse concept into what Mitchell calls a “more modern American steakhouse” positioned it for further expansion.
It’s these two concepts, which came to represent two-thirds of his company, that Mitchell decided to unload. “The multiples being paid for restaurants were at record highs and the favorable capital gains tax conditions we’re living under now are likely to change with the 2008 election,” he says. “We’d acquired some debt, which I was personally signed on for. I wanted to remove my risk. I felt the Fish Market brand was ready to grow nationally and that we could capture a good price for it along with the steakhouses."
Now, he says, “We have three newer brands that we’re very excited about building. We own Marcella’s Italian Café and Mitchell’s Ocean Club and we own a piece of the Rusty Bucket Corner Tavern. We want to build four to six Rusty Buckets, four Marcella’s and three to four Ocean Clubs a year. We didn’t have the resources to do it all, so the sale was the right thing to do.”
Despite their incessant drive to build and create more, entrepreneurs typically face an ongoing struggle with capital, Mitchell admits. “I spent 14 years robbing Peter to pay Paul. Even with a $150 million company we never had enough capital. And that goes for mental as well as financial capital. We opened two new concepts in 2001. We were way overtaxed and didn’t execute well. We’ve gradually learned the power of focus and of saying no to projects. Occasionally, no matter how many good ideas you have or how strong your drive to grow is, occasionally you have to pull back and retrench.”
With the sale complete, there’s no downtime for Mitchell and his team, most of whom are still in place.
“The day after the closing, I went back to work free of all my bank debt, with my partners rewarded, my personal risk gone, my financial security intact and my company’s infrastructure established. This is just another chapter in what hopefully becomes a very long story.”
Bob Amick, Concentrics Restaurants and Concentrics Hospitality Solutions
The drive to create often comes from a perfectionist streak, the idea that something can always be better. Bob Amick, a prolific concept guy who made his mark in Atlanta in the 1970s and ’80s with the Peasant Restaurants group and Mick’s Restaurants, put that same drive toward his own career.
After the sale of his Atlanta company and a stint as CEO of a public company, Amick returned to developing one-of-a-kind restaurants. Only this time he’s not just doing it for his own Concentrics Restaurants company, he’s doing it for other people. Established in 2002, Concentrics Hospitality Solutions offers turnkey concept development, design and construction management and ongoing restaurant management services.
“I knew I wanted to stay in Atlanta, that I wanted to get back to what I was most passionate about and that Atlanta was ready for a serious big-city restaurant,” he says. “In 2001, I found a space close to my house [and] decided to create a neighborhood restaurant there. I had no plans to build a big restaurant company or to get into consulting. Within a year, however, things were clicking."
Amick’s high-energy concept, dubbed ONE. Midtown Kitchen, opened to rave reviews and the horse was out of the barn. ONE. led to TWO., Urban Licks, Trois, TAP Gastropub and Parish, set to open in early 2008.
Along the way, he got a phone call. “A guy called out of the blue, asking if I’d consider developing a concept for someone in Florida,” Amick recalls. That client turned out to be Brian France, whose family owns NASCAR. Amick won the contract and his group ended up doing everything from negotiating the lease to managing the restaurant, called LUMA on Park.
LUMA was the springboard for Concentrics Hospitality Solutions, which now represents 50 percent of Amick’s business. In addition to LUMA, it encompasses Murphy’s restaurant and wine shop; Lobby and Room, two concepts developed and managed for Novare Group; and STATS Foodplay, a new sports-themed restaurant and bar executed and managed for Atlanta-based Legacy Property Group.
The company’s corporate structure is small by design: Amick is founder and managing partner, longtime cohort Todd Rushing is a general partner and Mary Reynolds is a partner in the consulting business. Restaurant managers are paid via Amick’s payroll company, allowing the group to tap volume benefits.
Amick says that the fact that he’s in the trenches with his own restaurants enhances his credibility. “Consultants are usually people who used to do something,” he says. “That we own and operate successful restaurants that people can touch and feel is a big benefit. I’m not out there trying to earn my consulting spurs from what I did with the Peasant Restaurants group back in the ’70s.”
He’s also not out there trying to do everything.
“I learned early to pick clients and projects carefully. I know what I like and don’t like to do and quickly realized I didn’t want to be the Red Cross coming in to save struggling concepts. What I like to do is to create, and the type of consulting I’m doing allows me to do that, to bring to a client something we both can be very proud of. Are there risks? Sure. Am I working harder now than I ever have? Absolutely. But I’ve also had more fun in the past five years than I’ve had in a lifetime.”
Paul Fleming, Paul Fleming Restaurants
San Francisco, CA
Get close to the source
Paul Fleming’s success came by way of big concept developments: P.F. Chang’s China Bistro, Pei Wei Asian Diner, Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar and others. So how does a died-in-the-wool entrepreneur top a run like that? He goes in a completely different direction. “I’m looking at things more from the vendor standpoint right now than even the restaurant standpoint,” he says.
Fleming has developed a new restaurant concept that is driving him headlong into the supply side of the business. This new venture, Paul Martin’s American Bistro, opened last November north of Sacramento and focuses on organics and humanely raised meats.
“Right now we’re looking to invest further up the supply chain in the producers and vendors that supply the type of products that we showcase,” he explains. “From cheeses, to produce, honey, seafood and naturally raised meats, there’s so much opportunity in the niche.”
Fleming is now out to secure an equity stake in standout regional suppliers. “Just as we’ve done in the restaurant world, we’re investing in smaller companies that we think could be bigger companies,” he says.
“I’m inquisitive. I like to follow demographics and the economy, to study where our next customers and employees are coming from. When you fit all those things together and follow what’s going on in the country, you see where holes in the market are and what’s needed.”
Fleming says he’s discovered just how fragmented and unstructured the organics market is. “The term organics has already become somewhat bastardized because there’s no single agency controlling certification,” he says. “I think we’ll get to a point where the really good growers will be certified even higher than standard organic. That’s where I want to be. On a quality scale of one to 10, I’d like to be in the nine to 10 range—to be the top guy in a very niche market.”
At Paul Martin’s, sales during the first month of business convinced Fleming that demand for the concept is strong. The challenge, he says, is economics. “I think I know where the trends are in terms of products and consumer demand, but you have to figure out the economic model, and make sure that you can serve these great quality products and make money doing it. We’re still figuring that out.”
Outside of his newfound interest in the supply side, promising small chains are still on Fleming’s investment radar screen. He’s looked at vegetarian chains in California, and just over a year ago his company invested in The Habit Burger Grill, a 20-unit chain based Santa Barbara.
“Sometimes, it makes sense to try to buy into businesses you like instead of rolling the dice on new stuff. We can help some of these smaller companies and bring something to them besides capital. It’s a model we hope to grow with.”
Damian Mandola, Mandola’s Italian Market, Mandola’s Estate Winery & Trattoria Lisina
Damian Mandola hit a couple of homeruns back in the early 1980s, first with D’Amico’s then Damian’s Cucina Italiana, an Italian fine-dining restaurant in his hometown of Houston. But a couple of years into the Damian’s venture a nagging itch to do something different took hold, an itch that’s become familiar to the operator who now, in “retirement,” finds his passion exploring another side of the food market.
“I got restless and wanted to make a change,” Mandola says. “I’d seen a concept in New York that I wanted to bring to Houston. Previously, everything there had been upscale or Continental Italian, but this was casual, open kitchen, no tablecloths, reasonably priced with menu items like family-style pasta dishes and pizza baked in wood-burning ovens. I saw it as something the market needed.”
Partnering with his nephew, Johnny Carrabba, Mandola fine tuned the concept, created the menu from favorite family recipes and opened Houston’s first Carrabba’s Italian Grill in 1986. A second unit followed in 1988 and in 1993 the partners were approached by Outback Steakhouse, Inc., then newly public and eager to satisfy growth-hungry investors by diversifying into emerging segments such as casual Italian.
Ultimately, the partners teamed up with Outback. Mandola sold Damian’s Cucina Italiana so that he could focus on Carrabba’s, pegged by Outback for significant expansion. Excluding the two original Houston units, all rights to the concept soon were sold to Outback, which has grown the chain to more than 200 units.
With the sale complete, Mandola found his role had become largely that of figurehead and founding father, while Johnny Carrabba continued to handle day-to-day operations at the Houston units. Together, they wrote Italian cookbooks, hosted a PBS cooking show and enjoyed hanging out on the culinary world’s red carpet.
But the itch was coming back.
“Being part of a chain was exciting and a great learning experience,” he says. “But as you get bigger, you get more corporate. It’s harder to make decisions and get things done. You also give up a lot of control and creative input, which is natural as part of a sale, but it’s tough to let that go—especially when it comes to food. I never opened a restaurant thinking it would be a chain. I just saw something I liked and wanted to do it. What I really love is the concepting process—coming up with a menu, a building design and decor.”
And so Mandola is at it again. Following a recent relocation, and supposed semi-retirement, to Austin, within the past year he’s launched Mandola’s Italian Market featuring specialty foods, a bakery, fresh prepared foods and a bustling cafe. And with his wife, Trina, and investor partners he owns and operates Mandola’s Estate Winery, a 20-acre vineyard in nearby Driftwood touting “Texas wines with an Italian sense of style.” At the estate, Mandola this fall opened Trattoria Lisina, a casual Tuscan-style restaurant overlooking the winery and vineyard.
“I figured I’d retire to Austin and do my little deli, which I’ve wanted to do for 20 years, but it turned into a big deli,” he says. “I wanted a little winery, which turned into a big winery, and a little restaurant, which turned into a big restaurant. My wife keeps telling me to stop. I’m driving her crazy, but I’m having fun.”
Mandola says the Italian Market could have legs for expansion. And he sees demand down the road for a good Italian fast-food concept.
“You don’t think of Italian and fast food going hand-in-hand, but I bet you could do something that would be quick. I know it’s not a hamburger that you can hold in your hand, but you could have sandwiches and some kind of pasta. If the packaging was just right and you had a drive-thru window.”