Q&A with Steve Weis, VP of Development & Operating Partner, Cameron Mitchell Restaurants

From closing all its restaurants overnight in March 2020 due to COVID, reopening them by summer 2020, then launching five new restaurants in 2021 and 2022, Cameron Mitchell Restaurants (CMR) is looking forward to five to seven additional locations to come in 2023, and three more Ocean Primes in 2024. The privately held company expects $400 million in sales under management in 2022. CMR plans to have 71 restaurants under management by end of 2023, eclipsing $500 million in sales. Plus, they plan to expand into the hotel industry with its first upscale hotel.

Steve Weis, VP of Development & Operating Partner, Cameron Mitchell Restaurants

Falling on the shoulders of Steve Weis in his role as vice president of development for Cameron Mitchell Restaurants (CMR), with nearly 40 years of experience in the restaurant and hospitality industry, is the focus on new restaurant development, locating new restaurant sites, analyzing how to improve current locations, and overall expansion of the company.

Weis joined CMR in 2015, bringing to the team a vast knowledge of real estate and restaurant operations. He brings specific expertise to the CMR executive team and can not only solve potential problems but also help the company grow.

Prior to CMR, Weis served as president of Max & Erma’s, where he helped the company turn around sales efforts. From 2004 to 2010, Weis was the regional vice president of Thomas & King, one of the largest franchise organizations for Applebee’s. He has owned a restaurant company, was senior vice president of operations for Jillian’s Entertainment. 

Steve Weis shares his insights, pandemic effects, CMR’s culture and philosophies with our readers.

How has Cameron Mitchell Restaurants (CMR) thrived and remained profitable since the pandemic in March 2020?

CMR was built on the principle of taking care of its associates. During Covid, our goals were to keep them safe and to operate safely. We believe this led to being not as greatly affected by the labor shortages. 

Sales are up over 33% in 2022 vs. 2021. Increased sales have enabled us to remain profitable. Learnings and silver linings from a Pandemic:

  • Negotiate with partners: We talked to over 60 landlords to work through agreements though we never asked for rent to be forgiven. In most instances, we paid back all deferred rent in 2021
  • Maintain regular associate and guest communication: This was, and is, essential because we recognize our associates take care of our guests and they are empowered to do what it takes to make the guest happy using “Yes is the Answer” motto
  • Use your culture as a filter when you are challenged with making decisions
  • Sustain increased wages and enhanced quality of life 
  • Focus on recruitment and career development so our associates continue to grow 

Why did CMR decide this was the prime time to expand?

It is a good environment to work in myriad ways with partners, landlords, brokers; just as CMR has made raving fans out of its guests, this applies to partners, who oftentimes lead to other deals. For example, as we see the Ocean Prime restaurants consistently grow in sales, that makes for a compelling concept to grow in other markets. 

According to Brent Crawford of Crawford Hoying (OH), who has partnered with CMR in developing a hotel in Columbus: Every CMR brand that he has as a tenant is “best in class.”  Once CMR signs on, Brent knows other tenants will follow. He says, “There is a consistent high level of execution.” 

We opened Budd Dairy Food Hall with a great local developer as our partner. We made a decision to continue to embrace a partnership model, which we applied to Ocean Prime Kansas City and Prime Social. What we know is once a CMR restaurant signs our lease, the developer is able to increase the lease pricing for other space in the building because of CMR’s reputation as being a quality operator. 

Ocean Prime Kansas City
One of the dining rooms at the recently opened Ocean Prime Kansas City

Has CMR changed its strategy to expansion from pre-pandemic times?

According to J.R. Dehring, CMR’s chief financial officer, self-funding is getting more difficult. When the company opened Del Mar Naples in 2021, it brought in about 10 investors, CMR retained partial equity and a management fee. “As our name recognition has grown, there are developments wanting to work with us,” says Dehring.

Phil McCabe, who developed multiple properties on Naples’ Fifth Avenue, says, “Ocean Prime is the perfect tenant.  The restaurant performs well, the team is good at what they do.” He thinks CMR is one of the best restaurant operators in the country – and this is reflected in the operation of Ocean Prime.

With labor shortage, supply chain issues and inflation not going away soon, how have you addressed these challenges?

Our culture of putting associates first and the benefits we offer make CMR a place where people want to work and stay. We are an employer of choice, and have less attrition than the industry as a whole, also because we promote 80 percent of our associates from within. We encourage our associates to try new positions at different locations to continue to grow.

We see the supply chain is getting better. We usually review and raise prices approximately four percent each year but we are having to increase prices much more to offset the increases in cost of goods and labor.

Your recent announcement about opening the 18th Ocean Prime in Las Vegas is exciting! How did that deal come about?

We had been looking for a Las Vegas location for about 15 years. I was connected with New York developer Flag Luxury Group’s Paul Kanavos, who is a partner in 63, the prime location on Las Vegas Blvd. and Harmon. Paul, Cameron Mitchell and I met at Ocean Prime New York, and by the end of the meeting had agreed that Ocean Prime would be the anchor restaurant at 63. Paul knew about CMR and had dined at Ocean Primes, so he knew our reputation. Once we saw the location and reviewed the data on pedestrian traffic at the restaurant, we knew this had to be our flagship location.

It looks like you have between five and seven openings in 2023, can you tell us about what’s happening and how you put together so many deals?

Our expansion schedule over the next two years looks like:

    • Ocean Prime Kansas City, MO opened February 2022
    • The Pearl in Tampa, FL opens in Spring 2023
    • Valentina’s in Columbus, OH opens Spring 2023
    • Cento in Columbus, OH opens Spring 2023
    • Ocean Prime Las Vegas opens spring 2023
    • Three additional locations (TBA) in 2023

The confluence of timing is part luck and coincidence that what we were working on came to fruition around the same time. 

CMR Lead Broker, Keith Rogers of RD Advisors says, “Cameron Mitchell creates opportunities for his people and the only way to do that is to expand the company and open new restaurants.” “If you are a manager at an Ocean Prime and want to become a regional manager or move to a new location, you know there are opportunities to do that at CMR.”     

What advice would you give other independent restaurateurs who are interested in expanding, or keeping their existing operations profitable given the current economic climate?

Find a great restaurant broker, be very intentional about where you want to go first and that it fits your brand. Your brokers will have the research you need to review.

When looking at locations for Ocean Prime, Keith and the CMR team ensure that the surrounding tenants will have a similar level of sophistication. If guests are going out for a special meal to celebrate an occasion or business dinner, you want to ensure the surroundings are consistent with the Ocean Prime experience. Keith negotiates with the developer to ensure that there is parking, it is accessible, there is landscaping, lighting and any other aesthetics necessary to create the right ambiance. Co-tenancy is very important.

Sometimes Ocean Prime deals come quickly. Other times it can take a while to find the right space. Keith and the CMR team first started site visits in NYC in 2007. It was not until 2017 that Ocean Prime NYC opened.  

Our keys to keeping CMR profitable goes back to our basic tenet of putting our associates first, as well as:

  • Learn to use your culture as a filter as you are challenged with making decisions
  • Sustain increased wages, enhanced quality of life and focus on recruitment and career development

To learn more about Cameron Mitchell Restaurants (CMR), visit their website

The post Q&A with Steve Weis, VP of Development & Operating Partner, Cameron Mitchell Restaurants appeared first on Total Food Service.

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