I’D NEVER TASTED an almond sparkling wine before I traveled to suburban Illinois earlier this week. And I’m still not entirely sure how to describe it. Fortunately the wine catalog of Cooper’s Hawk Winery & Restaurants offers the following: “Powerful aromas of almond cookie, maraschino cherry and nutmeg.” That was a pretty accurate characterization—and no, it was not served in a parfait dish but a wine glass.
The almond sparkler is the best-selling wine at Cooper’s Hawk, according to the company’s CEO and founder Tim McEnery. “The second-best-selling wine is our Pinot Noir. That speaks to our range of consumers,” said Mr. McEnery with a laugh.
When Mr. McEnery says “our Pinot Noir,” the use of the possessive is key. Almond sparkling wine and Pinot Noir are two of almost 60 wines produced by Cooper’s Hawk Winery for the 18 Cooper’s Hawk restaurants scattered throughout the Midwest and South. And according to Mr. McEnery, the Illinois winery is the fifth-largest winery outside California, producing about 240,000 cases in 2014.
A group of restaurants that offers its own wines and no others would seem to be a risky business model. After all, the restaurant business has a notoriously high failure rate, and the wine business isn’t a lot safer. A company that combined the two seems like fiscal madness, yet Cooper’s Hawk is projected to end 2014 with $121 million in revenue. And though Mr. McEnery declined to discuss profits, he said, “We have a very healthy business.”
‘A company that combined the risky restaurant and wine businesses, Cooper’s Hawk projects 2014 revenues of $121 million. ’
I’d actually never heard of Cooper’s Hawk Winery & Restaurants, which feature traditional American fare such as crab cakes and steak, until a month or so ago when I was browsing the OpenTable’s Diners’ Choice Awards for the top 100 restaurant wine lists. Cooper’s Hawk was named eight times, for locations in many different states, albeit all with the same wine list.
When I admitted my ignorance to the 38-year-old Mr. McEnery as we sat down at his company’s headquarters in Countryside, Ill., about 20 miles from Chicago, he wasn’t surprised. “A lot of people in Chicago haven’t heard of us either,” he said, laughing. Mr. McEnery has a warm and open demeanor, and his favorite word, bestowed upon both ideas and people, is awesome.
Chicago proper may see a Cooper’s Hawk outpost one day, said Mr. McEnery, but it’s not on the immediate horizon. He will open another restaurant in the Chicago suburbs (Oak Lawn) next year, however, as well as two more in Florida and one in Virginia. His real-estate team is scouting sites in Florida, Virginia and Maryland, but nothing is solid save one certainty: “We won’t open a restaurant unless we can get to $10 million,” Mr. McEnery said, referring to a location’s potential annual revenue.
It’s hard to believe this empire started with a 2002 trip to a small winery in suburban Illinois. Mr. McEnery, living in Orland Park, Ill., at the time, took a rare day off from his “80- to 100-hour-a-week” restaurant-management job, accompanied by his girlfriend Dana, now his wife. “I thought it was too bad they didn’t have a restaurant with the winery,” he recalled. His research turned up just two wineries with restaurants. “One was Domaine Chandon, in Napa, and one was in Michigan in the boondocks,” he said.
The thought became an idea: He would open his own combination winery-restaurant. Mr. McEnery created a business plan, working on it for 3½ years. He had received a B.A. in restaurant-and-hotel management from Purdue University, but now he consulted books and experts at local community colleges. “Once I got into it, I realized why it hadn’t been done before,” he said. The challenges were considerable, from raising the necessary capital to navigating legal prohibitions. He worked on the plan so long his wife told him he had to either start the business or abandon it altogether.
Mr. McEnery chose the former. He had little money of his own but raised $1.3 million from 25 friends and family members, and secured a $1 million Small Business Association loan. (He has since bought out his partners and teamed up with a private investment company.)
In his hometown of Orland Park, Mr. McEnery found a 13,000-square-foot space, large enough to accommodate a winery and restaurant as well as a tasting room and gift shop. He leased the space, as he does for all his restaurants. “Our capital is better used managing restaurants,” he said.
When the restaurant opened, in 2005, Mr. McEnery was doing just about everything, including making the wine. He’d studied the craft informally, but after two years he turned the winemaking over to a professional, and the winery was moved to its own space. “The wine is way better now,” he said.
The Cooper’s Hawk winemaker is Rob Warren, an affable Canadian native who was working in Virginia when he and Mr. McEnery met at a trade show. Mr. Warren had recently returned from a trip to California to meet with grape growers.
Many of the wines are made from grapes purchased in the Central Coast of California as well as Michigan, New York, Oregon and Washington state. Mr. Warren also buys “finished” wines (fermented but not blended), as well as fruit and fruit extract. Fruit wines are a prominent part of the portfolio—eight in total, including raspberry, peach and even rhubarb. “They are the most expensive to make, but there’s no way we can charge more than $15 for a bottle of fruit wine,” said Mr. McEnery, who gave me a brief tour of the winery, a rather industrial space attached to the company headquarters.
The Orland Park restaurant grossed more than $5 million in its first year of business, according to Mr. McEnery, and is still the company’s most lucrative location, grossing about $12 million this year. It was also the first of two Cooper’s Hawk restaurants I visited during my Illinois trip.
I arrived just before five o’clock on Sunday evening, and the tasting room was already crowded, mostly with women. Every restaurant table was filled too, and by six o’clock, hopeful diners were waiting for tables.
The Cooper’s Hawk tasting room looks like that of any other winery, albeit with more glassware and trinkets, and a lot of chocolate. “This is one of the biggest draws,” said a tasting-room associate, pointing to rows of chocolate in a glass display case. Do people pair it with sweet wine? I asked. “They actually like to pair it with Cabernet,” she replied.
Four women standing next to me had driven from the south side of Chicago, about a half-hour away—“for the second week in a row,” one said. They were loyal fans and wine-club members. The wine club is another Cooper’s Hawk success; about one quarter of its customers—some 113,000 people—are members, entitled to tastings and special wines, which most pick up at the restaurant. “Shipping is expensive,” said Mr. McEnery, and of course he likes people to visit the restaurant.
The club-member wines are the more “serious,” said Mr. McEnery, although like all the Cooper’s Hawk wines, they are not vintage dated. Mr. McEnery was a bit vague as to why. (His office followed up with the explanation that the winery often blends multiple years to produce a consistent product.) After making vintage wines the first few years, Cooper’s Hawk moved to producing non-vintage wines around 2008. Mr. McEnery lay awake at night thinking the company would lose all credibility, he recalled. For no reason, it turned out: “No one noticed or cared.”
And the wines? I tasted a number of bottles at the Orland Park restaurant, including that almond sparkling, and several with Mr. McEnery at the Burr Ridge location. The range was quite large—red, white, sparkling, and fruit wines—and the prices reasonable: By-the-glass selections were between $6.50 and $8.50, with their Lux wines a bit higher. Bottle prices were mostly in the midtwenties (I can’t remember when I last had a $25 wine in a restaurant) although the highest price was $48. The non-fruit wines were mostly solid and well made, particularly an agreeably neutral, unoaked Chardonnay and the Cooper’s Hawk Red—a bright, lively blend of Merlot and Cabernet with a bit of Syrah—that was highly drinkable and an appealing $23. They were not transcendent, but they were solid and pleasurable and clearly have made a good many people happy for comparatively little.
That may be the great appeal of Cooper’s Hawk: The restaurant is reliably welcoming in every regard, from the unerringly cheerful staff and generous portions of food, to the eminently affordable bottles of wine.
“There are 150 reasons why you and I should not be standing here,” said Mr. McEnery near the end of my visit. “But my belief is that there is always a way.” And thanks to that belief and a well-honed business plan (not to mention a timely infusion of capital), his unlikely dream became a reality.