Nation’s Restaurant News Breakout Brands

Breakout Brands: Cooper’s Hawk Winery & Restaurant

by Mark Brandau

Wine always has come first for Cooper’s Hawk Winery & Restaurant, whether in the 11-unit chain’s name or the varietals it produces to drive traffic and membership in its all-inclusive Wine Club.

But even though Cooper’s Hawk’s status as an award-winning winemaker differentiates it from nearly all upscale-casual restaurant competitors, the key to the brand’s planned growth lies in continually making its dining rooms and Napa-style tasting rooms the place to enjoy its proprietary vino and seasonally inspired food.

“At the end of the day, it’s about the special experience of going to a Cooper’s Hawk to pick up your wine and taste it in a private barrel-aging room,” said chief executive Tim McEnery, who opened the first winery-restaurant in Orland Park, Ill., in 2005.

Protecting those occasions led McEnery to pull the plug on a plan to sell Cooper’s Hawk wines in local grocery stores and wine shops in 2010.

“Is there an opportunity there for more profits and revenue? I’m sure that there is,” he said. “But what seems to have driven our success is doing what’s right by the guest. Sometimes that puts more money in the bank, and sometimes it doesn’t. But it’s gotten us to this point.”

It also is projected to carry Cooper’s Hawk beyond its suburban Chicago base and into new locations in affluent communities around Cincinnati, St. Louis, and the Florida cities of Tampa and Orlando, said president Peter D’Amelio. The chain is forecasting another five openings in 2014 and about six per year beyond that.

“Real estate will drive the deal,” D’Amelio said. “Because our growth targets are very reasonable, we can be selective about where we’re going and take our time. … We’re a larger box, in that 9,000- to 12,000-square-feet range, … but malls and retail centers are starting to reposition some smaller tenants to make opportunities for concepts like us.”

New York-based consultant Malcolm Knapp noted that consumers are familiar with wine flights, extensive by-the-glass lists and even custom-blended varietals because of beverage programs at high-end independent restaurants, but Cooper’s Hawk is among the first chain concepts to bring that “sommelier cred” to casual dining.

“Most of the casual-dining chains are not that strong in wine, so it’s an area open for exploitation,” Knapp said. “People have always been fascinated with the idea of the tasting room, and Cooper’s Hawk has brought that away from the wineries. There’s a nice hook there, and they can merchandise the wine better, and they have great food.”

Cooper’s Hawk also has a popular Wine Club that offers loyalty rewards, food and wine discounts, birthday offers, and members-only events, as well as access to specially made bottles every month, for dues between $17 and $36.

“It’s a loyalty program that people pay to be in, which is different than any loyalty program out there,” McEnery said. “The Wine Club is an enormous lever that’s allowed us to have the success we’ve had, but it only works because the wine is great, the food is great, and the service is well done.”

He said that thinking up new benefits for that Wine Club, making the chain’s retail component “a whole new ball game” and refining the seasonally changing menus would be a bigger focus for him now that D’Amelio and five executives hired this past December are handling the details of growing prudently.

As ever, the executives said, the goal of any changes would be improving the in-restaurant experience to drive word-of-mouth for Cooper’s Hawk, ultimately begetting more sales and growth prospects.

“When you have an aspirational brand like ours, people sit down and talk about that with others,” D’Amelio said.

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