Cooper’s Hawk Winery & Restaurants has some of the most loyal fans. In addition to offering its own wines with its New American cuisine, the upscale-dining chain also operates one of the country’s largest wine clubs.
Members tend to be highly loyal because they receive more than just monthly wine deliveries. They can attend exclusive tasting events and even travel around the world for wine experiences with Cooper’s Hawk staff acting as guides.
How did a chain of 24 locations build such a passionate following in 11 years? Its success stems from the original vision: to provide guests with a memorable, easy-to-enjoy experience with wine and food.
Food Made For Wine
Cooper’s Hawk founder/CEO Tim McEnery, who has a background in restaurant management, recalls his initial inspiration for the business in 2002. He was at a winery for a tasting one evening with his wife Dana. “While enjoying a wine tasting, we searched the nearby area for restaurant reservations and thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice to eat and continue drinking this wine?’” he remembers.
At the time, “Many wineries had small, limited menus and through research, I didn’t find any connected to a full-service restaurant,” he adds. Three years later, McEnery, then 29, opened the first Cooper’s Hawk Winery & Restaurant in Orland Park, IL, where the company is now headquartered.
Cooper’s Hawk today counts locations in Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Missouri, Maryland, Ohio, Wisconsin and Virginia. A Coconut Creek, FL, location is scheduled to open in November; four to five additional units are slated for 2017.
The brand’s focus remains on making wine-and-food pairings approachable and understandable. All locations include large, onsite tasting rooms (922 sq. ft. on average), plus menus that pair each plate with a specific wine.
Cooper’s Hawk sells its wines in its restaurants and tasting rooms, and directly to members of the wine club. None of the bottles are distributed to outside businesses. “We’re basically the wine version of a brew pub,” says winemaker Rob Warren.
Cooper’s Hawk sells its wines in its restaurants and tasting rooms, and directly to members of the wine club.
Founder/CEO Tim McEnery was inspired to start Cooper’s Hawk Winery & Restaurants in 2002 after realizing that no wineries were connected to a full-service restaurant.
The company does not grow its own grapes; it buys them from about 20 west coast wineries and trucks them to a 32,000-sq.-ft. facility in Countryside, IL. Cooper’s Hawk will bring in international vineyards for special bottlings a few times each year. These might include malbec from Argentina, sangiovese from Italy, and varietals from New Zealand and Australia.
McEnery and Warren select the wineries for these bottlings, and are heavily involved in the process. Warren oversees production of about 425,000 cases of Cooper’s Hawk wine a year. His wines typically age for six to 18 months in oak barrels.
Partner vineyards are selectively chosen for their regions, the structures and aromatics of their grapes, production capabilities and their attitudes. “We’re very persnickety. We want to be in control of our grapes once we get them, and that’s a passion we want to share with the venues we chose,” Warren explains. “When you tour a vineyard and meet the people there, you can tell pretty quickly how much they really care about what they’re doing.”
Once a winery is onboard, its harvested grapes are loaded into refrigerated trucks and driven to Cooper’s Hawk’s facility. Fruit usually arrives two to three weeks after harvest; it’s then destemmed, crushed, fermented, aged, blended and bottled.
Wide Range Of Varietals
The many styles Cooper’s Hawk produces run the gamut. From sparkling rosé, prosecco and moscato, to sauvignon blanc, chardonnay and gewürztraminer, to pinot noir, shiraz and petite syrah. All these and more are available in the restaurants by the glass for $6.50 to $8.75, and by the bottle for $25.99 to $30.99.
For dessert, Cooper’s Hawk makes Ice Wine ($9.50 for a glass, $37.99 for a 375-ml. bottle) and Nightjar, a port-style wine ($8 a glass; $27.99 a bottle). There are also lux offerings for those who want premium pours, including the Lux sparkling ($9.50 a glass, $37.99 a bottle) and the Lux pinot noir ($13 a glass; $47.99 a bottle).
Winemaker Warren and Matt McMillin, vice president of culinary and beverage innovation, collaborate on the seasonally changing Cooper’s Hawk menus. McMillin and Warren systematically match every dish with a specific wine identified on the menu by its BIN number.
When pairing food and wine, they consider how many times each bottle appears on the menu. They try to get all the wines involved; any that have recently received awards or accolades are sure to be featured.
One recommended menu pairing (pictured atop) is the red-wine-braised short ribs with mustard sauce, Mary’s potatoes, roasted vegetables and crispy onion strings ($24.99) with the Cooper’s Hawk cabernet zinfandel ($8.75 a glass; $30.99 a bottle).
“The spiciness of the zin and the tannins of the cab cut through the fatiness of the short ribs,” Warren notes. “Food tastes better with that balance, that synergy. The whole becomes better than the parts.”
Another suggested match is the gnocchi carbonara with pancetta, chicken, sage and peas in a parmesan garlic cream sauce ($18.99) with the Cooper’s Hawk Lux chardonnay ($10.50 a glass; $37.99 a bottle). An Italian family business in Chicago makes the gnocchi and ships it frozen to Cooper’s Hawk locations.
Another suggested match is the gnocchi carbonara with pancetta, chicken, sage and peas in a parmesan garlic cream sauce ($18.99) with the Cooper’s Hawk Lux chardonnay ($10.50 a glass; $37.99 a bottle).
“The rich, creamy, buttery sauce and the chardonnay is a match made in heaven,” McMillin says. “Like any pairing, the key is balance.”
Having now worked together for six years at Cooper’s Hawk, McMillin and Warren say that they can anticipate each other’s pairings when creating new dishes or wines.
“I’ll recall a cauliflower purée dish and tell him that I’m thinking of doing a new take on it, and he’ll already have the perfect wine pairing in mind,” McMillin says. “There’s not as much guesswork anymore.”
Cocktails With A Twist
While the main focus is wine, Cooper’s Hawk also offers beer and boasts an extensive cocktail menu. Updated once or twice a year, the list includes 11 Martinis and a dozen craft cocktails.
“Not everyone drinks wine,” McMillin says. “Or they may want to start their meal off with a cocktail before switching to wine. So our goal is to deliver as good of an experience with our cocktails as we would with our wine and food.”
Cooper’s Hawk pours fresh juices and makes its own mixes from scratch. The chain uses craft-level spirits in its drinks (though it does stock well spirits), and frequently incorporates its wine into the cocktails. “We like to do really simple cocktails that are straightforward with a slight twist,” McMillin explains.
For instance, the Cooper’s Hawk Margarita ($10) is made with Cazadores reposado tequila, triple sec, sour, passion fruit and sparkling wine. The Bin 61 Sour ($9.50) mixes Woodford Reserve bourbon, lemon sour and the Nightjar port. Jen’s French Martini ($11.25) uses with Effen vodka, Chambord black raspberry liqueur and sparkling wine.
The Cooper’s Hawk Margarita ($10) is made with Cazadores reposado tequila, triple sec, sour, passion fruit and sparkling wine.
The Margarita is a top seller, McMillin adds, and a good representation of how Cooper’s Hawk approaches cocktails. “It comes down to the balance,” he explains. “You have fresh-squeezed lime juice and tequila of a good quality. We finish it off with our blanc de blanc and passion fruit.” The cocktail “has that exotic flavor and aroma without being too strange.”
Join The Club
Launching a wine club was always part of the Cooper’s Hawk plan. “It gives us an opportunity to offer perks and create loyalty with members,” explains McEnery.
The club now boasts about 200,000 members, who each month receive one to two bottles of Cooper’s Hawk wine, depending on the plan they purchase.
There are four options: Variety members get alternating red and white wine varietals; subscribers of the Red Club or White Club receive just those types,; and members of the Sweet Club receive only sweet wines.
Members who live near a Cooper’s Hawk location can pick up bottles in person for $18.99 or $35.99 each month, for one or two bottles, respectively. (The Sweet Club wines are $16.99 to $31.99). Wines can also be shipped for monthly dues of $79.99 to $139.99.
The wine club began with basic offerings, Warren says, and evolved organically. Now members can get unique blends and varietals, such as chenin blanc viognier or syrah petite sirah.
Other offerings may include collaborations like a wine project with Buena Vista Winery, the oldest premium winery in California, or Cooper’s Hawk’s interpretation of familiar blends such as GSM or BDX (Bordeaux-style blend).
“Everything we do is about creating value,” explains Matt McMillin. “These clubs and events all keep people connected and make superfans out of guests.”
The wine club members also receive regular invitations to special events and tastings, points towards Cooper’s Hawk rewards, and invitations for Wine Club trips that take fans across the globe.
The special events include higher-end pairing dinners, which plate five-to-six dishes alongside pours from the Cooper’s Hawk lux line of wine. A recent dinner featuring chef Emily Ellyn paired a farmer’s market salad with viognier, home-made ricotta-taleggio ravioli with barbera and strawberry rhubarb meringue tarlets with rhubarb wine.These events also enable the company to seek feedback from their fans on any new foods and wines.
“Everything we do is about creating value,” explains McMillin. “These clubs and events all keep people connected and make superfans out of guests.”
Wine club members can also have access to Cooper’s Hawk executives. “Rob talks directly with Wine Club members on a regular basis. Some of them travel all over the world and send photos to me,” McMillin says. “And they’re also inviting their friends into the wine club,” he adds.
McMillin recalls a particular Wine Club trip that came to influence others that followed. He was in Portugal with about 20 members staying on a mountainside hotel.
After a group activity, guests had the options of returning to the hotel and then heading out on their own for dinner, or having McMillin and his staff procure local wine and food for an impromptu mountainside picnic. Everyone chose the latter.
Word of the resulting dinner circulated through the wine-club membership. Now the trips typically include a similar, spur-of-the-moment group activity. “It speaks to the fabric of what we do,” McMillin says. “We create entertaining experiences that people remember and crave.”
Educating the Whole Team
The servers at Cooper’s Hawk Winery & Restaurants must be well versed with the wines to provide a high level of service and engaging customer experience. Warren explains that many staff are Cooper’s Hawk superfans themselves, making them proficient with wines on the menu if guests have questions.
Our staffers education goes beyond mere passion: Servers and tasting-room attendants sample Cooper’s Hawk wines every day before the lunch and dinner shifts. These “community meetings” take place in each restaurant, and focus on wine-of-the-month offerings, their chef-pairing recommendations and other current specials. “Our staff are always thinking about wine and food pairings,” says McMillin.
It’s not just servers that benefit from a wine education, however. The Cooper’s Hawk offices, or “restaurant support center” as its called, also hold community meetings once a month. At some, Warren will lead participants through tastings, working his way through all the departments.
“That way, everyone understands a little bit better about what everyone else does here at Cooper’s Hawk,” Warren explains.
Wine-centric customers today love to explore, McEnery says.Millennials in particular have a world view on international wines, along with an increased openness to different wines and wine education, he notes.
Cooper’s Hawk plays into this curiosity and experimentation by presenting guests with multiple opportunities to taste different bottles.
Servers will pour a sample by request for guests in the restaurant, ensuring that what they order matches their palate’s preference. And for the adventurous or curious drinker, Cooper’s Hawk offers six different wine flights.
On the current menu, the sparkling flight ($13.99) consists of blanc de blanc, sparkling rosé, almond and raspberry wines (a chardonnay base with flavoring); the white flight ($13.99) is sauvignon blanc, pinot gris, Cooper’s Hawk White, and chardonnay; the red flight ($14.99) is sangiovese, zinfandel, petite sirah, and cabernet sauvignon; the lux ($18.99) is lux chardonnay, lux pinot noir, lux cabernet sauvignon and lux meritage; and a dessert flight ($12.99) comes with rhubarb, sweet red, raspberry and blueberry wines.
The red wine flight ($14.99) is sangiovese, zinfandel, petite sirah, and cabernet sauvignon.
Guests can also create their own flight of four wines for $15.99. “Every time I’m in a restaurant, I always see a few people ordering flights,” Warren says. “It gives people the opportunity to experiment with wines and food.”
Which plays into something Warren believes is at the heart of Cooper’s Hawk: consumer education.
“We try to provide as wonderful a learning experience as possible for people,” he says. “And we try to be as unintimidating about it as possible.”
That means offering as much education as guests want “and providing as many samples as we can,” Warren says. “That’s something that you can’t get at any wine shop.”