Democratizing the Wine Country Life

Cooper's Hawk CEO discusses success of restaurant and winery chain

by Stacy Briscoe
Tim McEnery the founder and CEO of Cooper’s Hawk Restaurant and Winery.

Woodridge, Ill.—Privately owned by founder and CEO Tim McEnery, Cooper’s Hawk Restaurant and Winery has experienced rapid success since opening its first location in 2005 in McEnery’s hometown of Orland Park, Ill. Now,13 years later, the dual winery-restaurant boasts 31 locations spread across nine different states and a wine club with 300,000 members that continues to grow at a rapid 25% every year.

In 2017, Cooper’s Hawk reported $220 million dollars in revenue, and according to Wine Business Monthly’s February 2018 report on the 50 largest wineries in the United States, Cooper’s Hawk came in at 34 with a 570,000 annual case production. The winery produces 60 different wines, 48 of which are separate varietals, with an average bottle price of $17 — all of which are sold direct-to-consumer, either in person, online or through wine club memberships.

The business concept is what McEnery calls a “fusion of familiar elements” winery, restaurant, and a Napa-style tasting room. “You feel like you’re in a real wine country setting,” he said in an interview with Wines & Vines. “We’re democratizing the good life, bringing the experiences we’ve been blessed to enjoy to the people who may not be able to.”

The beginning
It all started with an idea.

“I went to Lynfred Winery in Roselle, Ill., and had a great experience. Afterword, at dinner, I thought to myself, ‘too bad the winery didn’t have food,’” McEnery said. At the time, in 2003, when he researched which wineries included a restaurant experience, he couldn’t find any. And so the inspiration behind the business was born.

Looking for a name, McEnery turned to the local library. Paging through wildlife books, he came across the Cooper's hawk bird. He found an instant connection with the bird and his business: Cooper’s hawks are common throughout the Midwest; coopers make wine barrels.

It took two years for McEnery to fully conceive the Cooper’s Hawk business plan — one that included a fully-functional winery, full-service restaurant and bar, and the all-important wine club. McEnery determined he needed $1.3 million to launch the restaurant and he raised it himself through friends, family and industry networking. “I met with each individual investor while simultaneously working full time in a restaurant and developing the building site.”

McEnery grew up in restaurant business, washing dishes at a neighborhood golf course at the early age of 9. “I immediately fell in love with hospitality industry,” he said. He eventually went on to pursue that passion, receiving his bachelor’s degree in restaurant, hotel, institutional, and tourism management from Purdue University.

The first Cooper’s Hawk location, a 13,200-square-foot venue located about 20 miles south of Chicago in Orland Park, was a newly erected building that needed to be completely out-fitted to fit McEnery’s vision.

During this time McEnery also educated himself in winemaking, taking correspondence classes from the University of California, Davis, working odd-jobs at a local winery, and making wines at home. “When I had the idea (for Cooper’s Hawk), I knew it’d be critical for me to learn the winemaking process in order to get those initial investors.”

He admits wine was the part of the business he was least familiar with.

For the first three years, McEnery acted as head winemaker, producing 25 different wines using grapes sourced from a California grower the winery still works with today, as well as vineyards in Michigan to produce dessert-style ice wines.

Current head winemaker, Rob Warren was hired in 2007 and is responsible for the winery’s current extensive production as well as selecting the rotating wine menu for the tasting rooms, developing wine pairings for the restaurant, and running the Wine of the Month Club.

Today, Cooper’s Hawk sources from a variety of vineyards, including those in California, Oregon, Washington as well as international locations. “To have a high-volume restaurant and winery you need to have all the varietals,” McEnery said.

According to the winery’s press information, all of their wines are sourced, blended, aged, bottled and distributed exclusively through Cooper’s Hawk. But according to McEnery, only about 25% of Cooper’s Hawk wines, usually reds, go through the full winemaking process at the 125,000-square-foot headquarters in Woodridge. White wine tends to be transported as juice, fermented, aged, blended, and bottled at Cooper’s Hawk. Wines coming from overseas arrive “completed,” with final blending and bottling, and additional aging if needed, taking place at headquarters.

The wine list includes 20% “entry-level wines,” catering to the casual consumer and 20% “high-end” wines, catering to the more discerning palate. “And the rest fall somewhere in the middle,” said McEnery, who describes the food menu in almost the same way, with about 40% of the menu showcasing fine-dining and the rest more informal cuisine. “Cooper Hawk has people of all walks of life, and we bring these people together,” he said.

Growth, expansion and retention
McEnery can’t pinpoint the exact moment he knew it was time to start considering expansion but says that after the first year and a half, with the help of neighborhood word of mouth and some TV publicity, his restaurant was jammed. “Once we opened the second one and saw the same success, we knew we had something special,” he said.

It took two years for McEnery to open that second location, but by his third year in business in 2008, Cooper’s Hawk opened two more locations, and the rate of the expansion has increased over time. Since 2016 Cooper’s Hawk has been expanding at a rate of five new restaurants each year. Despite the broad expansion, Cooper’s Hawk is still privately owned.

McEnery says he’s able to do this using a “cluster strategy” to limit market risk. “We open five new restaurants, we only want one of those restaurants in a ‘new’ market,” he said, explaining that the other four venues are chosen based on specific regions where the business has already seen success. This is why, for now, Cooper’s Hawk locations are found dominantly in the Midwest and Florida, with a few scattered along the east coast.

The 31 venues are leased, not owned. McEnery said he’d rather put capital into a successful restaurant than real estate. But a winery or restaurant is only as successful as its consumer base. In the case of Cooper’s Hawk, the wine club plays a big part in that success. “The wine club was always part of the original concept,” said McEnery, “But it wasn’t so brilliant other than we wanted to include one.”

With 31 locations, one would expect the Cooper’s Hawk wine club to be large, and the company claims 300,000 members and a growth rate of 25% each year. What’s more, 99% percent of wine club members pick up their monthly wines in person — most coming from within a 30-mile radius of a Cooper’s Hawk locations. McEnery explains that people do so because a visit to the venue means an experience — be it a tasting, a meal, or a winery-hosted event. “It’s so much more than picking up a wine.”

Cooper’s Hawk recently collaborated with well-known wineries, such as Francis Ford Coppola Winery and the Boisset Collection. These special releases are produced in limited quantities and reserved for wine club members. Similarly, the restaurant has partnered with celebrity chefs, including Richard Blais, Rick Bayless, and Marcus Samuelsson to create menus and host events, again specifically curated for the Cooper-club.

The incentive to join and maintain a Cooper’s Hawk club membership is elevated further with the loyalty program. Members receive points for maximizing memberships with visits to the winery, money spent on food and wine, and participating in events. In 2009, the winery launched its travel program for higher tier members to experience different wine regions throughout the world. “We’ve learned overtime how to make (the wine club) special and continue to make it special,” McEnery said.

The Cooper’s Hawk brand continues to grow. On April 30, the winery opened its Pembroke Pines, Fla. location and has plans to open four more this year in Clinton Township, Mich., New Lenox, Ill., Orange, Ohio, and Virginia Beach, Va. McEnery also hinted at a potential footprint in California within the next two years, but wouldn’t divulge those details at this time.

When asked for entrepreneurial tips for those in the wine industry, McEnery says his business strategy comes down to three points: “Persistence wins all day long; surround yourself with good, bright people (it’s worth its weight in gold); be a lifelong learner who pushes a challenge and never rests on his laurels.”

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