The Man with the Plan | Food Newsfeed
Karl Brewick

Tim McEnery, who began sketching out the plan for his winery and restaurant concept at the age of 24, always knew he wanted to be an entrepreneur.

The Man with the Plan

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The founder and CEO of Cooper’s Hawk Winery & Restaurant, Tim McEnery the nation’s fifth-largest winery outside California, has 19 units approaching $10 million in sales volume apiece, and projects $150 million in revenues this year—and he’s just getting started.

By Sonya Chudgar June 2015 Executive Insights

A few weeks ago, Tim McEnery was at a supermarket in the suburbs of Chicago, perusing the cereal aisle, shopping basket dangled nonchalantly over the crook of his elbow. He glanced from name to name on the shelves—did he want his favorite, Frosted Flakes, or a more robust wheat bite?—while tugging on his polo, which had a logo of a delicate white feather in the corner, along with a few inscrutable words that dissolved into a wrinkle.

In the midst of his crucial breakfast decision, a teenager, no more than 15 years old, suddenly spoke up next to him. “Do you work at Cooper’s Hawk? That’s my favorite restaurant!”

McEnery looked up, taken aback. The polo had given him away. But he started a jovial conversation with the youth, discussing their mutual appreciation of the restaurant, and then the transaction ended as quickly as it had begun. Never once did McEnery let on to the teenager that he doesn’t just work at Cooper’s Hawk; he is founder and CEO of the 19-unit company that projects revenues of $150 million this year.

For a company that owns its own winery, the fifth-largest outside California, the success is credible. By placing equal emphasis on food and beverage, and amassing a 130,000-member wine club, the demand for more Cooper’s Hawk units is growing.

“In five years, we’ll probably be at 40–50 restaurants, I think, but the number isn’t the goal,” McEnery says. “Doing it well and keeping it interesting is the goal.”

Humble yet confident, McEnery is doing nothing if not keeping things interesting. He has created a restaurant company that relies on consumers’ growing fascination with wine, banking on their desire to join a wine club that encourages them to come to the restaurant to pick up an exclusive bottle each month, and perhaps dine there while they’re on premise. McEnery’s proclivity for entrepreneurship and his understanding of consumer preferences are fueling his business and gaining him looks from around the industry.

“We have people picking up their wines of the month who just got done working at the car wash all the way up to some incredible executives,” McEnery, 38, says. “It’s really across the board with the wine club, which makes me very excited.”

The varied demographics participating in the wine club echoes the customers who dine at Cooper’s Hawk. As McEnery says, he hears teenagers at the grocery store call Cooper’s Hawk their favorite restaurant, and he also sees everyone from families with little kids, ladies out shopping, business professionals, and couples come by to grab a bite or sip varietals for hours.

“We did it early on accident, but now we do it purposefully: Whether it’s the menu, the wine program, the design—everything is built for approachability and providing something for everyone. I know there are a lot of marketing people who say, ‘You can’t do something for everyone; you have to pick who your audience is going to be and design it that way,’” he adds. “But there’s nothing cookie cutter about what we’re doing at Cooper’s Hawk.”

Made From Scratch

McEnery always knew he wanted to be an entrepreneur, but he wasn’t sure it’d be in the restaurant space. He was always trying to think of different ideas, figure out where he saw himself, whether that might be owning a cool car wash or something else that would enable him to have a business of his own.

Inevitably, the restaurant industry held his interest. He started at the age of 11, washing dishes at Green Garden Country Club in the south suburbs of Chicago, snagging rides with a neighbor who was a golf pro. He worked his way up to restaurant manager by high school, and his love of hospitality led him to graduate from Purdue University with a bachelor’s degree in restaurant and hotel management.

It wasn’t until he went on a date with his girlfriend, now wife, about 15 years ago that the idea for a winery and restaurant in one came to him. “She took me to a place called Lynfred Winery in Roselle, Illinois, and the place was just spectacular, kind of like a boutique winery. The wines were wonderful; they brought in grapes from California and other states. We were going to dinner afterwards and I thought, it’s too bad they don’t have a restaurant here with the winery.”

The next morning, he looked up winery restaurants online, expecting to find a million of them, just like brewpubs.

The search came up blank.

Inspiration hit.

For the next three years, McEnery spent all his free time working on the business plan for what would become Cooper’s Hawk Winery & Restaurant. He was putting in 80 hours a week as general manager of Green Garden Country Club, so he’d wake up an hour early each day and take another hour after work to lay the groundwork for his business. In what little spare time he owned, he met with people at small-business development centers to get advice on how to raise money. Finally, three years from inception, he had enough capital, and a year later, he cut the ribbon on his first location, in Orland Park, Illinois, 30 minutes south of Chicago.

Growth from that point on was slow and steady. He built up the Midwest market with 11 units before heading into Florida in 2013 and Richmond, Virginia, the year after. “The one thing I know is that we’re off to the races with growth,” McEnery says, adding that the 2015 revenue projection of $150 million is a 20 percent growth over last year’s revenue. “We’re going to open three restaurants this year, and five next year.”

He’s looking to build out the Virginia-D.C. market while eyeing the Northeast for more robust development. McEnery chooses to lease the property for his restaurants rather than buy them outright. “It’s our belief that we’re restaurant investors, not real estate investors.”

When deliberating the right property for a new restaurant, McEnery reviews the typical catalog of data—demographics, psychographics, traffic, market analysis, and nearby competitors—but he’s also not willing to open a unit unless he pro-jects it will eventually do $10 million in yearly volume. The strategy hasn’t failed him yet.

“You know how most restaurants have a honeymoon period? At Cooper’s Hawk, we have a reverse honeymoon. The first year we open will always be the lowest sales volume, and then it grows exponentially over time.”

What’s the cause of that?

“The wine club.”

Fine Wine

As restaurants open, guests—from first-time wine sippers to aficionados—sign up for the wine club, paying $18.99 per month to receive their monthly exclusives. Customers can choose to pick up the wine in-store or have it shipped to them, assuming they live in one of the 26 states where it is legal to mail wine. Five years in, the restaurant typically has 5,000 members in its wine club, McEnery says, adding that those who come to pick up their wines on-premise may stay for a glass of wine in the tasting room or sit down to dinner. Each year, restaurants will see their wine club memberships exponentially grow.

It’s not just wines they’re signing up for. Members can attend members-only events at a low cost, such as tapas-and-wine pairings, education courses, and celebrity chef meetings. They also earn gift certificates and free birthday entrées based on the Cooper’s Hawk point system. The wine club, McEnery emphasizes, is Cooper’s Hawk’s loyalty system. A technology team even designed the proprietary software that manages the program.

For a company that strives for $10 million per unit, it’s surprising to learn that the average check is only $27. McEnery says Cooper’s Hawk has 47 wines on its menu, ranging from Pinot Noirs and Petite Syrahs to more audacious varieties such as sangria and fruit wines. Glasses of wines, even bottles, are exceedingly affordable—typically $6–$9 per glass and $15–$22 for a bottle—and prices remain the same across all units.

“I think that’s one part of the approachability, the pricing,” McEnery says. “To be able to have one of the best cheeseburgers around for $10 and a glass of Cabernet for $7, that’s a pretty good deal whether it’s a Saturday night or a Monday at lunch.”

What keeps the prices low is the fact that Cooper’s Hawk produces all of the wines at its own winery, sourcing grapes from California, Washington, Oregon, Michigan, and New York. Cooper’s Hawk does not have its own vineyards, but the grapes and juice it obtains through partnerships with vineyards are shipped to the winery that Cooper’s Hawk owns in Chicago. There, winemaker Rob Warren assembles and blends the wines to make them into the proprietary beverages the restaurant serves.

From the time the grapes arrive at the winery, it takes about six months to produce a white wine and about a year to complete a red. To create the best-tasting wine possible, McEnery says the company blends multiple vintages of that wine together, such as several Cabernet Sauvignons, yielding a higher quality finished product. “I taste every wine before it’s bottled, and we bottle every day,” McEnery says.

The bestselling wine at Cooper’s Hawk is the Almond Sparkling—a decidedly atypical wine that appeals to diners with a sweeter palate—while the second-best seller is a more traditional Pinot Noir. “That speaks to the breadth of guests we have,” McEnery says. “When it comes to fruit wines, we have six nowadays. We have a rhubarb wine, and it’s No. 5 on our bestseller list. That wine speaks to both entry-level wine drinkers and regular wine drinks, because it has some sweetness and so much acidity.”

While nearly 50 wines on the menu are set and do not rotate, and there is no localization of the wine menu across locations, McEnery says the fun in new tastes comes from the wine club, which offers a new wine to its members every month. In March, Cooper’s Hawk offered members an aromatic and sweet Orange Muscat, while April’s selection was a Petite Syrah that marked the first organic wine the company has made. The members-only wines, McEnery adds, do not find their way onto the restaurants’ overall wine menu; they add to the exclusivity of the loyalty program.

In all, McEnery says the tasting room—which encompasses both the wine club as well as retail wine sales—comprises roughly 25 percent of Cooper’s Hawk’s revenues.

New Horizons

With all of the emphasis on the winery, it’s easy to forget Cooper’s Hawk also has a comprehensive bar program that accounts for 40 percent of the beverage alcohol sold on-premise. “I would say the beer program satisfies a need for the people who want to drink beer, but the majority drink wine or spirits,” McEnery says, adding that alcohol sales split to about 60 percent wine, 25 percent liquor, and 15 percent beer.

Food, McEnery assures, is not an afterthought, either. “Somebody told me a long time ago that the No. 1 reason that people go out to eat is to eat. So we place a ton of emphasis on the food program.”

The food menu itself is 11 pages long, and offers everything from burgers and sandwiches to surf and turf, pasta, and pork chops. Winemaker Warren suggests pairings for each dish across the menu. The food and beverage R&D team reports directly to McEnery, who participates in and signs off on every food item that goes on the menu, and while the executive R&D chef works at the corporate level, each location also has an executive kitchen manager to handle operations at the store.

Servers undergo a thorough training when first brought on board, but the real training at Cooper’s Hawk comes from the daily materials and notes they receive before each shift. “If you were to talk to some of the individuals who’ve worked for our company for five or 10 years, they’re expert wine professionals, because they’ve gotten a little bit of education every day during that duration,” McEnery says. “That’s, in our opinion, the most efficient and best way for us to train.”

Cooper’s Hawk also offers to reimburse employees who would like to take wine courses in the industry, as long as they pass.

Competition to Cooper’s Hawk comes in the form of other upscale-casual eateries, such as The Cheesecake Factory and the Del Frisco’s suite of restaurants, and even from independent wine bars operating around the country. For a man who created the nation’s first system of winery and restaurants, though, the competitors are seen more as collaborators. “I like to think of them more as peers,” McEnery says.

And in the meantime, he’s driving his corporate strategy and keeping things interesting. Part of his success can be attributed to his open, easygoing personality and his constant desire to work with others—“If you’re not into developing people and working with them 24 hours a day, you should not be in the industry”—all of which rounds out his dedication to continually figuring out what the next great horizon is for Cooper’s Hawk.

At the end of the conversation, FSR asked McEnery to think of something about himself or the company that hasn’t been covered by any other publication yet. He hesitated, then asked if he could mull it over and send an email. Not 15 minutes later, an email from McEnery popped up with the subject line “Hello.” This spring, he said, his family got a dog and named him—what else—Cooper.