Tim McEnery, founder and chief executive of Cooper’s Hawk Winery & Restaurant, thought the idea for his upscale-casual eatery with an attached winery, a retail shop and a tasting room was so obvious there would be a million competitors.
But he was pleasantly surprised when an exhaustive search nine years ago turned up only a handful of concepts in the United States like the one he envisioned. Today Cooper’s Hawk has grown to four units in the Chicago suburbs with a fifth scheduled to open in November in Indianapolis.
Industry investors think the restaurant is a good idea as well. Cooper’s Hawk secured funding in February from private-equity firm KarpReilly LLC to finance its growth. Plans call for one to three new units next year.
“The biggest part of Cooper’s Hawk we talked about [when pitching investors] was that it’s different,” McEnery said. “There’s so much competition in this industry, especially casual dining. [The winery] does separate us from the average upscale-casual restaurant, as does the diversification of our revenue streams with the wine tasting room and the retail portion.”
Cooper’s Hawk’s growth plans come at a time when alcohol sales are expected to rebound moderately. In a revised forecast for 2010, Chicago-based market research firm Technomic projected that total alcohol sales would increase 1.1 percent, although wine sales were expected to fall 0.6 percent due to people trading down to less expensive bottles and making more purchases by the glass.
“There’s still a strong wine-consuming base of people, so a forecast in the decline of wine is a comment on some macro issues impacting the category,” said David Henkes, vice president of Technomic’s on-premise practice. “Consumption is flat or maybe increasing, but we’re seeing a decline in sales because of product mix. The challenge is that consumers are returning to restaurants, but their [old] drinking behavior hasn’t caught up. It’s all about helping them develop a distinguishing feature of their beverage program.”
McEnery said his restaurant’s 48 proprietary wines make it as well-positioned as any company to capitalize on wine trends by offering tastings and flights at affordable prices.
Another major draw is the Cooper’s Hawk Wine Club, which has more than 17,000 members and is growing steadily, said club manager Christine Schlesser. The club is free to join and requires only that members purchase the one bottle per month that Cooper’s Hawk produces exclusively for members. Tours of wine regions, a newsletter, special tastings and members-only events — the last one featured a cooking demonstration by celebrity chef Rick Bayless — add an educational element to the regular perks of Wine Club status, which include a free meal on a member’s birthday and a points-based loyalty program.
McEnery said education is especially crucial to Cooper’s Hawk’s staff. They must not only possess an in-depth knowledge of wine, but also must be familiar with the restaurant’s broad menu and its requisite upscale-casual dishes like Red Wine & Mustard Short Ribs and Pistachio Crusted Grouper.
Servers and tasting room attendants receive continuous training, he said, including winery tours and full-day courses with a certified master sommelier. When staffers have reached the highest level of wine education, they receive a special pin to wear during their shifts.
“Whenever you go out to an upscale-casual restaurant and above, you expect good wine knowledge,” McEnery said. “But here, where we make our own wines, it’s more expected that we’re the cream of the crop in wine education.”
Contact Mark Brandau at [email protected].