It didn’t take long for Matt McMillin to understand what he was getting himself into. “The first time I walked onto a bus, one of the wine club members said, ‘Hey, it’s great to meet you. When are you bringing the Thai Flatbread back,” McMillin recalls, laughing. “So everybody always has their favorites, you know?”

The executive chef and vice president of beverage and culinary innovation at Cooper’s Hawk Winery & Restaurants has a few more opinions to sift through than most. The 160,000-plus members of the 22-unit restaurant group’s celebrated wine club are given a chance to directly affect the brand’s culture. Perhaps most notably, feedback is pointed right in the place where guests praise and complain quite often: the food. 

In March, Cooper’s Hawk unveiled its spring menu. The brand, which began in Orland Park, Illinois, in 2005, and has since spread to locations in Indiana, Missouri, Ohio, Florida, Virginia, and Wisconsin, typically executes one major menu overhaul a year. This one was built from the outside in. After addressing the initial questions—what’s selling, trending, and being ignored—McMillin says the company started listening to crowd noise. For research, there’s one big wine club event each month, as well as destination trips that blend Cooper’s Hawk brass into the mix.

“I was in Portugal last May with a group of 20, and they’re real vocal,” McMillin explains. “So not only are we dining together, having a great experience together, but it’s an opportunity for me as a chef to hang out with the heavy users of our brand who give us a tremendous amount of feedback.”

A trip this past year to New England let club members sample cuisine from Nantucket to Martha’s Vineyard. The experience, dotted with servings of lobster rolls and shrimp boils, prompted a wine clubber to suggest a themed dinner to punctuate the experience. Hence, a base for the Toast to the Coast dinner in March was formed. “We did different courses from all of the different areas that we visited and it was crazy popular,” McMillin says.

Don’t be surprised if something similar follows McMillin’s spring trip to the Southern Coast of Italy, which he took with 35 members. “I’m going to be sending pictures and ideas back to my research team and we’re going to craft a menu from all the places we went to,” he notes. Similarly, CEO and founder Tim McEnery is also traveling to Canada with a group.

McMillin says Cooper’s Hawk also takes into account user reviews, such as comments left on sites like Yelp and TripAdvisor, but that nothing quite beats face-to-face feedback. “It inspires this idea of making [the brand] their own and making it something special where the guest feels their voice is heard. What restaurant can guests go to and feel heard, where they can make an impact on some decisions that are going on with the company?” McMillin says. “That’s the beauty of the wine club. It’s the lifeblood of what we do.”

Casual Dining, Chain Restaurants, Feature, Menu Innovations, Cooper's Hawk Winery & Restaurant