Veteran Chef Matt McMillin On The Essential Ingredients of Scaling A Restaurant Group

a photo of Molly Weinberg

Molly Weinberg

5 min read

Sep 20, 2019

Veteran Chef Matt McMillin On The Essential Ingredients of Scaling A Restaurant Group

Matt McMillin, chef of Chicago-based Cooper’s Hawk Winery & Restaurant, has dedicated his life to creating new culinary experiences. Since joining Cooper’s Hawk in 2010, McMillin has helped Founder & CEO Tim McEnery to scale their restaurant and retail operation to over $340 million in annual revenue. All the while, the pair has maintained the restaurant’s founding ethic of seasonally-inspired foods and fine wine.

Headshot of Chef Matt McMillin Cooper's Hawk Winery - Scaling a Restaurant Group

Prior to Cooper’s Hawk, McMillin spent 15 years as a partner in the Lettuce Entertain You restaurant group, opening a number of concepts including Big Bowl, Ben Pao, Mity Nice Grill, Shaw’s Crab House and Vong’s Thai Kitchen. He’s also worked with French restaurants like Carlos, Le Francais, and Café Provencal.

In addition to co-authoring the cookbook Big Bowl Noodles and Rice, he served as a judge on the Thanksgiving edition of Throwdown! with Bobby Flay and appeared on numerous national cooking segments.

We sat down with McMillin to learn how he’s been able to conceptualize, execute, and expand his diverse culinary visions over the course of a thirty-year career. Here, in his own words, are the most important lessons he’s learned about scaling a restaurant group.

You’re only as good as your inputs

McMillin: In 1993, we started Big Bowl, a restaurant where customers could build their own Chinese and Southeast Asian dishes. Big Bowl was my baby. We opened up eight or nine restaurants before we sold it to Brinker International in 2001.

One of the great lessons we learned then was not to let someone else make decisions regarding the food. We thought Brinker knew best. We started outsourcing all of our sauces and food products. That was a mistake.

There are a lot of great “manufacturers” out there. If you ask them to make something for you, they may try to talk you into using whatever products they have in-house. They’ll tell you it’s less expensive. Really, it’s less work for them than going out and sourcing a new ingredient. 

This was a lesson I took to heart when I joined Cooper’s Hawk. I learned to be very meticulous about the way we created food and experiences in our restaurants. Now, even if we do enlist a company to make something for us, it’s our recipe, it’s our spec, it’s our ingredients.

Our gnocchi is a great example. It was the first dish that I put on the menu. It’s a ricotta gnocchi versus potato gnocchi that most people are familiar with. We partnered with a first-generation Italian family from Franklin Park and they hand-make it for us. We freeze them and ship them to our restaurants all over the country. As you can imagine, when we started it was a couple cases here and there and now it’s thousands and thousands of pounds of gnocchi that we ship around the country every week.

In the back of the house we have a system that houses all our recipes. Every restaurant around the country has the same information. We train shoulder-to-shoulder, but this system allows us to push out our specials, our chef recommendations, any new menu items for the wine club dinners we do every month. This way, they’re readily available usually about six weeks before our staff even has to run them. The team can print them, download them, look at them, and practice if they need to.

I could be on a mountain in Thailand and make a change to the menu that pushes out to every restaurant at the same time. That’s pretty cool.

Marketing and customer engagement drives loyalty

Social media is huge. Everyday we’re out there posting about what’s going on with our company, aligning it with what’s trending: Pinot Day, National Hamburger Day, Favorite Wine, etc. We saw an uptick in our special sales when we started doing food photography and published videos of us preparing the specials every month.

Our marketing team is constantly shooting videos. We’re very fortunate to have an in-house videographer, so we can create content and push it out over social media whenever we want. We also send out a monthly newsletter.

Take care of your team

As a values-driven organization, we care about our people first and foremost. We recently launched a program where we go to every restaurant and hand out bottles of wine etched with the employee’s name on their ten-year anniversary.

Once a year, we bring our general managers, area culinary managers and leadership team together for a retreat. Last June we were in Cabo. This past January, we went to Napa Valley. Next June we’re taking everybody to Vegas—probably 120, 140 people. We even like to include our vendors in this program.

I think people want to be heard. We visit each restaurant and talk frankly about what’s going great, and what’s maybe not going so well. If there’s a problem, the staff will know about it before we do.

How to scale a restaurant group: Build loyalty

In a diverse group like McMillin’s, each restaurant is its own concept. That’s why Cooper’s Hawk stays ahead of the pack by leveraging technology to attract and retain customers, grow its brand, and increase revenue year over year.

Are you interested in cutting-edge technology that drives revenue and boosts loyalty for your establishment? Check out the SevenRooms reservation, seating, and guest engagement platform here.

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