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Cooper’s Hawk tries a new workforce development strategy: BMWs

General managers and executive kitchen managers can get free BMW leases for three years based on their ability to develop employees.
Photograph courtesy of Cooper's Hawk Winery & Restaurants

Josh Esquivel, general manager of the Cooper’s Hawk Winery & Restaurants location in St. Charles, Ill., didn’t think much of it when a couple of area directors showed up to his restaurant for a “meeting” in February, or when Jason Plutz, the chain’s senior vice president of operations, joined them.

“We often have area directors drop by to check in,” Esquivel said. “We had a few people show up. They came in and said they were having a meeting.”

And then they asked Esquivel to come out back, where the eight-year company veteran was presented with a black BMW 300 Series with a big, red bow, surrounded by much of Esquivel’s team and many of the chain’s leaders.

“They really surprised us,” he said. “I just walked out the door and there was this black BMW with a giant bow on it. I was just like, ‘Wow.’”

This is how important general managers are to growing upscale casual chains: Companies are giving out cars to their best performers.

In this case, the car is part of an incentive program that Cooper’s Hawk started last year to encourage its general managers to develop and mentor quality employees.

The Driving Development Program was created as a way to get general managers to develop new leaders and keep that top of mind, even as the they work on the day-to-day business of running a restaurant and wine club.

“We’ve looked at doing a car program over the years,” said Kristen Zagozdon, vice president of human resources for the Downers Grove, Ill.-based chain. “Other companies are doing it for sales results or financial metrics. We looked at some of the growth and started looking at the importance of developing people internally, and how team members reach full potential.

“The thing that’s the biggest driver of success for people’s development is leaders.”

But, she said, it’s difficult to develop future leaders and run busy restaurants at the same time. The company thought an incentive program, with a BMW as the incentive, would help keep it top of mind for restaurant general managers and executive kitchen managers. “The kitchen is so critical to our success,” Zagozdon said.

The chain holds a competition, awarding points to general managers and executive kitchen managers based on their ability to develop employees. For instance, Zagozdon said, a GM gets more points for developing someone into a GM than if they develop someone into a restaurant manager.

The idea is to encourage managers to take workers under their wing and help them advance through the company. “We want our leaders focused on our people and helping them achieve and grow with us” Zagozdon said.

That’s important for Cooper’s Hawk, a fast-growing chain in constant need of new managers.

Between 2013 and the end of 2018, Cooper’s Hawk grew to 35 locations from just 14, according to data from Restaurant Business sister company Technomic.

That’s 21 full-service, upscale-casual restaurant chains with major wine programs, all in need of new general managers and executive kitchen managers.

Finding those employees isn’t easy. High unemployment has increased the competitiveness for restaurant managers. Chains are increasing their benefits and other strategies to lure more managers to their restaurants, but they are also focused heavily on development.

Developing from within is a better strategy for a chain like Cooper’s Hawk. “We know them, and they know our culture,” Zagozdon said.

The luxury car was viewed as a particularly strong incentive. “We wanted it to be a luxury car, one that our general managers might not spend their money on themselves, but something that would make them proud of what they do every day,” Zagozdon said.

Managers who win a BMW get a three-year lease, but they have to maintain their status after the first year to keep the car. So far, the company has awarded 16 BMWs.

What happens after the lease is up? “That’s to be determined,” Zagozdon said. The program is just 2 years old, after all.

Esquivel, who has been with Cooper’s Hawk since 2011, said that the program did create a lot of energy within the brand. He helped seven people get promoted last year, earning him enough points for the Beemer.

But he also said that it wasn’t the driving force behind his efforts to develop employees last year.

“At the end of the day, it has to be something you have a passion for,” he said. “Getting the car in and of itself will not get you there. For me, it’s deeper. These are people I care about, the managers who work for me.”

“A lot of people work in the restaurant,” he added. “They have families and people they care about. When they get promoted, it’s a big deal. They can provide more for their families. Knowing I was able to help seven different people onto the next level last year, that for me was the real reward.”

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