the neighbor you don't know
by rosemary ferrara
His name is Mike Cochrane but most know him as “Neighbor.” He is the man behind the nationally acclaimed Black Dog Smoke and Ale House in Urbana. While his barbeque is what has garnered the attention he has received, his genius goes far beyond what the public sees.
Previous to Black Dog, Neighbor was a bartender at Esquire in Champaign for 15 years. This is where I first met him. We had a mutual friend, affectionately called Moon, who had hit hard times. Neighbor helped organize a group to give him a birthday surprise and somehow got Moon out of his house all day. While Moon was gone, Neighbor and others went into Moon's home, which was given a much needed deep cleaning. Appliances such as the toilet and fridge were repaired or replaced. A brand-new DVD player (a big deal in 2001) was purchased and installed. That night, about 15 of us went out for dinner. Neighbor had bought a copy of Moon's favorite movie on DVD and after the meal asked me to present it to him. It was wrapped in plain brown paper and we had all signed it. I climbed into Moon's lap and handed it to him while we all watched in dead silence as he opened it. He seemed confused but happy. Moon was thanking us and saying he didn't have a DVD player but he would buy one real soon. I whispered in his ear that he did have one, as Neighbor, digital camera in hand, showed Moon pictures of his house make-over. Moon, overwhelmed, shot out of his chair – and I hit the ground.
I love this story. In part, because my immature sense of humor always enjoys people falling, but mostly because it tells the true greatness of Neighbor. He has an earnest desire to help others in his community, is a great leader and very modest. These personality traits have all carried over into his business practices and he now runs one of the most progressive restaurants in the area.
Black Dog carries as many local products as possible – not as specials, but on their permanent menu. Ground beef is bought from Central Meats in Paxton. Chicken and turkey are free-range birds from local Amish farms; various vegetables and cheese are from the Blue Moon and Prairie Fruits farms. Bottled sodas are ordered through Homer Soda Company. Tea and coffee come from Columbia Street Roastery in Champaign. And the list goes on and on.
Operating a restaurant this way, as opposed to normal restaurant practice in which almost everything is purchased from two or three large corporate purveyors, is far more expensive and time consuming. However, Neighbor's strategy is simple and successful. Buying fresh and local leads to a better product, wherein his integrity lies, but also fuels other independent businesses, a natural instinct for him. An instinct which has landed Black Dog a spot as a leading force in the revitalization of downtown Urbana.
In addition to bringing large numbers of consumers into the area, Neighbor has built bridges with other Mom and Pop's in the area. If Bunny's Bar and Grill across the street suddenly runs out of napkins, a bartender is sent to Black Dog, where they may stock up with only a hand written IOU. Signs once hung in Black Dog suggesting that during a long wait for a table, guests should walk over to Buvon's for a glass of wine.
Neighbor's actions speak the truth: A win for one independent business is a win for all independent businesses. No individual Mom and Pop will break the corporate machine, but all Moms and Pops working together will.
His actions within the restaurant speak even louder. During an employee meeting with the front of the house staff at Black Dog, Neighbor's message was not the usual sales and sanitation lecture that servers and bartenders are accustomed to. He spoke of his intentions: to do right by his business partner (Pedro Heller), who took a huge chance on him when he agreed to open Black Dog, and to do right by his employees. If Black Dog is a permanent gig for you, he wants you to be happy and excel in his restaurant. If not, he wants to help you reach the next step.
The latter is evident, as seen by owners of Eclectic and The Butcher Shop in Urbana, both former employees of Neighbor's. His policies and pay back up his talk. Although Neighbor accredits it to Heller, no one at Black Dog makes minimum wage. No one! Everyone is paid a fair living wage. Full time employees are offered health insurance benefits. These practices are unheard of in the restaurant industry, but Black Dog shows it can be done and the return is hardworking, loyal and healthy employees.
As one co-worker stated the most amazing thing about Neighbor is his humility. At the end of the day, when all is said and done, Neighbor admits to merely being a restaurant owner. And if you ask him about his biggest accomplishments, he doesn't speak of awards, money or status. He shows you one of his thousands of pictures of his wife and children.
Disclaimer: While I've had the pleasure of working at Black Dog for almost 4 years, this piece is in no way meant to be pandering to our guests or my boss. It is meant to encourage and inspire other independent businesses, as well as raise awareness among local consumers.