4 Rivers founder readies to open The Coop

Signs of an impending opening hang over The Coop, founded by Winter Park’s John Rivers.

Signs of an impending opening hang over The Coop, founded by Winter Park’s John Rivers.

Tim Freed

Share »

The culinary mind that brought 4 Rivers Smokehouse to Central Florida will cook up a new fried chicken haven in Winter Park by next month.

John Rivers will open The Coop for business in mid-April, serving up classic southern comfort food at a remodeled location on the southwest corner of Morse Boulevard and Pennsylvania Avenue.

The Coop allows Rivers to create something new while maintaining the fun, homey feel of his original smokehouse, he said.

“This gave me the chance to develop close to a hundred new recipes,” Rivers said. “… Putting together a menu is like making a piece of art. You put a couple things and a couple colors on there and see how they mix and match.”

“It gave me a chance to create again, and I’ve absolutely enjoyed every moment of it.”

Rivers’ newest endeavor leaves the smoker at home and sports a line of deep fryers instead, placing chicken at the forefront of the menu. Other dishes include grits, shrimp and oyster po’ boys, collard greens, beef stew, fried catfish, okra and shrimp perloo, an old cousin of jambalaya.

It all happens inside a red cinder-block building with hardwood floors, mismatched tables and chairs, and a side room with wide-open windows and a wood painted ceiling, giving it the look of a back porch.

“The main point is to feel at home, it’s to feel that family environment and that family tone,” said The Coop general manager John Hufferd, who started at the 4 Rivers location in Winter Park more than three years ago.

“It’s grandma’s house.”

The 4 Rivers franchise that launched Rivers to barbecue stardom continues to rapidly expand, adding locations in Gainesville and Jacksonville last year. A new smokehouse under construction in east Orlando near UCF will be the chain’s fifth location.

Lines of hungry locals snake out the door on a daily basis – just a glimpse of the food’s cult following.

A new eatery from the mind of 4 Rivers would surely thrive, Winter Park resident Julie Garner said.

“If John Rivers is involved, it’s going to be very successful,” said Garner, finishing her meal outside 4 Rivers’ Winter Park location.

“He has the Midas touch when it comes to restaurants.”

Longwood resident and 4 Rivers fan Michael Burns saw a home-style eat station as a perfect transition from the barbecue chain.

“It’s always good to have some southern comfort food,” Burns said.

The Coop comes to Winter Park as one of the newest restaurants defined as “fast food” under the city’s zoning regulations, or a location where customers pay before eating and bus their own tables, among other criteria.

City Commissioners passed an ordinance last September that banned eating establishments along Park Avenue that fell under that category – a response to the voiced disapproval from merchants and residents over Firehouse Subs and BurgerFi joining the city’s downtown.

“At the end of the day I think there was real concern from Park Avenue and some of the merchants and landowners along there,” Mayor Ken Bradley said. “I don’t know that there was a particular outcry from any more residents than there ever is an outcry from anything else.”

“Those who are passionate are passionate about everything and those who aren’t don’t seem to be passionate about anything and accept where Winter Park is going.”

There’s still plenty of room for everyone in Winter Park when it comes to food, even if there’s a great emphasis on fine dining, Rivers said.

“The climate and expectation of the quality of food in Winter Park demands from the customer base that you’ve got to produce exceptionally tasting food,” Rivers said. “There’s an opportunity to provide exceptionally good tasting food at a more attainable price point, and that’s exactly what we do at the smokehouse.”

Rivers still remembers the humble beginnings of 4 Rivers Smokehouse as it steadily climbed – a journey that he gets to relive all over again with The Coop, one plate at a time.

“People forget that when we opened the smokehouse back in 2009, my number one goal was just to make enough money to pay the bills,” Rivers said. “It was a brand new concept and a brand new idea.”

“I think people just assume and expect The Coop to grow as exponentially quick as the smokehouse has, but it’s the same goal: I want to open it and you’ve got to pour attention and time and focus into making it exceptional.”