When Jair Coser arrived in Texas six years ago from Sao Paulo with a plan to open a chain of high-end Brazilian steakhouses in the US, restaurateurs told him that he was crazy. After all, demand for beef had been falling since 1980 as health-conscious Americans switched to poultry and fish. Who would spend US$60 for a bacchanalian, all-you-can-eat Brazilian buffet of barbecued beef sliced from skewers over their plates by waiters in gaucho outfits?
"The whole premise was politically incorrect for its time," said Coser, 46, chief executive and one of four partners in the restaurant chain Fogo de Chao (pronounced FOE-go-deh-shau). "I guess that also made it appealing."
Six years later, as high-protein, low-carbohydrate diets spur an increase in beef consumption, Fogo de Chao has become the driving force behind the country's growing love affair with Brazilian steakhouses, or churrascarias (pronounced shoo-HAHS-kah-ree-ahs). Most big cities have one, and some, like Dallas and Miami, have several. A Midtown Manhattan restaurant, Churrascaria Plataforma, will soon open a site in TriBeCa.
Fogo de Chao now owns restaurants in Dallas, Houston, Atlanta and Chicago, and three in Brazil; it plans to open a fifth American one in Beverly Hills, California, this year. With projected sales for this year of about US$50 million, or an average of more than US$12 million a restaurant, the chain is among the industry's more successful ventures in recent years.
"Fogo has set the standard among idea generators in the high-end restaurant business," said David Geraty, a restaurant industry analyst at RBC Capital Markets. "They've succeeded in fusing dining with entertainment, a proposition that's talked about a lot but rarely executed with success."
By entertainment, he means the way the food is presented in a sprawling ranch-style setting. Salad-bar offerings like hearts of palm and baked manioc and a bar serving caipirinhas, a cocktail made from the Brazilian sugar-cane rum called cachaca, are mere footnotes to the 15 varieties of meat that are served up, from beef cuts like picanha (rump roast seasoned with sea salt) and alcatra (top sirloin) to leg of lamb, pork sausage and chicken breasts wrapped in bacon. There are also side dishes like fried polenta, fried bananas and Brazilian cheese bread.
Waiters in the traditional billowing pants worn by gauchos, the cowboys of Argentina, southern Brazil and Uruguay, swirl from table to table, bewildering diners with platter after platter of meats on skewers. Each customer receives a disk that is green on one side, a signal for the waiters to bring on more platters; the disk can be flipped to red on the other, to plead with them to stop.
At the Houston restaurant, for example, the price is a fixed US$43.50 for dinner and US$25 for lunch, aside from beverages, which also include Argentine or Chilean wine. The restaurants have 845m2 to 1,161m2 of space and seat 280 to 350 people. The chefs are all from southern Brazil, as are about half the waiters, who receive several months' training at the Brazilian sites to make sure they master the mechanics and theatrics.
"The overwhelming atmosphere is what matters," said Ned Davis, a Houston sales executive and regular customer. "People I take to Fogo ask where the menu is. I say it's all around them on a bunch of skewers."