A Special Sizzle
Brazilian steakhouses deliver a cultural shift in upscale dining where guests are served a variety of meat in abundance.
Some restaurants telegraph their specialties in their names—barbecue joints, crab shacks, steakhouses. But these days, steakhouses don’t always fit the traditional mold: Across the country, beef has gone Brazilian. In a Brazilian steakhouse, like Fogo de Chão or Texas de Brazil, the salad bar is long, the side dishes are many, and the meat is served until diners say when.
Here’s how it works: For a fixed price, customers help themselves to a wide variety of salads and side dishes as servers roam the dining floor with various cuts of meat, anything from lamb to filet mignon. Tables have two-sided coasters, red on one side, green on the other. Green means the table would like meat service, which is portioned out by roaming servers; red means the table is taking a break. Repeat as desired.
“If you go to an American steakhouse, you may love every bite, but that’s all you’re going to have,” says Evandro Caregnato, culinary director at Texas de Brazil. “In a churrascaria, like ours, you have the opportunity—for pretty much the same price—to sample many different things. Variety is what makes it so different.” Not to mention that customers with dietary preferences, like gluten-free, low-carb, even vegetarian, can customize meals that suit them.
Texas de Brazil began in Addison, Texas, in 1998, and now has over 40 locations, including new outposts in Dubai and South Korea. The family-owned company runs domestic locations; international ones are franchised. Brazilian-born Caregnato has been with the restaurant since the beginning, bringing the tricks he learned from his grandfather: Sixteen different cuts of meat—including braised beef ribs, Brazilian picanha, bacon-wrapped filet mignon, and Parmesan-crusted pork loin—are cooked over the traditional charcoal and served by gauchos in the Brazilian style, sliced from a long skewer tableside.
Service in Brazil is more casual, Caregnato says: “At Texas de Brazil, we do it a little more formally: still comfortable, not intrusive … a little more polished.” Dinner checks average $45 to $50 per person, depending on location.
“My job is very easy because we don’t have to develop new items,” Caregnato says. “The meat is 100 percent the way I used to do it in Brazil, how I learned from my grandfather.” Meals begin with Brazilian cheese bread. Side dishes include garlic mashed potatoes and sweet fried bananas. The salad bar area serves a whopping 50 to 60 items, from Brazilian hearts of palm and sautéed mushrooms to the ever-popular lobster bisque and potato gratin, and these remain mostly unchanged. “Every time we try to change something, someone gets upset,” Caregnato says. There used to be a soup du jour, for instance, but the demand for lobster bisque was so huge that it earned a full-time slot. “We make little changes, but very little. We’re not too trendy. It’s tradition.”
Tradition is also integral to operations at another popular Brazilian steakhouse, Fogo de Chão. Chief executive Larry Johnson encountered Fogo de Chão in Brazil, where founders Jair Coser, Ari Coser, Jorge Ongaratto, and Aleixo Ongaratto (two sets of brothers) opened their first location in the Brazilian countryside and their second in Sao Paulo.
“The first thing that caught my eye was that they were pioneers in elevating churrascaria to a fine-dining experience: world-class food and service,” Johnson says. He thought the combination of a relaxed white-tablecloth environment and a variety of foods would connect with U.S. diners. He was right: Fogo de Chão opened its first U.S. location in Dallas in 1997, and it now operates 26 units in 16 states, plus 10 in Brazil. Another five openings were announced in summer 2015, including Fogo de Chão’s first venture into New Orleans.
In 2014, Fogo de Chão brought in $262 million in revenue, with an average unit volume of $8 million. That “spirit of fun and celebration” that resonated with Johnson hasn’t changed: “There are lots of happy people in a Fogo de Chão,” he says.
The chain, which has an average check of $59, serves a traditional menu: up to 20 cuts of meat, including picanha; alcatra, a Southern Brazilian steakhouse specialty cut of beef; hearts of palm; farofa, a Brazilian staple of yucca flour sautéed with bacon, sausage and seasonings; and some new touches. For instance, last year it introduced seafood options, like mango Chilean sea bass and grilled and spiced shrimp skewers. At the restaurant’s market tables diners find a wide range of salads, from apple salad to the seasonal Brussels sprout salad with bacon, as well as fresh vegetables.
As at Texas de Brazil, the unique gaucho server is a key feature of the Fogo de Chão experience. (Fogo’s gauchos cook over charcoal or natural gas, depending on location; many urban locations necessitate gas.) “When we do focus groups [to survey our guests], the service is so seamless that often guests didn’t understand that the server was their personal chef,” Johnson says. It’s a model that both enhances the customer experience and saves money: Johnson estimates that Fogo de Chão’s labor costs—despite staffing each restaurant with 70–80 employees—are about two-thirds that of full-service peers.
Costs aren’t so simple in another area: Brazilian steakhouses operate at a time when beef prices are constantly on the rise. Fogo de Chão butchers meat in-house, which gives it flexibility, Johnson says. For instance, it can wait to offer strip steak, which is at peak demand and price in the summer, during the fall. “We’re not filet- or rib eye–centric,” Johnson says. “The mix helps us control meat and food costs.”
Caregnato says Texas de Brazil accepts that meat prices will fluctuate—the price for picanha is 100 percent higher than it was in 2007—but it weathers changes without passing the increase on to diners. “This market goes up and down,” he says. “We change once in a while, but we wait until there’s nothing else we can do.”
In addition to fixed-price services, Fogo de Chão and Texas de Brazil also operate bar areas that offer the same lively atmosphere with à la carte samplings of the restaurants’ signature flavors, from the picanha sliders and polenta fries at Bar Fogo to the meat platters and bowls of lobster bisque at Texas de Brazil’s Beijos Bar and Lounge. It’s a natural outgrowth: Wine and steak is a classic pairing, and Fogo de Chão and Texas de Brazil both offer award-winning wine programs. Fogo de Chão has won Wine Spectator’s Award of Excellence multiple years in a row, and Texas de Brazil has been named a Wine Spectator “best restaurant for wine.”