Fogo de Chão server cuts meat in front of customers.
Fogo de Chão

There are no shortage of changes taking place these days at Fogo de Chão.

Fogo de Chão Hits its Stride by Mixing Trend with Tradition

The 40-year-old brand stays relevant by blending its storied legacy with constant innovations.

Fogo de Chão offers all the elements of a traditional churrascaria—endless portions, premium cuts of barbecued meats, a range of South American wines, and moody, posh interiors.

However, the 40-year-old Brazilian steakhouse chain keeps customers coming back with its exploratory mix of not only these more traditional elements, but also innovations. The brand is incrementally adding an in-house off-premises ordering system; plant-based proteins are in testing stages; and CEO Barry McGowan says that Fogo customers are, on the whole, younger than typical steakhouse guests.

“We draw nearly 80 percent millennial and Gen X customers and around 20 percent baby boomers, which is almost the opposite of others in our category,” McGowan—who was named CEO in December 2018 after acting as the company’s president—says. “Generationally, we see parents bring kids in, then those kids are growing up and bringing their own kids, so we have that continued customer growth.”

This lasting relevancy is evident in the chain’s continued success. The 57-location brand just finished up its sixth year of positive traffic, and six new stores are in the pipeline for 2020. McGowan also expects a few new international partners to sign on in the first part of the year.

Evolving the Fogo experience

Fogo was designed with exploration at its core, making it a great canvas for continued culinary and experiential innovation. “People come back because it’s still a discovery each time you go. We continue adding new things for customers year after year,” McGowan says.

The menu is a constantly-changing smorgasbord of prime cuts of fire-roasted beef, pork, lamb, and chicken served rodizio-style (shaved off skewers), seafood, indulgent sides like Fogo Feijoada (a traditional Brazilian black bean stew with sausage and white rice), and the Market Table—an all-you-can-eat selection of whole fruits and vegetables, charcuterie, cheeses, antipasti, and salads. There are no menus, with customers calling the shots on what foods they try from the kitchen and Market Table.

Fogo de Chão

The brand's famed Market Table.

This open-ended food formula means it’s easy to mix in new menu items and dayparts, and Fogo is no stranger to adding both. Over the last couple of years, the chain has rolled out Bar Fogo, a lighter, daypart-widening small plates and happy hour menu; a Brazilian brunch that begins at 11 a.m. on Saturdays and Sundays; and rotating seasonal menus. In 2018, dry-aged ribeye and new seafood options (including a chilled seafood tower) were introduced, and wagyu New York strip steaks were added in time for the holidays in 2019.

McGowan says that indulgent offerings will increase this year, along with the addition of more vegetarian- and vegan-friendly options, including plant-based proteins. While Fogo has yet to officially introduce a plant-based alternative to its menu, McGowan says the brand is in the process of evaluating all of the new products on the market and expects to announce new items in the near future.

“We like to say when people come to Fogo de Chão, if they like something, we have it. Bigger chains are adding plant-based right now, so it’s relevant and people are aware of it,” McGowan says. “I do not believe it will overtake items like an indulgent wagyu steak, but we see it as an innovation to support where the customer wants to be and further eliminate the veto vote.”

Vegetarian and vegan offerings are already in place at Fogo. The Market Table offers 15-20 superfoods at any moment that are primarily gluten-free, nut-free whole foods like fresh fruits and vegetables, a vegan menu is already available, and a parmesan-seared cauliflower steak was added at the end of 2019.

New plant-based proteins would bolster this host of already-existent meatless choices, in keeping with Fogo’s classic meat-carving dining experience. McGowan says a fresh plant-forward menu will make its debut in June, and some plant-based alternatives could be among its offerings. In addition to finding a place on the vegan menu, he says that plant-based meats will be mixed into the Market Table and also served around in the traditional churrasco experience.

The experiential updates extend beyond the menu into restaurant and bar design, too. Fogo is in its fourth year of reimaging its restaurants; the Market Table has been refreshed, and dry-aged lockers for dry-aging and curing meats in-house have been put in place at certain stores. The reimages also include shifting the churrasco butchery into the center of the dining room, as well as bar updates.

“The immediacy of our concept is an advantage, but we realized, once we updated the bar, that people are lingering and staying longer,” McGowan says. “So we’re reformulating the bar environment to make it more comfortable and more relevant for our customers to linger and enjoy.”

The bar reformulations are top-of-mind this year. This part of the reimaging involves elevated scotch programs, new seating arrangements, and (testing now in several locations) gentle live bossa nova music on Thursdays, Friday, and Saturdays.

Fogo de Chão

Indulgent offerings will increase this year.

Increasing tech and off-premises platforms

Like most foodservice companies in 2020, Fogo is considering how it will respond to a range of new players in the off-premises and tech spaces. While the chain is one steeped in tradition, it also prides itself on innovation, and these areas are no exception.

For instance, in spite of Fogo’s highly experiential nature, customer demand for off-premises led brand to begin testing delivery in 2019. The platform—now in place in seven restaurants—will grow incrementally, McGowan says.

The company waited to kick off delivery until it had put a system in place that satisfied customers’ cravings for fast, fine dining off-site and also fit Fogo to a tee.

“For me, this has to be incremental. We deliver ourselves, and we’re never going to use a third-party service, because we want to own our consumer experience,” McGowan says. “We actually call an Uber and deliver, because we’re not going to let somebody interfere.”

The minimum order is $200, and orders must be placed two hours ahead of time. McGowan says the average ticket price is around $600 and building.

Fogo is also incorporating technology into on-premises ordering. Pay-at-the-table has been in place at the restaurants for just over a year, and order-at-the-table is already testing in some locations with full expansion coming up.

“Our objective with this technology is to enhance the guest experience further. We’re not going to leave stuff on the table, it’s all about getting the guest what they want more efficiently and seamlessly,” McGowan says.

Other new technology is in the works that will make Fogo’s sourcing more transparent and trackable. In 2019, the brand became one of the first restaurant chains in the U.S. to adopt blockchain technology that enables meat served to be tracked from pasture to plate.

Through its partnership with HerdX—a startup company that provides operators and customers with traceability information—Fogo is working to implement technology that will allow guests to see where their meats originated on their smartphones.

The technology has operational benefits in addition to increasing customer loyalty. In the case of a recall or other crisis, the visibility brought about by HerdX will enable Fogo staff to spot the source of the issue immediately. McGowan says he hopes to see the technology start to become available in the next six to nine months, and that, once the system is rolled out fully, other brands will look into utilizing it, as well.

“Soon, you’ll be able to see the full provenance of our ingredients all the way from our vendor partners in New Zealand. We want to prove this tech out and help commoditize it so it’s available to everybody in the industry,” he says. “Our industry overall does a tremendous job with keeping food safe, but this visibility is critical. We want that full traceability of product, so we know right where our product is at, and we can control it and preserve our guest experience.”