The most anticipated moment in dining—and the most fleeting—is the first bite, and one emerging chain has figured out how to capture and repeat that anticipation and reward cycle continuously: Fogo de Chão. What began in Porto Alegre, Brazil, as a humble churrascaria—a type of Brazilian steakhouse known for its unique tableside serving style—has rapidly evolved into a blazing global phenomenon with 75 locations and counting, including 60 locations in the U.S.
“That’s the unlock of discovery, because every time we grow, we reformulate and transform the brand footprint from this old-world churrascaria to where it’s a culinary art form [that] we’re celebrating,” says Barry McGowan, who joined the brand in 2013 as president and took the helm as CEO in January 2019.
With an unwavering commitment to authenticity and delivering an unforgettable dining experience, Fogo de Chão (pronounced fogo-dee-shown) is setting the steakhouse segment ablaze with its continued success. Part of the brand’s success can be attributed to the economic value of its buffet-style, all-you-can-eat approach, but it goes beyond just bang for your buck. Part of Fogo’s allure also comes from its unique service format.
Instead of servers, Gauchos slice pieces of meat off the skewers tableside, a serving style now known as rodízio. The brand’s signature flame-grilled meats are cooked to guests’ preferred temperature, a format which allows consumers to be in full control. Plus, customers can flip a card on their table to “green” which means “more please,” or red for “no thanks” to have more time to savor their cuts.
“Farm-to-fork, Fogo has been doing that for 45 years, so we’ve always been about wholesome, great food, whole food, simply prepared, and we really go back to the tradition of real hospitality of giving everybody what they want,” McGowan notes.
The Brazilian “all-you-can-experience” chain is expanding its footprint across the world to Ecuador, Turkey, Rhode Island, and more. In May, Fogo de Chão signed a lease to open its third Bay Area location in California, supporting the brand’s continued 15 percent annual restaurant growth across the U.S. In 2023, Fogo de Chão signed 12 new domestic and international leases and opened in key markets in Washington, Maryland, California, and New Jersey.
“When you go to South America, you go to Brazil, this style of dining is prevalent at every corner. So it’s something that’s authentic,” McGowan says. “International, this concept translates. I always say this, we’re one of the only international brands that has successfully penetrated the U.S. in scale.”
While Fogo’s approach is deeply rooted in the history of churrasco, the brand has also refreshed and modernized its offerings to create a unique, accessible dining experience that still honors its Brazilian roots. For example, the emerging chain revamped its Bar Fogo menu last March, which offers a smaller, specialized menu of bites inspired by Southern Brazil and its seasonal ingredients found on its Market Table, plus a selection of Brazilian wines and cocktails. (Fogo’s Market Table is a self-serve, buffet-style selection of fresh fruits, seasonal salads, cheeses, vegetables, hummus, and more.)
Additionally, guests can explore The Butcher Shop and purchase their own Brazilian cuts of meat while taking in expert guidance on preparation from gauchos.
“We’re building a brand globally, but we’re focusing on the consumer. What do they want? How do we serve them?” McGowan says. “[We’re] very aware that diet tribes are really important. And if you think about our SKUs, we have almost as many as a Cheesecake [Factory], we just don’t have it in the menu, and so it’s really simple to accommodate, and that’s what gives us an advantage.”
“I think that’s where dining is going. You see fast-casuals are getting more experiential,” he continues. “The industry is going through a renaissance. I think COVID was challenging, but a lot of good learnings brought us back to what’s most important, and I’d say the youngest, fastest-growing demographic has different expectations, and I feel like we fit that expectation really well.”
In 2018, Fogo’s demographics consisted of 79 percent Millennial and Gen X. In 2022, the brand reported 87 percent of its customers were Gen Z, Millennial and Gen X.
Though at first glance one might compare Fogo de Chão to other upscale steak places like Ruth’s Chris or LongHorn Steakhouse, McGowan doesn’t consider the brand to be in the steakhouse category. “It’s the variety and yes, we have proteins, but so does everybody else,” he explains. “This style of dining just makes it really universal and approachable, and that’s really why when you’re in our restaurant and you see the demographic dining, it’s not like going to a steakhouse. It’s a completely different occasion and different use.”
In new Fogo locations, the grill, butcher shop, and dry-aged cabinets are moved out front versus in the back, “so that you know it’s no secret,” McGowan says.
“I always ask, ‘why do we put it in the back?’ When everybody sees the experience, they understand the authenticity, and that chef that’s butchering, seasoning, and preparing [the meat] is also the chef that’s at your table serving you. That’s a very international style of dining.”
In addition to updating its interior layout, Fogo recently updated its staff uniforms—which used to have a more dated look—to a modern style that still harkens back to traditional gaucho attire. The brand’s investment in its people is another key highlight and factor in its success.
“We’re 140 percent staffed [compared] to 2019. We have team members that love our brand, and we’re just constantly investing in their development,” he says. “We’re motivated by opening more restaurants because we have the human capital to do it. The CapEx piece is the easier part. We work with developers [so] every one of our restaurants is uniquely designed to the space, and so we really focus on being in the heart of every community.”
As the brand grows to new markets, customers are discovering the value behind the all-you-can-eat price tag—which is steeper than most other casual-dining restaurants, but includes more higher-quality food and a unique experience. “They’re discovering, ‘oh wow, this is really strong value for money. And by the way, they have an all-day Happy Hour, and hey, have you had the wine and wagyu at the bar yet?’ There’s so much to enjoy and come back for, and that’s why our traffic keeps growing. That’s why, as we open our brand, our awareness is growing, and so is our frequency,” he adds.