How Fogo de Chão Brings Authentic Brazil to the U.S.

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Started more than 35 years ago in Brazil, Fogo de Chão aims to bring the culinary methods and tastes of southern Brazil to its nine locations in its home country, one in Puerto Rico, and 25 units in the U.S. It's one of a few international brands that has made a name for itself by expanding into the U.S.—rather than vice versa—and its upcoming growth and menu commitments demonstrate a savvy for market differentiation.

The restaurant presents itself as an experience for consumers who want to dine the way that southern Brazilian gauchos do, mimicking the southern Brazilian cowboy farming culture. It has a prix-fixe menu that allows guests access to the market table, where salads, cheeses, and produce prevail, and guests can also choose from a selection of meats, prepared in the authentic gaucho grilling style called churrasco.

Many of Fogo de Chão's chefs, even in the U.S., grew up on farms in southern Brazil and have worked their way up from Brazil to become managers in the U.S. In addition, each location has a head gaucho chef who is responsible for ensuring the food meets the expectations and integrates the culinary techniques properly.

What makes the brand, launched in 1979, relevant and fresh today is that there are few restaurants serving this style of cuisine to this level of authenticity, says director of marketing Andy Feldmann.

"There are amazing Italian restaurants in the U.S., Japanese restaurants, Greek restaurants, but to have a brand like ours—we actually started in Brazil and expanded here—versus just taking a concept from a country and integrating it here is very different," he says. "I think there are a handful of folks who have been able to do that, but I think that's very special about our team and the success they've had here."

A Mexico City location, the brand's first in Mexico, is planned for this spring, following recent openings in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and downtown Los Angeles. Feldmann says there are also plans for another unit in Brazil, as well as prolonged U.S. growth. At the moment, the U.S. locations are mostly contained to the top MSAs, such as Atlanta, Miami, Denver, and Minneapolis.

Though Feldmann declined to discuss revenues, average check, or financial information, the prix-fixe menu at most restaurants is priced at about $50, depending on which market the location is in and whether the guest chooses to do both the meat and market table.

Feldmann says the U.S. locations do not import meats from Brazil, due to import and export legislation, but the authentic is driven by the way the restaurant prepares and serves the meats.

"It also has to do with the palate of the U.S. and the consumers," he explains. "We're buying our meats from the same place that other great steakhouses buy their meats, so there is a familiarity with the way the meat is raised in the U.S. versus Brazil."

On the beverage side, the caipirinha, Brazil's national cocktail, reigns at Fogo de Chão. It is made with cachaça—a sugar cane liquor similar to rum that is distilled directly from the sugar cane—as well as limes and sugar. Feldmann says it's by and far the most popular cocktail, adding that the brand bottles its own styles of gold and silver cachaça in Brazil.

For the spring and summer, Fogo de Chão is adding two salads as well as a cucumber-based cocktail to its selections. The Cucumber Smash cocktail is made with Hendrick's Gin, balanced by mint, lemon juice, and simple syrup, while the salads include a Sugar Snap and Purple Cabbage Salad and a Watermelon, Feta, and Cucumber Salad. Feldmann says the brand constantly looks to what is popular in Brazil, such as the ubiquity of watermelon.

The restaurant also pays close attention to what resonates with guests over time, so when a new product launches, it’s the culmination of weeks of feedback.

"It's not just about one particular salad, but the feedback channel we've created in our restaurants so that we're able to add a couple salads when we do our seasonals," he says. "Part of our decision process [with new menu additions] is, how does it fit into the overall experience and our other offerings? When a guest goes to Fogo, they're not just experiencing that one salad, it goes with the whole market table, as well. So, how it fits into that larger experience is very important."

Limited-time offerings at Fogo de Chão are intended to be just that—limited—Feldmann says, although popular options have in the past become full-time players on the menu. He says last year's kale orange salad was quickly beloved and found a spot on the year-round menu, with the restaurant being able to source the right product and quality the whole year. On the protein side, last fall's cured pork chop proved so popular, the restaurant left it on the menu post-autumn.

"We're at an advantage because of the way our menu works," Feldmann says. "Guests can come in and try everything, if they like."

By Sonya Chudgar 

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