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Let's Get Brazilian

Let's Get Brazilian. A new term is rapidly making its way into the dining out vocabulary for many Americans, and a pair of brothers from Rio Grande do Sul are leading the charge to make Brazilian food as popular as Italian, Mexican, and Chinese. Fogo de Chao brings the cowboy (gaucho) culture of Brazil to the US in a style that features skewered fresh meats roasted over open pits (churrasco), continuous service (espeto corrido) where customers can sample from the entire menu, and traditional chefs who slice meats tableside. Guests pay a flat rate, roughly $40, and help themselves to a 30-plus-item salad buffet. Traditional side dishes of warm cheese bread, fried bananas, crispy hot polenta, and seasoned mashed potatoes are automatically brought to each table and replenished throughout the meal. When customers are ready, they use a disk with a green and a red side to signal they're ready to be served by the Gaucho chefs. An array of 15 meats including beef, lamb, sausages, pork, and bacon-wrapped chicken are sliced until guests have had their fill and flip the disk to show the red stop side. "We not only provide a different dining experience for Americans," CEO Jair Coser said, "we provide value. At the flat rate we charge, you can have many different items from our entire menu, whereas at another steak house you pay the same price for one item." And like the open fire pits in the Brazilian countryside would draw gauchos to dinner, Fogo de Chao (fire on the ground in Portuguese) is drawing American customers in droves, from Dallas to Chicago to Beverly Hills. Founded with a single locaiton in Dallas in 1997, the Brazilian chain now has five locations across the US with each unit doing an average of $12 million in business annually. Dreaming Big. The story of Fogo de Chao begins in the mountainous Rio Grande do Sul region of Southern Brazil where its founders were born. Growing up, the brothers were immersed in the centuries-old Gaucho culture, a rich blend of traditions from European immigrants and Brazilian natives. The boys learned how to grill the meats the Gaucho way from their fathers, and became the caretakers of a culinary tradition passed down from generation to generation for over three centuries. "We grew up on a very small farm," Coser said. "For Fogo de Chao to be where it is now, we really had to work hard to pursue our dream." In 1975, the brothers left their homes in the heart of the hill country and went to Porto Alegre, Rio Grande do Sul's state capital, to find jobs to help their farming fathers pay off bank loans. In some of the city's most popular churrasco restaurants, they worked their way up from busboys to assistant chefs, and finally chefs, all the while saving money and dreaming of starting their own eatery. In 1979, the first Fogo de Chao opened its doors in Porto Alegre with an intense focus on exceptional customer service. By 1987, the popular restaurant had expanded to include two locations in Sao Paulo, Brazil's largest city. Over the years, the restaurant was visited by numerous American business people who would always ask, "Why don't you bring this concept to the US?" Fueled by the frequent encouragement, the brothers moved to Dallas in 1996 to open their first Fogo de Chao restaurant in the US. "It was a bit of trial and error," Coser said, noting the seasonings used, especially salt, had to be adjusted for American taste buds. "We had to get to know the American culture while we were trying to teach America about the Gaucho culture. It was the most difficult with our first restaurant in Dallas, but we've learned from our mistakes and have gotten better with each opening." The critics agree Fogo de Chao has found the right ingredients for success. The Houston Business Journal and The Dallas Morning News both rated Fogo de Chao as one of the best eateries in the city. Zagat Dining calls the chain a "Nirvana for carnivores," and the Chicago Sun-Times agrees, describing it as a "meat lover's paradise." Atlanta Magazine voted Fogo de Chao the city's best steak house, and Wine Spectator Magazine has given the restaurant its Award of Excellence for four years running. Measured Growth. While the food and adventurous atmosphere differentiate Fogo de Chao from the typical American steak house, the brothers' focus on service has helped ensure the restaurant move beyond fad status and achieve sustained growth. Gaucho chefs typically are trained in one of the Sao Paulo locations for over a year before coming to the US. "Training takes time," Coser said. " From cooking the meats to the proper temperature to slicing the meats properly to serving the customer in a prompt and friendly manner, there is a lot for our chefs to learn. Our service motto is to offer something more, and we train our people to do just that." Providing that high level of service and maintaining the Gaucho culture is of the most importance, Coser said. That's why the chain is maintaining a slow, measured growth rate. "We don't want to grow too quickly and lose our authenticity," he said. "That's why training is so important to us. We have to have the right people in position before we can grow. A Washington, DC restaurant is now in development, and Coser said the chain would ideally grow at a rate of two new locations per year into the foreseeable future. "We want to bring the Gaucho culture to the people of this country," Coser said. "We want to help make Brazilian food a popular choice for all Americans and we're proud that Fogo de Chao is a big part of that."


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