The first time the now-familiar Brazilian steakhouse chain Fogo de Chão was reviewed in the American press, it was acclaimed as a “meat-eater’s mecca.” In her review published in September 1997, former Dallas Morning News restaurant critic Dotty Griffith described the decades-old chain — which had just opened its first U.S. location in Dallas — as a place you could go on Friday after a busy week, ask the gaúcho-style waiter for the menu, and he would answer: “We don’t have one. Here, you can eat everything you see.”
"Fogo was unique because it was 'all the meat you can eat,'" she remembers now. "When I reviewed it, I took my then-teenage son and a friend of his and had great fun watching two growing adolescents eat all the meat they could. Americans and Texans are used to all-you-can-eat salad bars, but all you can eat grilled steak and other meats was new at the time."
How did the chain come to define the Brazilian steakhouse to millions of American diners — 5,000 miles away from its origins?
The restaurant wasn't the first Brazilian steakhouse chain in the U.S. — Rodizio Grill, which debuted in 1995, takes credit for that — but it was Fogo de Chão's aggressive expansion that introduced Americans to a new way to eat meat — an unlimited way, so to speak. In the last 20 years, the "Brazilian steakhouse" category has grown and gathered even more chain concepts (besides Fogo de Chão and Rodizio Grill, there's the Dallas-based Texas de Brazil and Tucanos) which, together, have 92 units spread all over the U.S. And that's not to mention the independently owned Brazilian steakhouses that don't belong to chains.
"From a chain perspective, the 'Brazilian steakhouse' is a relatively small category," says Kevin Schimpf, a senior research analyst at the restaurant consulting firm Technomic. "However, it did very well in 2015, up 16.5 percent from 2014, and did $607 million in sales, up 12 percent from 2014."
As the steakhouse category as a whole continues to rake in profits, Brazilian steakhouses in particular hope to join this joyride. Fogo de Chão, for example, is on track to grow by 10 percent annually over the next five years (the chain currently operates 42 company-owned locations across the U.S. and Brazil, as well as one joint venture location in Mexico City). So how did the Fogo chain in particular come to define the "Brazilian steakhouse" to millions of American diners — 5,000 miles away from its Brazilian origins?
The Fogo de Chão story started in 1979, when brothers Arri and Jair Coser bought, with two partners (Aleixo and Jorge Ongaratto, also brothers), an old and rustic churrascaria (or "steakhouse") called Fogo de Chão in the city of Porto Alegre. The act of churrasco (Portuguese for "barbecue") is an integral part of Brazilian culture: More than a meal, it's a celebration, whether Brazilians are hanging out with friends during the hot weekends or celebrating a birthday or even a wedding. The appeal of churrascarias permeates the country.
At the time of the Coser brothers' purchase, the concept of rodízio-style dining was starting to gain steam. Originating in the Southern region of Brazil, Rodízio was a new way of serving grilled meat in which diners paid a fixed price and waiters circulated with varieties of meats cooked on skewers (the service style was also known as "skewer run").
Many restaurants in Brazil claim to have invented the rodízio style of dining.
It's almost impossible to determine who invented rodízio, as many restaurants in Brazil claim the title. But according to legend, rodízio was created by mistake in a restaurant called Churrascaria Matias in the state of Rio Grande do Sul: Per the story, a waiter delivered a meat skewer to the wrong table, but let the guest take a little piece of the roast anyway, kick-starting a sensation.
The concept became popular during the mid-20th century, coinciding with Brazil's big road-construction boom; restaurants started to open around the country to feed truck drivers. Grilled meat was the easiest and cheapest food to serve, as the region had many cattle herds — and actually was the kind of food hungry travelers were looking for.
Rodízios took the country by storm, becoming popular throughout the South during the ‘70s. The meat was usually cooked outdoors in tin-roofed rooms, where charcoal would burn on the ground and bricks would support the skewers, originally made of wooden spears. As these roadside venues gained popularity, more tables were added, making them looking more like restaurants than gas stations and stores.
"The rodízio is a brilliant way of serving barbecue," says acclaimed Brazilian chef and pitmaster André Lima de Luca. "The simplicity of the culinary style is incredibly tempting."
Like many gaúchos (the way Rio Grande do Sul natives prefer to call themselves), the Cosers left their home state to pursue better jobs and lived in Rio de Janeiro for three years, working in restaurants and gaúcho-style steakhouses. The Taquari Valley, where they were born, later became the biggest exporter of restaurant labor all over the country — according to a survey from the Nova Brescia city government, in 2011, there were 10,000 native-born gaúchos working at churrascarias across the country.
These workers also dissipated the gaúcho way of life, which involves long-established customs, traditional costumes, and the knack for mastering the art of churrasco. "Many of these workers opened up their own churrascarias in many cities," Arri Coser says. "I know people from Taquari who are working even in Asia."
"I saw a connection between the Brazilian gauchos and the Texas cowboys."
When they took over the first Fogo de Chão in the '80s, the Coser brothers decided to upgrade the rodízio concept: bringing steakhouses from roadsides to the commercial centers of cities, and offering a fine-dining experience with fabric tablecloths, aproned servers, crystal glasses, and an elegant dining room. Enter the rodízio movement's so-called Second Wave: The service style is theatrical, a kind of servers' ballet, unlike anything else in restaurant business. In Brazil, it was later adopted even for Italian restaurants, pizzerias and, more recently, to sushi and Japanese food.
The Cosers took their first expansion steps years later when, in 1986, they opened the first Fogo de Chão branch in São Paulo's Moema neighborhood. "São Paulo is the best city in Brazil for food, and there, we'd receive many tourists that went crazy about the large pieces of meat and the lack of menus," Arri says. "They asked us to open a churrascaria abroad. So, I decided to consider this idea more seriously."
After visiting steakhouses in Europe and in the U.S., the brothers decided to open their first international branch in Dallas, Texas. Despite the love Brazilians have for American cities such as New York and Miami, Arri noticed the perfect atmosphere for a Brazilian steakhouse. "Texans have the same passion for meat that we gauchos have, and all this barbecue culture, with a huge good herds. I saw a connection between the Brazilian gauchos and the Texas cowboys. So it seemed to be the best region to start," he explains. "Besides that, few Brazilians would know if it didn't work out," he jokes.
The Dallas branch acted as the test kitchen for a larger American expansion. The Coser brothers invested in Brazilian meat cuts not common in the U.S., such as flank steak or the picanha (or ramp cap), the most famous Brazilian cut (it's a relatively cheap and plentiful secret in Brazilian steakhouses). "We didn't go to America to compete with the American barbecue," Arri says. "We would never be so silly or so pretentious. We went there to offer something totally new."
Arri says it took three years to understand the American market. During the next five years, the company opened five units — one per year — in Houston, Atlanta, Chicago, Beverly Hills, and Washington. The next five years after that, it opened an average of three restaurants per year until a Brazilian private equity firm, GP Investments, made its initial investment in Fogo de Chão in 2006. GP acquired the brand outright in 2011, then sold its shares to American private equity firm Thomas H. Lee Partners in 2012 for $400 million. "We could never imagine that our bet in the American market would pay off this way," says Arri, who left the chain after the negotiation, and today runs a new steakhouse chain in Brazil.
"Our success was our culture," he says. "We went to the U.S. not only with our barbecue and the culinary techniques we learned from our parents and grandparents. We took our way to serve it, our Brazilian hospitality, the experience of an authentic Brazilian churrasco."
Churrasco is about grilling meat in its purest form, in most cases seasoned with just sea salt," says Selma Oliveira, chief operating officer at Fogo de Chão, Inc since 2006. "It took some time to educate guests about Brazilian cuisine and the dining experience, but over time we earned their trust — and then the word-of-mouth took over." She says American diners embraced Brazilian steakhouses' large menus in particular, which offer both customization and choice.
Brazilian steakhouses also share similarities with the buffet concepts that took America by storm in the ‘90s: the "all you can eat for a single price" brands (like Golden Corral, Old Country Buffet, etc.) that spread over the country in a culture of consumption and indulgence. But while the buffet restaurant is currently in decline, Brazilian steakhouses added a level of quality to the buffet concept. "They are more expensive than simple buffets, but the value is there. It's entertaining," says Ezra Eichelberger, professor of hospitality and service management at the Culinary Institute of America. "Brazilian steakhouses may have the appetizer course as a buffet, but the main course is tableside carving."
Evandro Caregnato is the culinary director of Texas de Brazil, a Brazilian steakhouse chain that also started in Texas, one year after Fogo de Chão. "If you dine at a traditional American steakhouse, you may get a fantastic, perfectly cooked rib-eye or tenderloin," he writes in his book Churrasco — Grilling the Brazilian Way. "The first bite will be amazing, and so will the second, but when you are halfway through, the amazing taste becomes a little boring. You may start to wonder if you should have ordered something else. When you dine at a churrascaria, you don't have this problem." Caregnato's brand now operates 42 units in the U.S. (and six more locations abroad, in countries like South Korea, United Arab Emirates, and Mexico).
Caregnato, a native gaucho, believes that in addition to the range of possibilities, churrascarias have another big advantage: They can offer convenience — something increasingly valued nowadays. "You can be served promptly and control the pace of your meal to accommodate your schedule when you are pressed for time," he writes. "You can even make a run to the salad area to select your accompaniments and be back to the table in time for the next gaucho's skewer."
That's the move American-owned Brazilian steakhouses don't want to miss. With genetic improvements in several breeds of cattle and the possibility to replicate the rodízio concept (with the same cuts of meat) everywhere, some of them, anticipating a market demand, are starting an expansion beyond the Americas. Fogo will open a new location in Saudi Arabia; Texas de Brazil is opening its first restaurant in Dubai. So perhaps the "Third Wave" of churrascaria might be known for taking over the globe — thanks not only to Brazilian tradition, but also to American big-business acumen.
Photos taken at Fogo de Chão's Dallas location, its first in the U.S.
Rafael Tonon is a Brazilian journalist and food writer based in São Paulo. Kathy Tran is a photographer based in Dallas.
Editor: Erin DeJesus