It's Meat & Greet At Texas de Brazil
|ROLL 'EM: The 450-seat Texas de Brazil in Miami features a stylish decor and an upstairs cigar bar, replete with a menu of hand-rolled premium cigars and cigar lockers.|
|TROPICS: With its round archiectural design, Texas de Brazil is an eye-catcher to passersby.|
|HIS WAY: Texas de Brazil's c.o.o. Salim Asrawi invests himself in every aspect of the concept to ensure consistent quality.|
|GAUCHO DINNER RIGHT HERE: Servers dressed as Brazilian cowboys follow tradition by cutting meat from the skewers for honored guests.|
| MORE THAN MEAT: Texas de Brazil's 40-item salad bar offers patrons the familiar and the exotic, plus a lineup of traditional Brazilian side dishes. |
Is Salim Asrawi lucky or smart? His five-unit churrascaria concept, Texas de Brazil — a South American grill house — predated the ascendancy of the protein-rich Atkins and South Beach diets and the growing cultural influence of things Latin American. What's more, the concept embraces two American institutions: grilled meat and all-you-can-eat. Talk about sitting on a gold mine.
Asrawi politely dismisses that idea. “I don't think the popularity of Atkins has increased our business,” the Brazilian-born restaurateur says. “I think it increased awareness.
“It used to be ‘I am going to Texas de Brazil and get all I can eat until they carry me off on a stretcher.' The biggest complaint we receive from people is that they have eaten too much. But now, the perception has changed from ‘I have eaten too much; I can't breathe' to ‘This is good for me; Portion it out.' I think people understand quality and appreciate it.”
Asrawi's obsessed with quality, and it's apparent in every detail of the privately owned seven-unit chain. From the meticulous meat selection process to the enviable status Texas de Brazil holds with developers to the intensively trained servers to the painstaking orchestration of the dÈcor, table settings and salad bar selections, quality is everything at this six-year-old chain. It's what Asrawi believes sets him apart from his competitors, which range from independent churrascarias to large chains like Fogo de Chao.
“Competition is great and it's healthy,” Asrawi says. “We differ in that our restaurant is truly a dining experience for the senses. We offer amazing ambiance to complement the food and the service. It is a total dining experience.” Texas de Brazil's units in Dallas, Ft. Worth and Addison, Texas; Memphis, Tenn.; Orlando and Miami, Fla.; and Aruba attract upscale diners: professionals, families, and tourists , and the chain courts a strong business in meetings and private parties. The concept scored $25 million in 2003, even as some of its competitors were scaling back or folding. Plans to open two more units, one in Florida and one in the central U.S., are in the works for later this year. Clearly, Asrawi is onto something.
It's in his blood. The son of a restaurateur, Asrawi earned a master's degree in restaurant and hospitality management from Johnson & Wales and landed a job at the Tropicana Hotel in Atlantic City. From there, he joined the Ritz-Carlton in Marina del Rey, Calif., and, at this point, he knew “this is what I have always wanted to do.”
Frequent trips to South America convinced him that there was a niche in the U.S. restaurant industry for a Brazilian restaurant, and he formed a partnership with his mother, Leila Izzedin, and his uncle, Salah Izzedin. “My mother is a CPA, and my uncle is in the oil business and real estate, so he knows all about bringing people to the table, making deals, finding ideal locations, selecting an interior designer, overseeing the architectural design and planning, and the like,” Asrawi explains.
“What we liked was that there were hardly any concepts here like the churrascaria. We wanted to take the concept, refine it, and really give customers a full dining experience with attention to the dÈcor and ambiance,” he continues. “We kept it true to the Brazilian style, where they bring the meat straight from the fire to the table. We kept the recipe and the menu the same. The only thing we did to Americanize it — and you won't find this in South America or other countries — is the emphasis on service. In the U.S., we have great service.”
TEXAS de BRAZIL
CONCEPT: Upscale prix fixe all-you-can-eat selection of grilled meat served at the table by strolling gauchos. OWNERSHIP: Privately owned by partners Salim Izzedin, Salim Asrawi and Leila Izzedin. LOCATIONS: Seven units in Texas, Florida, Memphis and Aruba. FUTURE GROWTH: Two units planned in 2004, one in Florida, one in the central U.S. AVERAGE SIZE: 5,000 to 10,000 sq. ft; 200 to 400 seats. AVERAGE CHECK: $38.50 per person for full service; $19.00 per person for salad bar only.
Tell It To Gaucho
CHURRASCARIA IS PART OF GAUCHO (COWBOY) LORE from the plains of southern Brazil and Argentina. Meat is seasoned with salt, speared with a sword, grilled over open fire, and the gauchos cut the portion they want from the skewered roast. Texas de Brazil is not just about meat on a stick. Asrawi explains,” People come to restaurants for interaction. If they didn't, they'd stay home and order in. Here, the waiter explains the Brazilian story of how the concept works, what meats are available, how they are cooked, how to signal for service, how to use the tongs to grab the meat. When they go to the salad bar, someone accompanies them to answer questions and to insure that there is interaction between the servers and guests.”
The prix fixe churrascaria menu at Texas de Brazil features an array of simply seasoned rotisseried meats brought to the table on skewers. Roaming gaucho- garbed servers (applying some fancy swordsmanship) cut portions from skewers of picanha and garlic pichana (ribeye), filet mignon, bacon-wrapped filet mignon, beef ribs, alcatra (top sirloin), fradinha (bottom sirloin), cordiero (leg and rack of lamb), lombo (pork loin and Parmesan pork loin) costela de porco (pork ribs), linguica (Brazilian sausage), and frango (chicken legs and bacon-wrapped chicken breasts). Diners signal their readiness for anther serving by placing a coaster where the server can see it: red side up for “no mas,” green side for “again, please.”
A 40-item seasonal salad bar is stocked with the familiar (three types of lettuce, cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, olives, Portobello mushrooms, soup) and the exotic (buffalo mozzarella, surimi sushi, Brazilian hearts of palm, shrimp ceviche, seafood paella, crab cakes) and is bolstered with traditional Brazilian sides: cheese bread, fried bananas and garlic mashed potatoes. Two other entrÈes, Australian lobster tail and shrimp cocktail, are available a la carte, as are desserts. Texas de Brazil serves lunch and dinner on weekdays and a Sunday brunch of traditional brunch dishes and the salad bar.
A parent himself, Asrawi understands that kids' palates differ from adults', but he offers no children's menu. “At our restaurant, kids can order lamb or filet mignon and eat it with their hands. The kids get the same great food their parents get, but the prices are different. Kids under six eat free; kids 7 to 12 eat for half-price. That's my kids' menu,” he says proudly.
Asrawi prides himself on the quality and consistency of his menu. “You can walk into any Texas de Brazil any day, any time of the year and find consistency. We don't try to confuse anyone. Day in and day out, we constantly evaluate the quality of everything we serve,” he says. “It's an endless process. The people who serve the meats, who carve the meats, who try out the meats, the chefs who put the salads together, they all test the products to be certain they are serving only the best, and doing so consistently.”
One of the biggest obstacles in the concept's early days was working with suppliers. “Purveyors want to take advantage of you. They bring you the finest product at first, then, over time, the quality of the product you get deteriorates,” Asrawi recalls. “When they sent product I didn't like, I sent it back. You play the game and stay patient, waiting for the right moment. That moment comes from growing and gaining power. Then you get back at them. It's really sad that you have to play that kind of game.”
Texas de Brazil boasts a 400-item wine list that features largely domestic and South American wines (generally reds) which, Asrawi feels, are the best complements to the food. Europe and Australia also are represented in reds, whites, sparkling and fortified wines. Prices per bottle range from $24 to $1600. Diners also favor classic Brazilian cocktails, caipirina and bahido, as well as American classics. Asrawi estimates that sales of spirits and wines comprise 20% of revenue, but adds, “People come here to eat, not to hang out in the bar and drink.”
In the best South American tradition, a handsome offering of hand-rolled cigars selected by Asrawi is available for those who favor a post-prandial smoke. Depending on local smoking ordinances and the design of the restaurant, customers can have a cigar with their after-dinner brandy or port at a separate bar or on the patio, and they can purchase a cigar locker to stash their favorites for future dinner visits. “It's part of the whole dining package I offer my guests,” Asrawi explains, “but it's not a main source of revenue.”
Premium cigars, meticulously selected wines, premium meat and produce are hallmarks at Texas de Brazil, but the experience also depends heavily on the elegance of the surroundings. The restaurants are large, ranging from 5,000 to 10,000 sq. ft. Brilliant lighting fixtures and mirrors add to the expansiveness, while rich woods trimmed with hammered metal, red walls, vibrant abstract paintings and massive arrangements of exotic flora give diners a sophisticated, lush, stimulating dining environment. While the interior design elements are consistent, the architectural elements vary with the unit. The Miami unit , for example, is round and features an upstairs cigar bar. Private dining rooms for meeting rooms and parties are available.
To Market, To Market
TEXAS DE BRAZIL IS STRONGLY focused on becoming a destination for private events. Every unit has an events planner who books parties and contacts convention and visitors' bureaus, meeting planners and events coordinators to invite them to the restaurant and sell them on the concept for their clients. The fixed price menu allows clients to work within a budget, and Texas de Brazil's events planners have flexibility in adapting menus, pricing, and packages to the needs of the client.
Marketing is a top priority for the concept. Texas de Brazil buys space in airline and hotel publications, works with convention bureaus and credit card companies to market to travelers and conventioneers, as well as to local businesses. From buying mailing lists from American Express to e-mailing to guests who have filled out comment cards, Texas de Brazil constantly communicates with guests and would-be guests. Its e-mail list of 40,000 customers annually receive a 50% off coupon to thank them for their business and are kept in touch with events at the concept through a newsletter. Asrawi recently rolled out a loyalty program that involves giving guests a swipe card. They swipe the card on each visit and earn points toward rewards, as well as anniversary and birthday gift certificates. “The reason I am in business is because of my customers,” Asrawi says. “I have such passion for this business! It's a pleasure to have people come in and enjoy themselves, and it's a great feeling to feed so many people every day.”
Much of his customers' loyalty comes from the service, and much of the quality of the service is a result of constant training and re-training. “It's not as if anyone can learn anything in the 10-minute lineup,” Asrawi snorts. “Training is a quest, and you dedicate your time to it before work, after work. It's holding someone's hand until they get it right and reinforcing it when they do.
“You can train someone all day, every day, but unless you show them why they need to be trained—to make the guest happy and because this is how you and they will make money—you won't get them to make the extra effort and get the extra training to do the job properly.”
In the concept's infancy, good servers were hard to find, due to a strong economy. Prospective hires hung back to see if the concept would make it. Today, Texas de Brazil is a hot employer, but Asrawi's a firm believer in hiring the personality over hiring the rÈsumÈ: “I look for good manners, humility, eagerness to learn, ambitiousness. RÈsumÈs are important, but so is where they started, where they want to go, and what they want to be.”
YES, CHIEF OPERATING OFFICER ASRAWI STILL DOES THE hiring for new units, just as he did for the first unit in 1998. The concept is tightly structured — it doesn't lend itself to franchised growth — and Asrawi, his partners and his regional directors of operations, director of marketing, corporate executive chef and unit managers are thoroughly involved in every aspect of the operation. “I can't overestimate the value of involvement and commitment. This has to become your lifestyle if you want to do this (being a restaurateur) right,” he says. “You have to give it your all, everything.” He's confident that the structure of ownership and management is such that controlled growth can happen without a loss of efficiency or quality, and notes that even in tough times, the concept has persevered (without layoffs) simply by adhering to standards of quality and service and remaining on course.
What's next? Asrawi laughs confidently, but says only, “I have a lot of ideas, including another concept, but the time is not right yet, and I don't know when that time will be.
“My goal now is to capture the market, to let people know that I am a force to be reckoned with. They're going to have to work hard to catch up.”
Will It Fly?
Eric Giandelone of Technomic, Inc. comments: “The churrascaria segment has become increasingly competitive in the past couple of years. Chains like Fogo de Chao and Texas de Brazil are competing with smaller, local concepts, such as Sal & Carvao for customers looking for new and authentic dining experiences. Certainly, the popularity of low-carb diets and the rising interest in beef have contributed not only to Texas de Brazil's success, but to the success of churrascarias nationally.”