IN 1995, IVAN UTRERA WAS AN UP-AND-COMING EXECUTIVE at PepsiCo. The Sao Paulo native had just finished a three-year rotation as international marketing director for Pizza Hut, which included opening 300 fast-food pizza restaurants in Brazil as well as others around Latin America. He was shifted back to PepsiCo's Purchase, New York, headquarters as director of U.S. marketing for Pizza Hut, which sees US$1.5 billion in sales annually.
Yet Utrera was frustrated. "It got really stifling," he says. "If you wanted to do anything, [even] change the color of the napkins, you needed two years worth of research to see if it was going to impact anything."
So Utrera chucked it all in 1995 to start Rodizio Grill, a chain of Brazilian-style steak houses, or churrascarias. He's opened six restaurants around the country, from Houston, Texas, to Arlington, Virginia, and employs 500 people. With revenues of $14 million a year and operating profits somewhere in the 10% to 20% range, he's now planning to open three more eateries in the next 12 months (possible sites: Arizona, Texas and Illinois) and four more the next year.
"Brazil doesn't do a very good job of marketing. So one of my goals is to bring a little more knowledge about Brazil into the U.S.," he says.
Utrera is just one of many entrepreneurs capitalizing on the increasing popularity of Latin American cuisine in the United States. (See "Pass the Chimichurri," November 1999.) What's generally been dubbed the Nuevo Latino movement has now branched off into sub-segments, with Argentine and Brazilian restaurants becoming especially popular.
Brazilian bistros are popping up all over the country, from Churrascaria Plataforma in New York City to Rhumba in Chicago, Illinois, to Yolies Brazilian Steak House in Las Vegas, Nevada. "There is no point in being prudent at a churrascaria: It is a Rabelaisian experience," The New York Times restaurant critic Ruth Reichl has written. "And if you are not prepared to throw caution to the winds, eating more than you have ever eaten before, it is not the place for you."
'Meat lover's paradise.' Utrera's version is taking off. His restaurant chain based in Littleton, Colorado, was recently declared one of six "Hot Concept" winners by Nations Restaurant News, a trade publication. "Carnivores, come hither. Welcome to a 'meat lover's paradise,'" the magazine suggested as Rodizio Grill's slogan last year.
The 38-year-old Utrera became a restaurateur via a circuitous path. Born and raised in Sao Paulo of entrepreneurial parents (his father and mother run Utreplas, which makes plastic components for GTE phones and Whirlpool washing machines), he earned his undergraduate degree in communications from Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. He worked in advertising for three years, but returned to Brigham Young's Marriott School of Management for an MBA.
After business school, Utrera joined Pizza Hut, rising from marketing manager to director of international marketing for Latin America and the Caribbean and finally to the top marketing spot for one of its U.S. operations.
While he was in Brazil, though, he noticed that family-oriented steak houses from the provinces were growing popular in Sao Paulo. He also noticed that North Americans who ate at them wished they had something similar back home. Part of Utrera's extended family was in the restaurant business in Sao Paulo, so he tapped them for information on how to set up a churrascaria in the United States. "I was the only one in my family to follow a corporate career," he says. "It was time to go out on my own."
It wasn't easy without a giant like PepsiCo behind him. Indeed, he couldn't sell anyone in the United States on the idea. "They didn't understand the concept," he says.
Turning to friends, relatives (his mother bought in) and some Pizza Hut franchisees in Brazil, he scraped together $1 million in six months. His first restaurant debuted in Denver, Colorado, in 1996.
Why Denver? "I had used [Denver] extensively for Pizza Hut as a test market," he explains. "It didn't have a heavy ethnic influence, especially Brazilians, and I didn't want that to affect the results. If we could succeed in Denver, we could succeed anywhere."
Where's the potato? Rodizio Grill opened to rave reviews from Denver food critics--including one who recommended Utrera hire industry veteran Scott Henley as director of operations. (He did.) But the restaurant was criticized by diners for several oversights, from not offering mashed potatoes, grilled vegetables and sandwiches to its layout, which many thought looked too much like a cafeteria.
The feedback did not fall on deaf ears. Utrera has added items to the menu even though they're not traditional to Brazil. He has installed half walls and decorative ironwork so his customers feel more comfortable, Indeed, he still actively solicits customer suggestions with a review card on every table; on the front is an old snapshot of his family celebrating his grandmother's birthday. (Utrera's the big-eyed 3-year-old sitting on a woman's lap near the front of the shot.) "Based on that feedback we've changed and added a few things to improve customer satisfaction," he says.
But the basic concept behind the Brazilian churrascaria is still there. When you sit down, you're followed by a basket of appetizers: paozinho, a small roll; pao de queijo, a Brazilian cheese bread; polenta, or fried corn sticks served with a marinara sauce; and bananas fritas, or cinnamon-glazed bananas.
After you order from the menu, which is in English and Portuguese, you head to a self-serve salad bar bursting with traditional Brazilian salads, including hard-boiled quail eggs and hearts of palm, on one side. The other side holds the ingredients for more traditional U.S.-style garden salads.
To signal that you're ready for your entree, you flip over a wooden cue on your table-- turning it from red to green--and waiters dressed like gauchos, or Brazilian ranchers, walk to your table to offer a dozen different cuts of meats right off the skewer. There's cupim (Brahma hump steak) and coxa (marinated chicken drumsticks), as well as lombo (pork loin) and linguica (a Brazilian sausage). There's even peru (turkey--in this case wrapped in bacon). "Turkey in English is a country also," Utrera jokes.
Despite its all-you-can-eat menu, Rodizio Grill's prices are reasonable. The average bill per person is only $22, including appetizers, drinks and desserts. Children 6 and under eat free and those between 7 and 12 get a discount. (Utrera understands since he has four children of his own.) The only thing that will set you back: a caipirinha. The Brazilian cocktail made with sugar cane spirit, lime and sugar costs $6 at his Houston restaurant.
Middle of the plate. Other restaurateurs marvel at how he can keep prices so low while offering so much "middle of the plate," or entree, to his customers. Utrera calls it a trade secret but gives a few hints. "It's on the production side: controlling your costs [and] the grilling methods," he says. "It's also the law of averages, because you may not eat as much as your husband." Utrera also admits he negotiates hard with his suppliers. He has the power to do so: He buys 15,000 to 20,000 pounds of meat a week.
Probably the most difficult part of launching the chain has been finding staff. "Because of the state of the U.S. economy, there aren't enough employees to fill all the positions we have open," Utrera says. "We're trying to push the Brazilian atmosphere of a friendly place to work, and we've been able to succeed, especially where we have managers who embrace that."
The most satisfying part of the process has been watching his idea produce results. "I have a lot more gray hair than I had two years ago," he says. "But it's fun to go to the restaurant on a Friday or Saturday night and there's a two-hour wait. You see all these people having a great time, and everybody working like clockwork. I sit back in awe and say, 'Wow, I've been blessed.'"
To date, Utrera has managed to raise $4 million from his sources in Brazil to build his restaurant chain. He is now looking for $5 million to $10 million from U.S. investors so he can roll out a nationwide chain that will eventually boast anywhere from 50 to 100 restaurants. He plans to take his company public within the next three years.
What does he think of the growing popularity of Latin American cuisine in the United States? Obviously, he thinks it is high time. "I've visited every single country in Latin America, and the variety of the dishes and the style of the food is so wonderful," he says. "I could say with full assurance that it would rival a lot of European cuisine. It just hasn't been discovered yet."
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|Title Annotation:||Rodizio Grill brings Brazilian food to the US|
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|Article Type:||Brief Article|
|Date:||Jun 1, 2000|
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