Brazilian concept leaving mark on U.S.

Editor's note: This is just one story in a recurring series that features interviews with top-level execs in the fast casual industry. If you would like us to feature a specific exec, please make your request in an email to Cherryh Butler at

One of Brazil's fastest-growing fast casual concepts hopes to see a similar growth pattern in the United States. Giraffas, which opened in 1981 in Brazil and now has about 400 locations, made its U.S. debut last year opening three stores in South Florida. The fourth unit, a $750,000-investment that brought the community 40 jobs, opened last week, also in South Florida as part of what Carlos Vanegas, the chain's U.S. marketing director, calls just the beginning. Florida will see at least 10 more locations in 2013, and the growth spurt isn't stopping there.

"We are starting to look at potential partners and operators outside of Florida," he said. Internationally, our focus still is the U.S. We have just dipped our toes in the water, so to speak, and we have a long way to go here. But we are always looking at other markets that can be a good fit for our concept.

When the restaurant opened in Brazil, it focused mainly on burgers and sandwiches, but the menu has evolved to include Brazilian comfort food, including barbecue, beans, steak and chicken, served in a fast casual setting. Vanegas shared with why he thinks the Brazilian concept will continue to flourish in America.

Q: Why did Giraffas decide to open in the U.S.?
Vanegas: By 2006, Giraffas was growing at a 20-percent clip in the Brazilian market, and the company figured it needed to expand internationally in order to keep the momentum going. If everything went as planned, Giraffas would reach its maximum expansion potential in Brazil in 10 years. We looked at various markets such as Portugal, Spain, Argentina, Angola, Mexico and the U.S. Although we saw potential in all these countries, we realized after careful studying of the market conditions and the country's stability, that the U.S. was the place to be, principally if we wanted to achieve our three main objectives: Profitability, brand recognition and very importantly, the opportunity to learn from the best.

Q: After making that decision, what made Florida the place to start?
Vanegas: We chose Florida, and more specifically South Florida, because of its diverse population. As a South American company with a South American concept, we understood that a market like South Florida would be much more receptive to our offering. Cultural commonalities between Brazilians and other Latin Americans would give us the opportunity to test our concept while being profitable. We are now very confident our concept will be very well received by middle America.

Q: What kind of challenges have you faced opening a Brazilian concept in the States? Did you have to change the menu, marketing tactics, etc.
Vanegas: It took a great deal of studying the American market before we even started construction on our first restaurant. We worked with many local experts, including architecture and retail design firm FRCH out of Cincinnati, to mold our concept to the liking of the American diner. Brazilian food doesn't have the history or inherent understanding in the American psyche that other ethnic cuisines have, such as Mexican or Italian. We knew this was a challenge; but a good one to have. As a result, we adjusted our menu and overall concept. We have, of course, developed our own marketing programs to reach the American consumer in a meaningful way.

Q: What is the growth plan; not just for the States, but overall?
: We want to make sure we walk at a steady pace before we can run. We plan to open 10 new restaurants in 2013, in the state of Florida: Tampa and Orlando will be the two major markets, outside of South Florida. We are starting to look at potential partners and operators outside of Florida. Internationally, our focus still is the U.S. We have just dipped our toes in the water, so to speak, and we have a long way to go here. But we are always looking at other markets that can be a good fit for our concept.

Q: What is your advice to other restaurant operators who bring foreign concepts to other countries?
Vanegas: The first thing is to do your homework in understanding who your potential customers will be. For that, surround yourself with local talent who understands the market and who knows the ins and outs of operating a successful restaurant and a successful brand. Don't think for a minute that if you have been successful for many years in your home country, that you will be successful in the new market right away. It doesn't matter how much you know about operating a restaurant, there's always something new to learn. Specifically in America, diners are looking for new things. They are open to ethnic foods now more than ever before. But make sure you adjust your concept to their liking.

Read more about operations managment.

Cover photo: Carlos Vanegas, Giraffas U.S. marketing director.


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