When Giraffas, a Brazilian fast-food chain with more than 400 restaurants in 26 states from Amazonas to Rio Grande do Sul in the south, decided to make its first foray into the U.S. market, it made some big changes.
First of all, the chain whose name means “giraffes,” went upscale, positioning itself as a fast-casual restaurant with most entrees in the $12-$13 range. In Brazil, Giraffas falls into the fast-food category, steaks and burgers are the essence of the menu, and most of the restaurants are in food courts.
With the chain’s move into the United States, using Miami as its springboard, it has shied away from food courts for the most part, streamlined the menu, and added more premium items such as 10-ounce steaks, salmon and quinoa and greens salads served with grilled shrimp, chicken, steak or fish.
Decor also got an update with trendy tropical colors, a brick wall, an open kitchen and TV screens showcasing trending tweets, sports and news. Customers order at a counter and food is delivered to their tables where they dine with metal utensils rather than the plastic knives and forks of fast-food.
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“We didn’t come here as a fast-food restaurant because it was just too competitive,’’ said João Barbosa, chief executive for the Miami-based U.S. operation and a partner in the Brazilian company.
When Giraffas, the third largest restaurant chain in Brazil, began exploring the U.S. market back in 2009 — two years before it opened its first restaurant here — the U.S. economy was still in a slump. But executives noticed that the fast-casual category occupied by restaurants such as Panera Bread, Five Guys and Chipotle was growing.
“We said this is an interesting niche,’’ said Barbosa.
And Giraffas has settled in nicely. Since opening its first restaurant in North Miami in 2011, the chain has launched six more restaurants from Pinecrest to Orlando. Its Doral unit, which opened in late July, is the most successful and is already meeting sales targets.
Giraffas is aiming for $1.2 million in annual sales per U.S. restaurant, about $300,000 more than a Giraffas restaurant averages in Brazil.
Three more South Florida restaurants — in Cypress Creek, Coral Springs and Fort Lauderdale — are slated to open in early 2014. Giraffas also has lease agreements signed for two more Orlando restaurants, one in the Fontainebleau area of Miami-Dade County and one at an upscale food court at Tampa’s International Plaza.
The chain also is negotiating a lease for a location in Washington, D.C., its first move outside Florida. By the first half of next year, Giraffas plans to have 15 U.S. restaurants.
The average bill at a U.S. Giraffas is about $14, slightly higher than the $8-$12 tab at many fast-casual restaurants. “We say we’re fast-casual-plus,’’ said Barbosa.
All the existing restaurants and those in the works are company-owned. But by mid-2014, Giraffas hopes to begin offering its first franchises.
Barbosa said because this isn’t home turf for the chain, it would prefer to keep things simple and work with multiunit operators rather than a lot of individual franchisees.
“Five or six years from now, we’d like to have 500 restaurants,’’ he said. “We’ll start with the East Coast and then move to the West Coast.’’
But the chain is taking pains not to get ahead of itself. “If you do well in Florida, it doesn’t mean you’ll do well in the rest of the United States,’’ said Barbosa. “But if we’re successful here, it opens doors to the world.”
Despite being a relative newcomer to the U.S. market, Giraffas made FastCasual.com’s 2013 list of Top 50 fast casual restaurants, coming in at No. 13. “In these economic times, opening a restaurant is risky business but founder and Chief Executive Carlos Guerra was positive Americans would fall in love with Giraffas,’’ FastCasual.com said.
The website, which reports on news and trends in the $23.5-billion fast casual segment, also gave a shout-out to Guerra as one of the Top 20 executives in the industry.
Giraffas bills its menu as familiar foods with a “Brazilian twist.’’ Along with typical sides like French fries, it also offers black beans and rice and farofa — toasted manioc flour with eggs, bacon and onions.
Brazilian cuts of steak such as the prized picanha and maminha, pao de quiejo — cheese bread, chicken with black-eyed peas, Brazil’s Itaivapa beer, and moqueca — a shrimp dish made with coconut milk and dendê oil — also are on the menu.
Favorites taken from the Brazilian menu include stroganoff, a chocolate gateau and the Brutus burger — a picanha burger heaped high with cheese, bacon, ham, egg, lettuce and tomato. Most of the ingredients are purchased locally — except the pao de quiejo, which arrives frozen from Brazil.
Giraffas began life in Brasilia as a lanchonete, or snack bar, that served juices, sandwiches and ice cream in 1981. Barbosa, who comes from a family of diplomats — his father is former Brazilian Ambassador to the United States Rubens Barbosa, remembers eating at the original Giraffas when he was growing up in the Brazilian capital.
The chain began to grow beyond its Brasilia home turf in the late 1990s.
There’s no grand story behind the unusual name. Back in the early 1980s, the hot club in Rio de Janeiro was Hippopotamus and there were a few other bars and entertainment venues with animal names. So the founders thought, “Giraffas, why not?”
There’s also another unusual aspect to the name of this Brazilian newcomer. In Portuguese, giraffe is spelled girafa with a single f. But the original logo had two giraffes with intertwining necks that symbolized the letter f. When the logo was phased out, the necks went, but the two f’s remained.
With so many Brazilian visitors to South Florida and a large local Brazilian community, Miami was the ideal market to test the chain’s concept, said Barbosa. Plus, he said, local Latins were already familiar with the backbone of the side dish menu: rice and beans.
“Those two communities gave us strength and we thought they could help us until we got local brand recognition,’’ said Barbosa, “but we couldn’t target Brazilians as our main guests because it’s too restrictive as we expand.’’
When the first South Florida Giraffas opened, about 90 percent of the customers were Brazilian — some who drove from as far away as Pompano and Lighthouse Point for a taste of home.
But now the ratio has flipped and about 90 percent of customers are local, Barbosa said.
Giraffas isn’t the only international restaurant chain that sees Florida as the test market of choice when venturing into the U.S.
The Spanish fast-casual chain 100 Montaditos opened its first restaurant in Midtown Miami in 2011, and since then has added 11 more Florida restaurants and two more outside the Sunshine State.
Earlier this month, the Brazilian chain Vivenda do Camarão, which operates 161 restaurants in Latin America, opened its first U.S. restaurant at the Coral Square Mall in Coral Springs and it plans another at Dadeland soon. In making the leap to the American market, the restaurants, which specialize in shrimp, seafood and pasta, got a new name: The Shrimp House.
There are plans for eight more Florida restaurants in 2014, said Carlo Barbieri, president of The Shrimp House.
During Giraffas’ transition to an American chain, it lost its spots. Instead of the cartoonish yellow-and brown giraffes that frolic on the menu and website in Brazil, the decor in the U.S. restaurants is more understated and sophisticated. Stylized outlines of giraffes — sans spots — appear on the walls.
And going forward, there are no plans to put the giraffes front and center. In the United States, said Barbosa, he has heard that some people whizzing past the restaurants think at first glance that they are toy stores.
Meanwhile, the new American concept has worked so well for Giraffas that it is importing it back to Brazil on a limited basis.
“In Brazil, we haven’t had that in-between niche of fast-casual. There’s just fast food and casual without the layers,’’ said Barbosa. “We want to discover what we can learn from this huge and consolidated market and take it to Brazil.”
Now Giraffas has two upscale restaurants in Brasilia modeled after the concept pioneered in the U.S. and eventually plans to have about 25 percent of its Brazilian restaurants in the fast-casual mold.