Business Monday

Fogo Charcoal in Hialeah is a fast-growing and glowing success

Fogo Charcoal is a family-owned company that distributes varieties of high-quality hardwood charcoal to supermarkets, distribution centers, and more in North America. From left: Julia Suriano, CFO of the company, and Sebastian Bussert, CEO.
Fogo Charcoal is a family-owned company that distributes varieties of high-quality hardwood charcoal to supermarkets, distribution centers, and more in North America. From left: Julia Suriano, CFO of the company, and Sebastian Bussert, CEO. jiglesias@elnuevoherald.com

The company and its products: Fogo Charcoal imports high-quality hardwood charcoal from South and Central America and sells it wholesale to restaurants, supermarkets, hardware stores, other retailers and distributors, primarily in Florida.

The Hialeah-based company, founded in 2009 by a couple who own wood and charcoal businesses in El Salvador, started an online store in 2016 and sells retail to individuals all over the U.S. To attract new online customers, privately owned Fogo offers free shipping for orders over $35.

Fogo means “fire” in Portuguese.

Sebastian Bussert, Fogo’s CEO, stressed that Fogo does not sell charcoal briquettes. “We sell premium hardwood lump charcoal, basically slow-burnt wood heated to high temperatures in kilns to remove moisture and other elements,” said German-born Bussert, who studied economics and economic history at the London School of Economics. “When you look at our charcoal, which comes in different sizes, you can see branches and pieces of the tree. It’s all natural, with no additives. It burns longer, hotter and cleaner than other charcoal and provides better-tasting and healthier food than briquettes,” said Bussert, who moved to Miami with his wife, Julia Suriano, Fogo’s CFO, in 2010. The two manage the company owned by Julia’s parents.

There is an ongoing debate between vendors of all-natural lump charcoal like Fogo and makers of briquettes. Most people cooking on grills and barbecues in the U.S. use briquettes, typically made of compressed pulverized charcoal, starch (a binder), sawdust, sodium nitrate (to make the briquette burn better) and sometimes coal. Fogo and other fans of lump charcoal say their product is cleaner and healthier than briquettes, whose additives affect the flavor of foods. Briquette makers deny these claims.

Over the past seven years, Fogo has grown rapidly, from two employees to 14 and from a handful of customers to sales of $3.7 million in 2015.

“We’ve grown mostly by word of mouth,” Bussert said. “But customers now are more sensitive to what they’re eating, cooking and using in their lives. Once they found out that they’re barbecuing with chemicals being absorbed by the food, they set out to find a healthier, natural way to barbecue. And they are turning to all-natural lump charcoal, one of civilization’s oldest products. That’s why we have been so successful.”

The company also sells T-shirts and other accessories sporting Fogo’s colorful orange, yellow and black logo.

Getting started: Julio and Saumuy Soriano, a husband-and-wife team who own and manage wood and charcoal businesses in El Salvador, saw an opportunity to bring high quality, natural lump charcoal to the U.S. market, where customers were looking for a natural alternative for grilling and barbecuing. In 2009, they set up Fogo. In 2010, they turned over management to their daughter, Julia, and her husband, Sebastian, who met while they were studying at the London School of Economics.

The difference: “We do not make briquettes,” Bussert said. “Our lump charcoal is made from 100 percent real hardwood, with no additives whatsoever. Fogo is not just a fuel, it’s an ingredient that makes food taste better. Our customers tell us they can taste the difference for food cooked with Fogo.”

Sales: Fogo’s revenues were $3.7 million in 2015. Sales expanded by 50 percent between 2014 and 2015, and the company says it expects to grow by the same percentage in 2016 and 2017.

Competitors: Kingsford Charcoal, Royal Oak (natural lump charcoal from the U.S.) and smaller importers.

Learning experience: “We make mistakes every day, but we encourage ourselves and our employees to try new things, make mistakes and correct them,” Bussert said. This attitude allows employees to grow with the firm and accounts for why Fogo has grown so rapidly. “Our worst mistake has been to underestimate demand for our charcoal, but thankfully we have never run out,” he said. “We need to make sure that we increase our inventory and keep a higher volume of charcoal on hand for new markets and customers.”

Outside view: “Fogo is different from other lump charcoal due to its neutral flavor, achievable burn temperature and the size of lumps, which aids in the length of burn,” said Craig Tabor, a prize-winning chef and expert griller who has a popular grilling blog (biggreencraig.com). “When people ask my recommendations on the right type of charcoal, I always explain that a premium lump charcoal is important,” he said. “A briquette is basically glued-together sawdust. Burning them can release toxic gases which flavor the food being grilled and, ultimately, is harmful to consume. Premium quality lump charcoal will help with flavor, efficiency and burn temperature. Fogo is 100 percent natural lump charcoal. I have tried nearly every brand of charcoal on the market. I choose to grill and barbecue with Fogo.” Tabor specializes in cooking with the Big Green Egg, the brand name of a popular charcoal-fired ceramic cooker used for barbecuing, grilling, smoking, etc.

What customers say: “We use [Fogo] charcoal in our Big Green Eggs at our brunch every Sunday,” said Aaron Brooks, executive chef at the Four Seasons Hotel Miami. “The flavor you get off this charcoal is amazing, and it burns super hot,” he said. Over Christmas, the hotel used it to cook a giant paella for the hotel’s Sunday brunch. Fogo has three major advantages, Brooks said: “It burns super hot, it burns for a long time keeping great temperature, and the flavor it gives the product you are cooking is awesome.”

“We have been a customer and a big proponent of Fogo charcoal for just over a year now,” said Gary White, owner of Roswell Hardware Co., a large hardware center in Roswell, Georgia, that is a major supplier of barbecue equipment and supplies. “Being the world’s largest Big Green Egg dealer, we have a very strict and disciplined approach for adding new products,” he said. “We look for premium products that differentiate themselves from others currently in the marketplace, and Fogo definitely fits the bill. Unlike other lump charcoals, Fogo stands out in the quality of the lump, sizing of the lump, cleanliness of burn and sustainability of product sourcing.” Fogo provides continuing product quality, as well as excellent customer services and logistics so the store is well stocked with product, he said. “Fogo has become one of our major charcoal lines, and we look forward to a continued relationship for years to come.”

Challenges and outlook: “We want to make Fogo Charcoal available to more retailers and to more restaurants across the U.S. and continue to help customers cook better tasting, healthier food,” Bussert said. “We are just at the beginning. Customers are becoming extremely taste-focused and want to go back to basics, back to the roots, and Fogo Charcoal is an excellent means to achieve that,” he said. The company has grown by about 50 percent per year, and “that continues to be our goal for the next couple of years.”

The writer can be reached at josephmannjr@gmail.com

Fogo Charcoal

Business: Imports and sells natural hardwood charcoal wholesale to restaurants, supermarkets, hardware stores and other retailers, as well as to distributors, mostly in Florida. The company also makes retail sales all over the U.S. online. Fogo, which means “fire” in Portuguese, acquires charcoal from suppliers in Central and South America.

Headquarters: 610 W 18th St., Hialeah.

Founded: 2009.

Founders and owners: Julio and Saumuy Suriano.

Leadership: Sebastian Bussert, CEO; Julia Suriano, CFO.

Employees: 14.

Website: fogocharcoal.com

Source: Fogo Charcoal

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