It’s All in the Details at Fogo de Chão

Fogo de Chão CEO Larry Johnson discusses the exacting standards—both big and small—that drive the company’s aesthetic, business model, and growth

A typical Fogo dining room, like this one in Portland, features pillars that recall Araucaria pine trees and a market table with fresh food. (Photo Courtesy of Fogo de Chão)

Two days before the opening of the new Fogo de Chão location in Naperville, Illinois, the restaurant is abuzz with activity. As workers move tables into place and hang pictures that reflect the culture of southern Brazil on the walls of the dining area, a small crowd has congregated around the bar to determine the most aesthetically pleasing configuration of champagne flutes on the display wall behind the bar. Should the flutes bookend the champagne bottles or should the bottles surround the flutes?

These kinds of details might seem trivial, but they speak to the level of focus and examination on which Fogo de Chão prides itself. As CEO Larry Johnson explains to American Builders Quarterly, the company is built on the details.

I understand that from a design standpoint, there are common elements that can be found in all Fogo de Chão locations, but that the company still wants each location to have its own distinct characteristics. Why is it important to maintain that balance and be unique in every restaurant you build? 

Dining rooms feature defined aisles for gauchos to move down and easily serve guests. (Photo Courtesy of Fogo de Chão)

The concept of Fogo de Chão is based on the centuries-old traditions of the gaucho way of life in southern Brazil, and our restaurant design pays homage to this vibrant culture and its unique hospitality experience. Whether you are in Brazil, Mexico City, or the United States, you will always know you are in a Fogo because there are core elements like our market table and wine displays that are distinguished mainstays within each restaurant. It is important to us, however, that each space is unique. We consider the local community and history of an area to help inform and enhance our design choices.

What are some of the notable innovations in Fogo de Chão locations? 

We have developed a Bar Fogo platform, which creates a more expansive bar experience within our full-service restaurant. The new format allows us to capitalize on occasions like happy hour and lunch, where a selection of small plates and Brazilian-inspired cocktails offer a new type of Fogo dining experience. Another design innovation is O Laçador, a bas-relief sculpture of a famous statue in Porto Alegre, Brazil, that represents gaucho culture. Finally, we have incorporated open kitchens that have viewing windows displaying where our gaucho chefs prepare and grill the various cuts of meat. Our guests really enjoy this, and it helps showcase the unique skill of our gaucho chefs.

When considering Fogo de Chão architecture and design, what are the crucial aspects that must be found in every location? 

We focus on creating a warm, contemporary, and timeless environment. As mentioned, the important elements like the market table, wine casks and, in our new restaurants, open kitchens and O Laçador sculptures are mainstays for the brand. Textures are just as important—we integrate stone and wood elements to create warmth and visual interest. Another critical element is creating our designs with the guest in mind at every stage, from lighting to line-of-sight and table layouts. We are very thoughtful about creating a strong sense of entry in the front area and an ambiance in the dining room that ensures that every guest can enjoy their experience to the fullest.

In terms of selecting which contractors and subcontractors you work with for new locations, I know that there’s an important element of building trust and, hopefully, long-standing relationships with your partners. Why is it important to you to build those relationships and how do you believe that benefits Fogo de Chão moving forward?

Design teams consider everything from furniture material to bottle and glass placement in the restaurant’s bar. (Photo Courtesy of Fogo de Chão)

Our commitment to differentiation starts long before ground is broken on a new location. Instead of taking a linear approach to development (i.e. working phase by phase, chronologically, from site acquisition to finish of punch-list), our team instead works closely with the planned general contractor, architects, landlord, general counsel, and commercial broker to commence design during the site-selection process. We value relationships with general contractors that have experience in building high-end restaurants, and are known for true craftsmanship and integrity. Overall, our aspiration in design and construction aligns with Fogo de Chão’s brand standards, which includes creating a “transcendent guest experience” within the walls of each restaurant.

Having seen a restaurant a day before opening, I had the opportunity to see in person how much attention is paid to even the smallest details, such as how champagne flutes are placed on the display behind the bar. Most patrons might think that those kinds of details are rather haphazard or even just based on a bartender’s personal preference. Why is it so important to you that this attention to detail pervades so many aspects of Fogo de Chão’s business model?

We believe this attention to detail preserves our authenticity—the distinctly Brazilian attributes of our brand. We offer our guests an upscale, approachable, and friendly atmosphere in elegant dining rooms that is complemented by the personalized, interactive experience with our gaucho chefs and team members. Fogo de Chão is all about sharing southern Brazilian hospitality and cultivating memorable experiences through an incredible restaurant space, and excellent service focused on anticipating guests’ needs and helping them navigate our unique dining experience.

I understand that the company selects certain furnishings based on how it affects sound within the restaurant. Can you expand on that?

Beyond ambiance, there are also practical considerations to how the restaurants are designed and furnished. In addition to comfort and style, chairs and tables are often selected based on acoustic qualities and how it will affect guests’ ability to hear conversations with people at their table. This is achieved by using design to suppress the impact of sound vectors. The design team creates an array of means by which sound is suppressed to a conversation-friendly level through an array of choices that don’t detract from the restaurant’s high-end aesthetic. Such choices include multi-tiered soffit designs, specific materials, and carpet choices.

What’s the most important piece of advice you can give to other leaders trying to grow their own businesses? 

When you know you are part of something special, work hard to keep that way. For Fogo, each new restaurant reminds us of how important it is to stay connected to our rich history and roots in Brazil. It is worth all the hard work to protect and nurture a brand and keep a strategic focus on its long-term success.