It’s easy to start with the diversity of food options at Fogo de Chão. After all, the restaurant’s famed Churrasco experience — one where fire-roasted meats are carved at the table — features more than a dozen varieties.
And that’s just the start of a top-shelf menu of options that includes Wagyu cuts, various seafood (crab legs, sea bass and salmon) and too many desserts and specialty drinks to count.
Leaders of the restaurant will tell you its greatest success comes from the other aspects of its diversity — Fogo’s dining options, customers and employees.
The Fogo de Chão experience, they believe, should be a joyous occasion available to everyone.
“From a positioning point of view, we feel like we’re in the approachable, fine dining segment,” Chief Operating Officer Rick Lenderman said Thursday night, after a ribbon-cutting at the new Wayne location at the Willowbrook Mall marked the 65th restaurant for the global chain that started in Southern Brazil a generation ago.
“Fogo is a place where you can come in, enjoy bar food and specialty drinks for reasonable prices (many under $15), have the full Churrasco experience or have our Wagyu specialties (New York strip, ribeye or porterhouse) for around $150.”
The restaurant, which features a large bar and outdoor patio area, aims to have a place for everyone — especially a foodie or anyone looking for an eating experience.
“We love people who are celebrating — whether it’s a birthday or a graduation or a promotion,” Lenderman said. “We want to create the perfect atmosphere.”
That was evident during the grand opening.
Here’s how the Churrasco experience goes down. It starts with the guest selecting from a large variety of soups, salads, cheeses, grilled vegetables and breads at a serve-yourself station in the middle of the restaurant. The options are so plentiful that some guests will choose simply to eat from there.
Those more adventurous will take part in the seemingly endless presentations of beef, chicken, lamb and pork on skewers that are brought to the table.
Yes, Fogo de Chão is eager to accept corporate events. It has two private dining room areas, each of which can comfortably hold 45 people — and can easily be combined to serve 90.
Need more room? The restaurant will rent out the entire space for a corporate or personal party that can serve approximately 200.
“We want to be deeply engrained in the community,” General Manager Petro Delakas said. “We not only want to give back, which we will do in every way possible, we want to be a meeting place for the community.”
From filet mignon to lamb chops to beef ribs to spicy pork sausage to any number of items that are wrapped in bacon, specialty trained gauchos and gauchas arrive with skewers of meat throughout the meal.
This is the essence of the restaurant, General Manager Petro Delakas said.
“We are showcasing our culture, our joy, our hospitality,” he said. “The art of Churrasco is not just art of grilling our meats, but the experience of serving it to our guests.”
The guachos and gauchas who serve go through a rigorous training period that often lasts weeks, Delakas said.
Guests can pick and choose which meats they want to try — and how many slices they want. Or, they can use the creative coasters on the table, which say “Yes, please” on the green side, and, “No thanks” on the red if they need a break or have finished.
Delakas said leaving the choice up to the customer is part of the experience — especially for a foodie.
“It’s a way they can try something that they have never had before without committing to an entire portion,” he said.
Delakas came to the Wayne location from a New York City restaurant through a Pittsburgh location. His moves with the company are not just geographical.
Like so many others in positions of authority, Delakas started as a server and slowly moved up the corporate chain. Providing opportunities for employees is part of the Fogo experience, too.
Fogo de Chão officials say the company puts a premium on giving back. With that in mind, the company will donate 10% of its revenues from its first two weeks to the CUMAC Food Bank.
“We feed people every day; it is what we love — it is our passion,” CEO Barry McGowan said. “But we also know the importance of helping the most vulnerable in our community.”
Delakas used that approach when hiring for the Wayne location.
“We don’t offer jobs, we offer career paths,” he said. “I use myself and other general managers as examples of what this company is about. You could see the eyes of the candidates open wide when I explained that many of the leaders began as servers, busboys and dishwashers.”
Delakas called it a passion play.
“We don’t necessarily hire based on experience — after all, few people have experience with Churrasco,” he said. “We hire on potential. We hire on passion. We want people that we can train and grow with.
“More than that, we want people who represent the communities where we have restaurants. Our diversity of employees is one of our greatest strengths.”
The idea clearly is resonating. At a time when restaurants seemingly are struggling to hire just a few employees, Fogo was able to hire 133 people for the Wayne location.
The Fogo chain, which started in 1979, has longed eyed New Jersey as a place for expansion.
The Philadelphia location, one of the company’s first in the U.S., always has done well, Lenderman said. For years, the company eyed spots in South Jersey but never found a fit.
The company did not come to the state until February, when it opened a location in Paramus, also at a mall. It already has a location in the works for the mall in Bridgewater, too.
“We love the New Jersey market,” Lenderman said. “It has the type of adventurous foodies that we attract.”
The company loves malls, too.
It’s not a requirement, Lenderman said, but they are attractive because they bring foot traffic from a diversity of potential customers, not to mention great parking.
Store No. 4 in New Jersey is coming. Lenderman’s just not sure where and when.
“For us, it’s all about finding the right locations,” he said. “But, every time we come to a new market, we always look for additional sites in the area.”
It’s not an easy process. The detailed buildouts of the restaurant can take more than a year. The final product makes it worth it — and always attracts landlords, Lenderman said.
“Once the landlords see what we do to an asset, how we completely reimagine it, they love talking to us,” he said.