Although it was nearly 20 years ago, I can still remember the first time a group of co-workers and I went to the then-brand new steakhouse called Fogo de Ch√£o. It was billed as a "Brazilian steakhouse," which sounded intriguing but in retrospect was inadequate preparation for the actual dining experience.
The Dallas-based chain now has several dozen company-owned restaurants in major cities across the country, and there are a couple other franchises marketing the same concept, so millions of customers later, the novelty's long gone. But back then, the concept was a revelation.
First of all, the idea that you paid one price, and then you could eat all the meat you want was revolutionary. Sure, there have been all-you-can-eat buffets and cafeteria-style restaurants since forever ‚Äî it's as American as apple pie, and at most such venues, you can eat as much of that dessert as you can handle.
But the buffet concept subtly controls how much you can eat by requiring fresh plates, separate trips to the buffet lines, the provision of unlimited beverages that make it awfully challenging for patrons to maintain the stomach ‚Äî pun intended ‚Äî for that fourth go-round and the chocolate fountain.
But at Fogo de Ch√£o, the waiters bring huge, sizzling skewers of barbecued beef, pork, lamb and chicken right to your table, then carve up big ol' slices on the spot. As many as you like, as often as you want.
That's a lot more enjoyable than having to excuse yourself from the table, and hiking over to a buffet line under the baleful glare of a wait staff captain whom you know has been silently counting how many times you loaded up on the prime rib.
In addition, Fogo and its category competitors took a wonderful concept that originated as the practical and popular way to feed the thousands of truckers and laborers who were recruited (some would say conscripted) from southern Brazil as the country embarked on a construction and building boom in the '50s and '60s.
As cattle were relatively plentiful, beef subprimal cuts were roasted on big poles suspended over brick fire pits, or in some areas, over a pile of smoldering charcoal right on the ground. The churracso (Portuguese for "barbecue") was imbued with the wood smoke, and slabs of beef served up on plates to the workers were hot and crispy from exposure to the fire, and the beef could cook all day from the outside in, no matter how big the cut.
It was, and is, an efficient, tasty and ultimately wildly popular way to grab a nutritious meal, and the concept soon spread to Brazils' cities, first in neighborhood churrascarias, tin-roofed sheds, and later in fancier restaurants.
Three's the minimum
And now the Brazilian steakhouse is an official category tracked by foodservice sector observers. According to a report on Eater.com that referenced data from restaurant industry analysts Technomic, Fogo de Ch√£o is on track to grow by 10% annually through 2020. The chain currently operates 42 company-owned locations across the U.S. and Brazil, one joint venture location in Mexico City, and plans to add four or five new locations annually.
That's small by comparison with the steakhouse category leaders, but impressive nonetheless. Along with the concept of servers hauling huge skewers of sizzling meat right to your table, here is one other factor that has helped to spur the success
It's the communal aspect of dining together with friends, family or colleagues that has helped the Brazilian steakhouse theme to find a foothold in the crowded sit-down restaurant category. You don't see the single, solitary diner eating his or her dinner while reading the newspaper, as is all too common at many in-hotel restaurants and business-friendly dining establishment ‚Äî ie, higher priced destinations.
You need a group of people to properly experience the culinary pleasure and the ambiance of a Fogo-type restaurant, and that's a big part of the appeal.
It's also an element of eating, broadly defined, that is slowly being relegated to special occasions. With the advent of prepared meals and meal ingredients delivered to the home; with the availability of ready-to-eat and ready-to-cook entr√©es at supermarkets, and with the brand-name, white tablecloth restaurant marketing take-out and even home delivery services, there's less incentive than ever to gather a group and head out to eat.
Maybe the vaunted Millennials' fascination with food with save us from a lifestyle based on cocooning, where we lock the doors and draw the blinds, spending our leisure time and discretionary dollars on meals and entertainment piped into the household.
That's the antithesis of the Brazilian way of life, which we got to glimpse during the recent Rio Olympics.
By itself, a couple dozen steakhouses can't reverse the larger social trends that have us all less engaged in public events ‚Äî dining out being a primary example ‚Äî than ever before.
But its's a great place to start.
The opinions express in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator