Dec. 23--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.
"We didn't come here as a fast-food restaurant because it was just too competitive,'' said JoÃ£o 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.