It’s important to be aware of trends, and create a niche for specific tastes. This year, the Summer Olympics put a spotlight on all things Brazil, but Brazilian Steakhouses have gained momentum nationally over the past 10 years. Ana Santos and Mario Vitelo recognized a gap in the American dining experience. Both had worked for a combined 20+ years in high end steakhouses, and appreciated their native Latin American feature of grilled meats. While upscale Brazilian Steakhouse chains have been the norm, the couple saw an opportunity to make this experience more family friendly (and less costly), rather than just a special occasion affair.
“Mario and I learned a lot about the steakhouses of Brazil,” reminisced Ana.
“We mastered all the aspects of the business from front of the house and service to management and inventory control as we helped build some of the national brands. But we wanted to offer this experience to families, who might not otherwise be able to afford such an expensive meal. And we wanted people to be able to enjoy this delicious and participatory cuisine on a regular basis, not just special occasions.”
And so in 2012, the couple opened Brazil Express Grill at the Nantucket Square Shopping Center in Schaumburg, IL.
Restaurants carry their own unique challenges and rewards, but overall a tasty menu, stellar customer service, good location and basic business acumen are enough foundation to start you off.
How hard is it to go from working in a restaurant to owning and managing one?
The husband and wife team knew what they knew, and were willing to learn anything that would help. They partnered with a third party, searched online resources for business plans, financial proformas for restaurants, and vendor suggestions. They had never signed a commercial lease or incorporated with a partner, so they sought the help of an attorney. That’s where things started to fall apart.
“One of the best sources for support was our local Small Business Development Center (SBDC) located at Harper College,” smiles Ana. “My very first class nearly brought me to tears… and then a tenacious desire to succeed. The instructor prepared us for every possible negative thing that could go wrong at the beginning. When he asked the attending group who still wanted to open their own business, I raised my hand high. I had no idea what was to come for us, but I knew Mario and I were ready for this opportunity.”
Since then, Ana has faithfully attended as many seminars, classes and group instructions as possible. She credits SBDC with her ongoing business acumen. “I always learn something, even if I know the content. There’s always someone asking a question I never would have considered. And the people I meet are also small business owners, so we have much in common even if we work in different industries. Through SBDC, I’ve found our incredible accountant and other professionals to support our business.”
“At the beginning we were so good about researching every detail of the restaurant itself … the furnishings, the kitchen fixtures, the food and beverage sources, the service training and crafting the dining experience,” remembers Ana. “But our partner wanted out before we opened, and the attorney who was recommended to us was not available, so we went with a professional referred to us by a receptionist. We trusted this person without really speaking with him, or interviewing him or others for the role.”
Ana recalls the first month was a nightmare, and the couple had no idea if they could make it. “We finally realized we had hired someone who was taking advantage of our lack of knowledge, so we regrouped and found new representation. We dealt with legal strains in the first year, and when one of us thought it was impossible to go on, the other stayed strong. We got our strength from each other, and I believe that the hardships we managed that first year or so have prepared us for future success.”
That could have been a very different ending. Luckily, Ana and Mario stayed motivated and found resources in the community which they could bounce ideas off, compare situations, and discuss all types of matters. The adage “Fail early and often” isn’t easy, but it presents a learning opportunity and the Vitelos learned those lessons well.
Now in their fourth year of great success with Brazil Express, they’re planning a new concept restaurant in a different area. “We’ve made some mistakes but we’ve learned so much, and Mario and I complement each other in our abilities. I’m better at the administration and he’s better at the operations, so we separate for our roles and then come together to strategize, and it’s been a blessing and a true joy. We work so hard, but it’s so gratifying. We keep coming up with new ideas and keep each other true to targeting the goals we’ve set.”
Brazil Express is known for outstanding customer service. The owners credit their staff with understanding their individual impact on the customer and ensuring everyone has a good experience. The couple wanted to make their offerings affordable to families, so there are less salad offerings but everything presented is fresh daily, and cleanliness is of top importance.
And the entire staff, including the owners, has fun with the restaurant. “Last year, we started creating video messages for our customers,” shares Ana. “We started with a holiday message from Mario and one of our popular servers, and people loved it.” That YouTube video was followed by a Mother’s Day tribute from the kitchen and service teams paying homage to their own mothers, and then the bartender shares his drink recipes, step by step, to help customers enjoy Latin cocktails at home. “We get great feedback from our regular customers, and they make suggestions. And our team comes up with some ideas, like the Mother’s Day tribute. It’s a way to make our restaurant more personal to diners.”
Mario sums it up well, “If you have fun and hire the right people, they will be happy and in turn create a good reputation for you. Reward good people, and they will enjoy working with you, even when conditions are not ideal.”
Ana, whose enthusiasm bubbles over about her endeavors, has more thoughts. “It’s not going to be easy, but it’s going to be incredibly satisfying. Talk to people who think like you; other small business owners and entrepreneurs who are focused on success in the community. Network. Believe in your idea. Find help in the areas that you’re not good at (like accounting or legal consulting). Be aware of the impact small businesses have on a local community, and embrace how your work is creating jobs and helping local families. Most of all, never stop learning.”
Ana Santos Vitelo is available for insight and experience for local restaurant start ups as an IRC virtual mentor , or you may contact us at IRC Small Business Development, or reach Ana directly at Brazil Express Grill.