Intl. restaurants use foreign concepts to woo Americans


Establishing a foreign restaurant concept in the United States poses a bit of a conflict. Because to create a niche, such restaurants often have to resist American eating trends and instead cling to the culture that defines the restaurant.

In other words, if you're coming to America, don't become American. If you are a German restaurant, be German — or Brazilian or Irish or whatever the culture may be.

Sticking to those roots sets a restaurant apart from the rest, said John Piccirillo, director of marketing and development for Atlanta-based Fado — pronounced like "ago" — Irish Pubs.

Often, he said, " things end up moving toward the middle in the desire to grow business. What happens is you end up trying to be too many things to too many people, and you lose what makes you special."

Fado, which currently has 11 units, is not an authentic Irish pub, according to Piccirillo. Its two-story Chicago location, for example, shows off three different Irish pub styles: a Gaelic section; a cottage-style area; and an early pub post-office tradition.

But what Piccirillo calls the "software" of the pub — everything from Irish food and beverages to the English Premier League soccer that is shown on television — is true to form.

For example, he said, it's common for the bartender at the Chicago Fado unit to greet customers with the Irish expression, "What's the crack?" Crack — also spelled craic — is an Irish word for a certain unique brand of fun and liveliness. The question also can taken to mean, "What's going on?"

The Irish nuances at Fado are so strong, in fact, that they sometimes can alienate people at first. But rather than shy away from cultural differences Piccirillo said, a restaurant should instead embrace them in order to grow business.

"Literally 98 percent of people don't know what 'crack' means," he said. "So do you press it and make people understand it? I think the answer is [that] you press it and try to educate people."

When people begin to understand the unique culture, he said, then they feel a part of it — and even grow fond of it.

"Suddenly they feel very connected to the concept," Piccirillo said. "They feel smarter than other people ... and international. All those good feelings drive my business."

Piccirillo said he believes that the pub's unique culture has contributed to the strong growth in the company's business over the last 18 to 24 months.

"The average consumer is looking for new things and new flavors, and they have a sense of globalization and they don't just want to go out to eat," he said. "They want a new experience."

Agenuine cultural experience also lies at the heart of Milwaukee's Old German Beer Hall, one of four licensed properties of the Hofbrau Munich Brewery in Germany. Modeled after the famed Hofbrau House in Munich, the restaurant contains some of the German restaurant's key characteristics: tables and bench seats with no assigned seating; German food; and imported beer from the Hofbrau Munich Brewery. There also are only three sizes of beer — one-third, one-half and full — and there is no bottled beer.

"We went to the most basic core of what you see when you walk into the Hofbrau House," said owner Hans Weissgerber III.

The success of the restaurant, which at less than 2 years old has won rave reviews, stems from its simplicity, according to Weissgerber.

"When you are bringing in an ethnic concept you really need to keep it simple. That's what's going to make it accessible to people," he said.

And keeping it simple means resisting the tendency to overdo the theme. Like its German counterpart, the Milwaukee unit has a simple color palette on the wall and a limited amount of art and décor — the opposite of a lot of German restaurants in the United States.

"So many restaurants look like a German garage sale," Weissgerber noted.

Still, like Fado, Hobrau House's authenticity creates a learning curve for patrons.

"If there's one key challenge, it's guiding your customers into the experience so that they can realize the full potential of what you're trying to do," Weissgerber said. "If they come in and completely don't understand, they might first stand in the lobby and wonder why no one greets them. Second, once they are greeted and led to a table and don't know that someone will sit next to them, they may be astounded by that. That's part of the fun of it, too — people having this new experience. "

While some foreign concepts have to overcome their "otherness" to make a name for themselves, other non-native concepts have blended seamlessly into the U.S. restaurant scene.

It didn't take long, for example, for American patrons to warm up to Fogo de Chao Churrascaria, a Brazilian steakhouse based in Dallas. Now in its 10th year, the restaurant is planning to open its 10th unit in San Antonio in November. The company actually began in Brazil, which boasts five units.

The unique experience, complete with gaucho chefs, top-notch steak, a generous salad bar and a focus on customer service, works well in the United States, according to Kandace Ladis, director of marketing.

"American patrons are looking for an exquisite experience to bring value to their dining experience," she said. "For newcomers, it's an uncommon experience — and for most, it is not the 'everyday' meal or restaurant."

It is actually easier to market the restaurant here in the United States, because the concept is much less common here than in Brazil, where competition is stiff.

"There is a churrascaria in every town and, in some cases, on every corner," said Selma Oliveira, chief operating officer of the company.

Only slight modifications differentiate the American units from their Brazilian counterparts, including the use of less salt here on meats. In addition, chicken hearts, while popular in Brazil, are not on U.S. menus.

Another restaurant that has not encountered cultural obstacles is Wagamama, a noodle bar headquartered in London that has units in several countries. Wagamama now has an office in Boston and has just opened its first restaurant there.

Americans are not much different than other patrons around the world, said Paul O'Farrell, chief operating officer for Wagamama.

"The menu we opened with here in Boston is pretty much the same as our menu in the U.K. [United Kingdom]," he said. "Our American customers are looking for the same thing as our customers in our restaurants throughout the world: great food, great service and good value for the money."