From Brazil to Birmingham

From Brazil to Birmingham

A restaurant business expanding in major cities in the north of the UK is one worth talking to, in my opinion. So, when news of Fazenda opening in Birmingham appeared in my inbox, I arranged to meet co-founder Tomas Maunier at the new site on Colmore Row, just days before the official launch.

Fazenda – ‘big farm’ in Portuguese – is based on the barbecues that gauchos would have in the fields of South America. Great big pieces of meat were skewered and cooked slowly on a fire, while the cowboys sang, told stories and drank. Fazenda swaps the fields for restaurants, the fire for a grill and the drink for, well, more drink – wine, specifically. Meats include the classic picanha, cordeiro (lamb with mint sauce) and barriga de porco (pork belly with honey and cinnamon). There’s also a salad bar with cheeses, cured meats, feijoada (black bean stew), black rice and squid, quail eggs and even sushi.

Fazenda was born in Leeds in 2010. Liverpool followed in 2013 and Manchester in 2014. Birmingham is the second opening for Fazenda in 2018; Edinburgh opened earlier in the year, making it the busiest year yet for the business for openings. The team has clearly chosen large cities in the north of the UK, where business meets pleasure, but Maunier explains that Birmingham is still a bit of a mystery to him.

“I don’t really understand Birmingham yet. I’ve been here 10, 15, 20 times. The first time, which was a few years ago now, I came to the city and I knew it was the second largest city in the UK, but it didn’t feel like it. I didn’t see that many buildings. The city looks dead on a weekday. I compare it to the first time I went to Manchester, and I felt that was a bigger city.”

Despite his initial feelings about Birmingham, Maunier believes that, to grow the brand, it has to have a presence there. He’s not the only operator to think so. Colmore Row, the area of the city that Fazenda has chosen, has welcomed The Alchemist, Gusto and Tattu since a rejuvenation of the business district began a few years ago. The Grand Hotel is due to open next year. Colmore Row suits Fazenda; corporates, which Maunier says is a big part of the business, are making use of the restaurant at 1pm on a Tuesday, during a three-week soft launch period.

For guests, a soft launch is a chance for them to try a restaurant at a heavy discount, but for Maunier, a soft launch is an opportunity for a group of people that are even more important to him and the business.

All about the people

“Even before we started this, I have always believed that people are your most valuable asset,” says Maunier. “You can create a brand and identify it as something amazing, but if you start hiring the wrong people, that product will deteriorate. You have to spend time with them and make sure that they will be you. So, I need to make sure that all these people have the same values as Robert [Melman, Maunier’s business partner] and me.”

In order to cement its brand values, Fazenda created a brand bible so it could better explain to people, visually and verbally, what it is and what it wants to be.

“We exist to make people feel special,” reveals Maunier. “That’s what I am here for as a person and what the brand is here for. Our top people, we’re all happy when we make people feel special. We devote ourselves to it. We show them what that means and we do that on a regular basis. When they see it, they pass it on.”

It’s obviously not as simple as saying the words and achieving the end result. Maunier confesses that Birmingham is the first site he’s opened, apart from the first, that hasn’t taken people from other sites. While they have trained for three months in Manchester, Leeds and Liverpool, Maunier stresses that it was difficult for him.

It’s a common understanding in the restaurant business that if you look after your staff, they’ll look after your guests. The rapport that they can create is priceless and can make all the difference.

“People will go back to a restaurant that is 10 points service, eight points food,” says Maunier. “But you never go back to a restaurant that is 10 points food, eight points service – or less than.”

Maunier insists that paying customers are guests in his restaurants. However, putting his staff first, he explains that he has asked people to leave because they haven’t treated them well. In his need to make people feel special, the difficult behaviour of British people when eating out is one that pains him. He explains they don’t make his job any easier.

“The way that I behave as a human being is so different to the way that I see some people behaving here in the UK or Europe. It’s easy to find difficult customers, because people don’t tell us their true feelings or thoughts. That’s a big mistake. If I go out to a restaurant or a hotel, if there’s something that I’m not happy with, I voice it in a good manner, whereas here, a lot of people feel embarrassed doing that. People don’t say anything and they leave. But the only way I can make your experience better is if you tell me. Instead, it all goes up on Trip Advisor.”

He mentions Gary Usher’s replies to customer complaints as being “what a lot of people in the industry would like to tell people.”

Speaking of difficult customers that are impossible to please, I can’t help but think about the changing habits of consumers eating out. If there are two things I’m hearing, reading or talking about, it’s the increase in people eating less meat and drinking less wine – two products that Fazenda and Maunier are incredibly passionate about. So, how is the business faring?

Consumer behaviour

“I do see people going towards a less meaty diet here in the UK, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t want to go out and come to somewhere like Fazenda and enjoy amazing meat,” says Maunier. “I’m not asking them to come every day, just enjoy it. With wine, the behaviour of people has changed a lot over the last few years. Before, it was ‘I’ll drink as much cheap beer as I can’, now it’s ‘I’ll drink a few very good beers.’ The same applies to wine. Before, they would get wine for £3 and drink loads of it. Now, they go to wine shops and would prefer to buy a £15 bottle of wine, because they understand quality better.”

If people are simply eating and drinking better, restaurants like that of Fazenda should be seeing the benefits. It’s a destination for corporate lunches and a special night out for groups, with a fixed price menu and a range of wine that can be dictated by a guest’s budget, while following the concept of a Brazilian rodizio.

“The drinks are where people can choose whatever range they want. I don’t believe in cheap wine, because I know what the price is of everything around it. You pay £5 for a bottle of wine and then you realise that only 10p is actually going to the cost of the product. We always try to make our wine lists to suit our offering. We have a lot of South American wine – our range of Argentinian wines is second to none, maybe only Gaucho has more.

“Two years ago, we went and bought all of the 2004 Nicolas Catena bottles of wine that were in the country and we have them ageing in Liverpool. No one else can have them but us. We have a lot of Argentinian wines, but we also have Brazilian wines, Chilean wines and Uruguayan wines. And you can find very decent bottles for a very decent price; some of the wines we are selling for £26, other restaurants are selling for £35. We focus on good stuff, but we don’t price them too high because we want to make sure people have a great experience.”

This isn’t the first time during our chat that Maunier mentions Gaucho. When you arrive at Fazenda, you can’t help but notice its fellow South American restaurant beside it, which also focuses on meat and wine. It has also become the most recent symbol of the challenges of the industry. It has me itching to ask Maunier how he feels about expanding in the current environment.

The troubles

“I believe Gaucho represents the top end of Argentinian brands from a dining experience,” says Maunier. “I’ve always looked up to them – still today I think it’s an amazing brand and concept. We all go through moments in our lives that are harder and easier. The industry is going through a very difficult period – I’m not saying anything new to anybody by saying that.”

This, naturally, gets us onto the hard topic of rents and rates. He points out the incredible risk of investing £2m in a restaurant, as they did with the Birmingham site, while rents are 50% of costs and the rates hike last year saw the company’s Picanha site in Chester cost the same as Manchester despite being half the size. The impact of people – both consumer and team member – arises once again, as he laments the former for not understanding the cost of running a restaurant and appreciating the value of a meal out, followed by addressing the wage increases of the latter.

“I do believe that wages have been a big impact on our industry – not because I think it’s wrong to increase the wages, on the contrary. We can’t expect our waiters or kitchen team to work the way that they work on a low wage. We have a wage bill of £3m a year, but that’s because we pay them good money. It’s time for people in our industry to get a decent wage because, until that happens, no one’s going to see this as a career, but the money has to come from somewhere.”

Maunier is addressing the recruitment and retention challenge that many operators are facing. It is a vicious circle, with operators too afraid to put prices up in order to reduce the impact of the wage increase, for fear of losing customers. As a result, they are taking the hit themselves, which only tightens the already tight margins.

This leads our interviewee naturally onto another hot topic – Brexit. While the business may not be obviously impacted by the sourcing challenge that Brexit poses, it does threaten its most important asset, which I appreciate much more now than at the beginning of our conversation, as I realise almost everything that Maunier discusses leads back to his people.

“If you look at the number of people who are applying for jobs now compared to two years ago, and then look at the quality of the pool of people applying, both have diminished. That is a reality. We have a lot of British people in our teams who are amazing. Our managers are incredible; there are a few that, if I die tomorrow and they have to start their own business, they will do very well. But, they are the few, because people from the UK feel ashamed to be working in this business while their friends are lawyers or whatever, even if they love it, especially if they started working in this business while studying. They feel like they didn’t succeed in life. People would rather be working in admin, sitting in front of a computer, 9am-5pm. We need to see this as another very good way of living. People need to change the way they see us in order for us to start changing the youth.”

Despite the risks and challenges involved, it doesn’t seem to have put off Maunier and the team from expansion. Furthermore, despite the hotbed that London is for high rents and rates, the UK capital hasn’t been written off as an option for Fazenda – very much the contrary. Birmingham is, after all, the brand’s most southern site, and Maunier himself calls it the gateway to London. But, for now, he is focusing on making a success of his latest opening.