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Over the years, I've run into many dynamic and fascinating restaurateurs. Sam Barakat ranks right up there with the best of them.
The St. Louis native recently signed a lease for the 7074 SF space at 172 Carondelet Plaza, the former site of Luciano's Trattoria. Readers may remember that it was a burst water pipe that shut down Luciano's--we thought temporarily, as we reported here--in January of this year. The news that Luciano's would not reopen was also announced in these pages in March. The water damage has since been repaired but the space has been for lease until now.
Barakat acquired Gaucho's Brazilian Steakhouse in Valparaiso, Indiana in 2005, a restaurant he still owns. His restaurant here will have the exact same format but a different name, Brazikat Brazilian Steak & Seafood House (Brazikat being a portmanteau of Brazil and Barakat). Like most churrascaria, Brazikat will feature a salad bar and large skewers of a dozen varieties of meat (as below), brandished by a roving band of staffers.
Barakat is an interesting cat indeed, with many old school, common sense theories on how a restaurant should be operated...and the man is very convincing. Several times during our hour-long chat I found myself grinning broadly, and even busted myself fist pumping the air.
Barakat believes in answering the restaurant telephone....himself. He said he attempts to field all calls, even to the point of having calls forwarded to his cell phone. Why? The former car salesman knows no one can sell his restaurant like he can. In his words, "whenever possible, I want to get the the ball to Michael Jordan." He then told the story of the guy who called at 7 a.m. on a Saturday to make a reservation. Barakat stunned the man by picking the call up live. "I didn't wait till the evening to make a friend," he said. "That day I did it in the morning." (Contrast that to today's multi-media restaurateurs, many of whom elect to not even pick up the house phone.)
Barakat says he learned a lot of service techniques at The Ritz Carlton, St. Louis (his new next-door neighbor), where he worked in 1995. And he's all in--he recently moved his family to Clayton where he will live the commuter's dream of being able to walk to work.
Brazikat will borrow from Gaucho's both the typical--and the atypical--aspects of a Brazilian steakhouse. Two of the major design changes to the Luciano space will be the installation of a "35 item gourmet bar" (sorry, to us it'll always be a salad bar) and a hood system capable of handling exhaust from mesquite wood, Barakat's preferred fuel for churrasco cooking. According to Barakat, mesquite provides a char and a flavor unmatched by other woods.
In Valparaiso, Barakat (at right) was adamant about working the front door, seating customers himself, and earning customers "one handshake at a time." When asked if he will adopt those same practices here, he smiled and said "Of course. This restaurant is the beneficiary of seven years of R&D," and then self-deprecatingly admitted, "Plus, I'm too scared to change a thing." His constant presence on the floor has its advantages, he said, especially if a problem arises, adding that "most often, there's an opportunity before there's an issue."
I like his nod to voiceless communication, too: when a server first approaches a table, s/he lights the unlit candle and welcomes the guest. No lit candle = no server. If something's amiss, any server/manager/host seeing an unlit candle is free to take control, light it and establish presence, knowing full well that no one else has done so, thereby avoiding the unprofessional "um, has anyone come by yet?" exercise.
Where some restaurant owners count paper clips (where are you, Chuck Link?), Brazikat will market itself by giving away dollars. Lots of them. Barakat believes that too many restaurateurs "step over dollars to save pennies." As means to that end, he firmly believes in being "Birthday Celebration Headquarters," and is serious in his follow-through: All customers receive a free birthday dinner (a $40 value), redeemable anytime in the month of the birthday. Larger parties can opt into a "Birthday Package," thereby realizing even more savings. And it works. Gaucho's is full of birthday revelers, and restaurateurs know that "a full house breeds a full house."
His email solicitation is clever, too, veiled as a "Grand Prize Entry Form" where, he admitted, most everyone wins. Barakat is not averse to sending out a slew of free dinners for four and thousands of $50 bounce-back gift cards.
Barakat adheres to a freshness policy where all meats are guaranteed "fresh off the fire." At Gaucho's he also instituted the "300% Rule," where 100% of the product must be available to 100% of the customers 100 % of the time."
And he loves late-arriving guests, rationalizing "they're late because they've been at it all day and night...they're the hardest workers, and they spend a ton of money." Thus, he doesn't understand servers who don't share that sentiment.
Sunday Night is family night, where kids under 12 eat free (one per adult), and adults receive a $7 discount off any $40 "Feast" entree, plus $7 martinis.
Live acoustical music is part of the concept, too, and an expanded patio, "as big as Clayton will let me," according to Barakat. He hopes to install firepit-style warmers for the skewers of meat, a lure to attract private patio parties (P-3's in Barakat parlance) for four to 100 guests.
Another plus is his ability to take this show on the road: the use of portable firepits allows the Brazilian steakhouse experience to be duplicated at home or office.
Bottom line: I was quite impressed with the man's style and approach to the business...then equally dismayed when I read some of Gauchos' less than stellar online reviews...which to me makes this arrival all the more intriguing.
Brazikat is slated to open on December 1.