Looking out at Sao Paulo, the largest city in the Western Hemisphere, a low-rise shopping mall tucked into a sprawling urban sprawl, sandwiched between intercity highways, exudes charm unmatched anywhere in the United States-there is a giant Outback steak restaurant chain.
In 2018, Outback St. Paul North Mall became the largest Outback store in the world. Before that, it was already the most profitable store in the world, and since then, the store has not stopped expanding and continuing its legend. Today, the Outback is almost twice the size of America’s largest Outback. You know, Outback, a chain restaurant brand that fakes Australia barbecue, was born in the United States.
Even so, the store isn’t big enough-not enough for Brazilians, not enough for this Monday. Kalani Nunes, the young greeter, glanced at the line waiting for lunch. There must have been dozens of people. “This is Outback.” “Very stylish,” she explained.
| Unanticipated, crazy love.| I come from the suburbs of the heart of America, and I see a lot of restaurant chains in shopping malls. Red Lobster, Olive Garden, Friday, Chiles…I know every one of them. During our Wisconsin days, our family often boiled down our dining out plans to multiple-choice questions like “Applebee’s versus Pizza Hut.” But what unfolded before me caught me off guard: people flocking to the Outback, excitedly waiting for a hip experience. It happened in a country I hadn’t expected.
When it comes to beef, many people think of Brazil. About 30 million beef cattle are slaughtered annually in this country, and cows outnumber the population. Brazil produces more beef than any other country outside the United States. All the time, everywhere, there was a sizzling roast-on busy city streets, on stern decks, outside banks, inside prisons, even at funerals. In January, thousands of supporters of former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro stormed Brasilia, and amid the chaos, a man sold freshly roasted meat to tear gas.
Although Brazil has its own barbecue culture, American fakes of Australia barbecue are gaining extraordinary popularity in Brazil-a growing Brazilian love.
Outback has been named rio de janeiro’s most popular restaurant for the fifth year in a row, and brazilian pollster datapages has named it sao paulo’s most popular shopping mall restaurant. Over the past three years, the epidemic has hit Brazil’s restaurant industry, but Outback has expanded rapidly in Brazil. Today, 83% of outback’s revenue outside the u.s. comes from brazil.
Brazilians love outback so much that it has spawned a copycat brand. In 2020, the first “Lane Visitor” will open. Although the name is not grammatical, it does not prevent the street from opening stores all over Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo. Many Alley Baike stores will also call themselves “Alley Baike Steak Chain Restaurant”.
Sometimes I feel like one of the last people in Brazil who doesn’t eat Outback. During my four years in Rio, I mostly chose traditional Brazilian barbecue. Brazilian barbecue is arguably the best meat I’ve ever eaten, really, so I’m getting more and more confused about the long line at Outback.
If Brazil has some of the best barbecue in the world, how can American Outback, which specializes in fake Australia barbecue, dominate Brazil?
It was Monday, and I decided to check it out myself at noon. I drove to Sao Paulo North Mall to see Brazil’s largest Outback. As soon as I arrived at the restaurant entrance, I joined the queue.
| Wave goodbye to rice and beans| Brazil has been a rice and bean eater since ancient times. This combination binds Brazil, which is vast, rich, diverse and deeply unequal. Brazilians, rich or poor, regardless of race, eat rice and beans.
However, in recent decades, Brazil’s traditional diet has gradually changed and presented class differences. Studies have pointed out that modern life is stressful, leaving less time for people to cook, and people in the upper middle class are increasingly inclined to choose “less healthy global foods”. The National Restaurant Association reports that food consumption at fast food restaurants has increased 70 percent over the past 20 years. By 2025, the average Brazilian is expected to stop eating rice and beans five days a week as in the past.
Fernanda Granado, a researcher at the Federal University of Minas Gerais, said: “Traditional diets are losing importance. It’s not just affecting our health, it’s damaging our culture.”
Some researchers point out that American restaurant chains benefited from this dietary change, which in turn consolidated the effects of the change. McDonald’s is now Brazil’s third-largest restaurant chain with 2595 stores, Subway, with 1861 stores, ranks sixth, and Burger King ranks 11th with 1255 stores, according to the Brazilian Franchise Association.
Outback, which buys most of its beef from Brazil, recently opened its 150th store in Brazil. Outback’s standing in brazil, however, is measured by word-of-mouth rather than the number of stores.
Brazil’s first Outback opened in 1997, and the restaurant looked like it had been brought straight from suburban America-with the same green pitched roof, the same spacious parking lot, and the location next to a busy street. It didn’t take long for Outback to expand into Sao Paulo.
Pierre Berenstein, president of Outback Brazil, recalls that before Outback entered the Brazilian market, no one knew about American delicacies such as crispy onion blossoms, Australian cheese fries and iced beers. “The restaurant has been packed since the day it opened,” Berenstein said. Over the next few years, Outback moved from the streets of Brazil to fragrant shopping malls. One of them is located in Rio de Janeiro’s trendiest neighborhood, on the top floor of the Les Bleus shopping center. At that time, a casual family meal could cost more than $100-a lot of money in Brazil, where the average monthly salary was around $340.
Brazil is a booming and coveted market. Outback competes directly with traditional local dining brands from the moment it enters Brazil’s shopping malls.
One of Outback’s competitors is the famous Brazilian barbecue restaurant “Estrela Sur”. This restaurant specializes in grilled meats served with rice, beans and vegetables. “Our restaurant, everything we serve is of high quality,” said Renato Comon, owner of Estrela Sur
, which has seen business decline despite having nine locations in Rio and Sao Paulo. With tax pressures, rising food costs, and new rivals closing in, Comon’s restaurants suddenly looked boring and expensive compared to the glossy American chain restaurants. Komon watched helplessly as his regular customers switched to dining at Outback.
Comon felt that Outback’s food was unflattering, with too much fried food and bread, but he also saw that many Brazilians just liked this. Even his own children let him try it. “Outback was all about style,” says Comon. “There was a certain appeal.”
Estrela do Sul could not compete, and it didn’t take long for the stores to close one after another. In 2021, the last Estrela do Sul store that was barely hanging on in a shopping mall in Rio closed. In the end, this restaurant’s reviews on Google failed to exceed 1,000, while the reviews of Outback next door were close to 10,000.
One customer commented: “Impeccable dining experience.”
Another praised: “Outback is the best restaurant without a doubt.”
Comon sighed. Family-run Estrela do Sur has a history of nearly 50 years, allowing people to taste the authentic Brazilian flavor. Today, Estrela do Sul is finished. He said in the tone of a philosopher: “Everything has a beginning, a process and an end.”
| Welcome to the “Kangaroo Country” |
Entering the world’s largest Outback steakhouse chain restaurant, I spent a few minutes first Get your bearings. The restaurant is dimly lit, noisy and spacious, with 550 seats and multiple functional areas – such as VIP private rooms, children’s play area, and pet-friendly area. Several waiters were singing to celebrate customers’ birthdays.
In Berenstein’s words, dining at Outback is “a journey to kangaroo country” and “a journey to appreciate the highlights of Australian culture.”
Fake crocodiles dominate the ceiling, a picture of a koala takes over one wall, and a collection of apparently Aboriginal artifacts adorns another. The menu clearly states that the freshly grilled and cut steaks are Australian-style, and customers are encouraged to post their “Outback moments” on social media.
Outback was founded by four business executives in the United States. Not wanting their fantasy to be shattered by reality, the four of them deliberately avoided going to Australia. However, the so-called “Aussie style” has pissed off real Australians. “Outback has nothing to do with Australia,” said Australian food critic Besha Rodell. “It has nothing to do with it. It’s purely an American fiction.”
However, the people I dined with all ate with gusto.
Sitting in the booth area, Maurizio Godinho calls himself an Outback connoisseur. He preferred the other store because he felt the store sacrificed service quality in pursuit of scale. But he believes that having Outback is better than not having one. He said he would come every day if he could, and said he only regretted it once. He was in the United States at the time, and Outback there was obviously not as attractive as the one in Brazil.
”It’s very bad,” Godinho said. “It’s terrible.” That day, he hesitated whether to go to Outback or Chilo. He still wonders what would have happened if he had made other choices. “I regret it so much,” he said.
A few tables away from Godinho sat Giovanna Scannerini. She drives more than an hour from Atibaia to eat at Outback and does so at least once a month. “It’s worth it every time,” she said. Scannerini believes that Brazil is now a new, modern country and she doesn’t want to eat the same food all the time. “Imagine eating the same thing every day for 21 years,” she said. “Rice, beans, and some meat. I’m tired of it.”
However, I gradually realized that there was more to Outback’s popularity in Brazil than just the food. Either by accident of fate or shrewd marketing, the Outback steakhouse chain has become a cultural touchstone in the hearts of many Brazilians. They come here not so much for the food as for the experience. People can come to pamper themselves, or they can come to celebrate life events—birthdays, promotions, even proposals.
Forklift worker Thales Ivan checks the Outback app while waiting in line. He first dined at Outback six years ago. That night, he proposed to his girlfriend, Lesa Inara, in the store. Inara said “I do” on the spot, and she is now sitting next to him, along with their two-year-old son Arthur.
Inara is unemployed, and the couple doesn’t have much money, but they insist on coming to Australia every month for dinner to celebrate their relationship and the family they have built. “We all remember that our story begins here.” Inara said, “This is a place that makes us happy.”
After waiting in line for nearly an hour, the greeter finally called them. A family walked into the store and ordered a grilled ribs.