The pampa region of Brazil is a fertile lowland with a look and feel not unfamiliar to the Canadian prairies. Here you’ll find Gaúchos who, like North American cowboys and cowgirls, are exceptionally skilled at horsemanship, guarding and herding cattle. You’ll also see, smell and taste the way Southern Brazilians barbeque. On the pampa large cuts of meat are skewered and staked into the ground at an angle. A fire is lit nearby, and the wind fans the flames close to the meat. Slowly, the meat roasts until it is perfectly tender, exceptionally juicy, and ready to be enjoyed.
When Oscar Lopez, who co-founded Pampa Brazilian Steakhouse with Joao Dachery, arrived in Canada in 1988, this delectable meal, method of cooking, and sharing the food with friends and family were nowhere to be found on Canada’s chilly plains.
He was 10 when he arrived in Canada with his parents and two younger siblings, and being a restaurateur was not in his plans.
“I had three dream jobs,” says Lopez. “First, to be a professional soccer player. Once I realized I was not going to make it at that, I wanted to be a soccer broadcaster with a twist. I planned to narrate games in English, but with the flair and flavour of the Spanish language. Brazilians are very passionate about soccer! Instead, however, I went to university and got a business degree with a major in international business. So, my third dream job became working for the International Monetary Fund or the United Nations where I could use my bilingual skills and my passion for travel to unite languages and culture through education.” He pauses to reflect. “None of those dreams turned out.”
It was a University of Alberta student exchange trip to Brazil in 2002 that changed the course of his life.
“I dined at a steakhouse. I vividly remember the day,” says Lopez. “My roommate Lucas took me there. I ate for four hours nonstop! Then I didn’t eat for the next two days. It was amazing to have endless carvings of meat tableside. I was hooked! I thought, ‘This would work in Alberta. We have some of the best beef in the world in Alberta. Edmontonians like to dine out, but we don’t have this way of dining. I can bring this to Edmonton, not just the food, but the culture, the garb, the drinks and the wine.’”
It was another lofty dream. His only experience in restaurants prior to opening Pampa was his turn as a bus boy at age 13.
Today, trying to get a seat in any of Pampa’s five locations is next to impossible without a reservation, but the time between Lopez’s decision to open a Brazilian steakhouse and the actual opening day was very difficult – to say the least.
“It was tiring, depressing, stressful and full of sleepless nights,” confides Lopez. “It affected my marriage and personal relationships were lost because I worked so much. When we came back from Brazil with the idea, Joao and I worked in restaurants for five years to learn and teach ourselves. We had no clue! The way of operating between Brazil and Edmonton are different in every way, including marketing, laws, and food handling.”
“We were short of money so we had to look for more investors, but when we had the money and experience, no landlords would take us. People looked at us like we were crazy,” continues Lopez. “Looking back, it seems like people were scared of the unknown. People had never heard of a Brazilian steakhouse and we had no experience. Banks said no to loans. My parents remortgaged their home to support us, and we all had to dig deep into our pockets. We also brought in a fourth partner.”
To say those years were discouraging is putting it mildly. “It felt like people, apart from my wife Susana who never doubted me, didn’t believe in us. I felt like I was wasting my time and life. I was in my 30s when I should be having a career and buying a home, but instead I was living with my parents. I had a business degree and was bussing tables.”
Frustrated with the search for a landlord that would accept the concept, the partners hired a leasing consultant. After nearly 30 landlords said no, and eight years after Lopez and his partners started their journey, Pampa found a home.
“We landed our flagship, which is still open today on 109 Street.”
Once Edmontonians got a taste of authentic Brazilian barbeque, they couldn’t get enough. Within a few short years three more locations opened, with even more in development and a spin off concept in the works.
What makes Pampa so crave worthy?
“Pampa is like Disneyland for adults! It’s the magic kingdom of meat!” Lopez gives a hearty laugh. “It’s like Brazil – busy, passionate and full of energy. Our restaurants are louder than average. There is a lot of interaction at the table with our Gaúchos (grill masters) and servers. Our self-serve salad bar has 50+ items that are made in-house, including the dressings and breads. We serve many kinds of meat including Alberta beef, pork, chicken, lamb, and seasonal cuts such as elk, wild boar, shrimp and salmon. Because the meat is carved tableside, you can have as much as you want. Same with the salad bar. Unlike a traditional steakhouse where you must choose one meat and two vegetables, here you can choose and repeat, as much as you want to indulge. When guests leave, they have a full belly, a big smile, and they are thoroughly satisfied.”
Pampa is as authentic as possible, including not having any booths since booths do not encourage interaction among guests and servers. In place of the open fires seen in Brazil, specially designed rotisserie ovens give the skewers of meat their authentic taste. Also true to its origins is a cut of beef that is seldom seen in other steakhouses: the rump.
“In North America, rump steak is not a prime cut of meat, but in Brazil, it is the king of cuts,” smiles Lopez. “The difference (between here and there) is how it’s cut, seasoned, grilled and served. When we came back from Brazil we had to teach our meat suppliers how to do the cut. Animals are butchered differently around the world for cultural reasons.”
Today, the rump steak is the one of the most popular items on the menu. The other is Pão de Queijo, a gluten-free cheese bun that holds a Tomato Award for being one of the top 100 things to eat in Edmonton.
Lopez and Dachery know that Pampa would not be where it is today without the 40-50 team members it takes to run each location.
“Joao and I allow our team to have initiative, to bring us problems but to bring a solution with it. There is ample room for team members to come up with ideas, suggestions, procedures, and new ways of doing things, and we encourage that a lot. The team members that have the same values and are self-starters do well with us because we value that. They get the opportunity to move up, to hit targets in cost control, sales and revenue. As long as the work gets done within the parameters given, they can choose how to reach their goals. Our turnover is lower than industry average. Eight years on we still have five of our original staff that opened with us, and many more have six or seven years with us so far.”
Now that the concept has been proven in Edmonton and is being implemented in other cities, Lopez and Dachery have implemented two new corporate positions to ensure standardization across the brand, focusing on consistency among each location’s food, service and ambiance.
The spirit that drove Lopez to never give up on his dream of opening Pampa still drives him today.
“I’m inspired by trying new things that I’ve never done or what others have never done. I co-founded the first Brazilian steakhouse house in Edmonton and now I want to own the biggest Brazilian steakhouse chain in Canada. My expansion plan to the end of 2021 is 10 Pampa locations across the prairies. I like to take risks and be innovative about looking for opportunities that others don’t see.”
No matter how many locations open, Lopez will never forget the journey to get the first Pampa open.
“To be honest it feels very humbling,” he confides as he looks around the latest Pampa location on the west side of Edmonton. “Sometimes I’ll stand in the dining room and look at the staff working hard day in and day out and look at the amazing customers in the chairs and I can’t believe it. It’s surreal! Many different people made this happen and helped us over the years. Sure, we had the idea and took the risk and a large part of the success is the tenacity Joao and I had, but the more we grow and the more team members and professional managers we bring on, the more humble it makes me because I realize I couldn’t do this by myself. The internal growth within Pampa has been amazing, not just for us as partners, but for the people that surrounded us from day one and that exemplify our values and grow with us everyday.”
What is the ultimate secret to his success? Lopez says it’s not a secret at all.
“Just show up and be present. Get up every day and do what you need to do day in and day out, even when things are difficult and stressful. There is no magic. You get up, come to your business, and do what you can to make it through that day. There is always an issue, problem, or challenge. Every single day is different. Your day could start early or late or end early or late. You never eat at the same time or see your spouse when you want to. You must have the will and tenacity to face the day and work on the challenges.”
From the start, giving back has been part of Pampa’s culture. The restaurant chain has supported the Edmonton Food Bank and participates in several fundraisers and initiatives each year.
Pampa has been recognized numerous times over the past eight years and holds coveted awards from the likes of Tomato Magazine and Golden Fork, while also being named the Best Steakhouse in Edmonton by Avenue Edmonton and the Best Steak House and Best BBQ by Metro. But Lopez and his partner are not done yet. The dream has been realized, and now it’s time to take it further. There are expansion plans afoot, and he hints at taking the brand national. A little closer to home, however, something big is cooking up.
“There is a spin off of Pampa coming!” teases Lopez. “It has to do with one of our top sellers. Watch for it this year!”
Pampa is more than a restaurant. It’s a place where people gather to socialize and enjoy the culture and traditions of Brazil. It’s where you can try different foods prepared in unexpected ways. It’s where you feel as though you were sitting on the pampa with friends, watching the cattle graze and the sun go down while the smell of roasting meat makes your mouth water as you watch the flames tease out the flavour in a skewer of beef. Pampa is where you feel right at home.
Learn more by visiting pampasteakhouse.com online and follow @eatpampa on Instagram and Twitter.