Published On: November 23, 2012

New York Comes to Curitiba

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New Yorkers refer to their favorite city as “the bright lights of the big city.” Thanks to the imagination of Luiz Santo, residents of Curitiba can now enjoy those bright lights. Mr. Santo has opened a restaurant in Curitiba and appropriately named it the New York Cafe.

Before opening in September, Luiz spent two years planning the creation. In addition to developing a unique menu, he also spent a great deal of time thinking about the interior design for his restaurant. He wanted to replicate the look of New York, so he purchased large spotlights and constructed black crossbars to suspend the lights from the ceiling that mimic a Broadway theatre. He even found an all-black chandelier like what he’d seen in the famous SoHo neighborhood of Manhattan.

With an eye trained in advertising, Luiz continued to gather more New York memorabilia – vintage artwork, huge NYC lettering in red light bulbs, an authentic New York Subway sign, and several big black & white photographs of New York. One photo is the New York City skyline taken in 1940, and another is a classic action photo of Mickey Mantle, the bygone hero of the New York Yankees baseball team.

For the final touch in authenticity, Luiz commissioned an artist to create an original stencil of the New York skyline, which then became a mural covering one entire wall of the cafe above the NYC red lights. And in a vision of designer’s luck, Luiz discovered he could strip down one interior wall of the cafe to the exposed brick and leave it this way without painting it, a rare sight in a Brazilian restaurant, but a common occurrence in New York.

Of course, it isn’t enough to have an exotic interior. Having worked in the restaurant business in New York, Luiz knew the key to success would be an extraordinary menu. “During the two years of preparation to open this cafe, the idea came to me of exactly what I wanted it to be. I wanted to feature the best I could offer, in the interior design and the food. For example, there is a unique bread I discovered in the US called bagels. And of course, I couldn’t open a cafe in Curitiba without serving good Brazilian coffee.”

Luiz spent months searching for the best American foods to tempt the Brazilian palette. His menu includes such favorites as pastrami and home-made pickles, as well as the Cafe’s now famous bagels, a New York Jewish bread, another treat impossible to find in Curitiba. Other specialty items on the menu that are rare in Brazil include iced coffee, beer chicken, Philly cheese steak, brownies and cheese cake, and even American pancakes.

It’s not only the interior design and menu at New York Cafe that are innovative. Luiz has created a paperless billing system modeled after the US. The waitress enters a customer’s order into her tablet, and the order appears at Luiz’s desk instantly on his iPad. All of the items are listed automatically on the iPad along with the price and the time the waitress entered the order, so Luiz can keep track of how long it takes his kitchen to complete each order. When it comes time to pay the bill, the customer merely approaches Luiz and tells him where he was sitting. This system avoids waiting for the waitress to prepare the bill, and it gives Luiz the opportunity to greet each customer and ask for feedback. Luiz especially likes the idea of a paperless restaurant to promote environmental awareness.

Luiz Santo, owner/chef

Most retail establishments take a long time to recover their initial investments, and in the food business, the financial risks are particularly high. At least half of new restaurants go out of business because the owners have invested all of their capital to open the new establishment, expecting to earn a profit or at least “break even” as soon as they open their doors. Men like Luiz, brave enough to start their own retail businesses, are warned they should expect to lose money the first year, until they can attract a sufficient number of steady customers. Having worked in restaurants in New York, such as the Gramercy Tavern, Luiz was well-aware of the risks involved. However, he has surprised everyone by filling his cafe every day since it opened on September 18. Expecting to run the entire operation himself the first year to cut down on expenses, instead after being open only two months, he already has six employees and he’s breaking even. A steady stream of customers eager to enjoy a taste of New York has provided Luiz with the finest reward any new business owner could ask for – a growing restaurant with no debts.

Many people have dreams for the future, but generally those dreams remain unfulfilled. However, Luiz Santo was a man with a vision, a dream to bring the sights and tastes of a famous American city back home to Curitiba. Originally, Luiz began his career in advertising after graduating from PUC. However, after living in New Zealand and Los Angeles and New York, and working in restaurants there for several years, Luiz faced the challenging reality of his destiny – to open his own cafe in Curitiba. By 2010, Luiz was back living in Curitiba and began the process of turning his vision into a reality. It took a full two years to bring his dream to fruition. Luiz relates, “Having worked in the restaurant business in the US, I knew the dangers of opening my own cafe. I knew I had to plan every step carefully. For example, from my background in advertising, I knew the most critical aspect of any retail operation was location, so I spent a year choosing the right location for the cafe.”

When choosing the best location, Luiz considered his client base: young people with a taste for adventure in food, or people who like to travel, particularly those who have been to the US. He knew there was a good chance that only a certain segment of Curitiba’s population would be willing to eat at a restaurant that was not typically Brazilian. His first instinct was to open the cafe downtown or in Batel, where other restaurants offering non-traditional fare have been successful. However, after careful consideration, and against the advice of friends and family, he choose to open in an unexpected neighborhood, Alto da XV. He knew he was taking a huge gamble to invest in an area with less potential customers, particularly where there was nothing similar to the New York Cafe. Would he profit from having no competition and paying less rent than in Batel? Or would people in the neighborhood reject his new idea?

Cafe customers

“Of course my family and friends told me I was crazy because I refused to listen to their suggestions. They said I needed to make my cafe more Brazilian or I wouldn’t have any customers. Only one person in my family believed in my vision, and that was my grandmother’s sister. Today, she and I are having a great time telling everyone they were wrong!”

When asked about the secret of his immediate success, he replied, “I’m always looking for new ideas. I ask my customers what could be different, what I should add. I’m already planning a new menu to include additional American favorites, like egg salad and coleslaw.”

It’s not unusual for men with a vision to work alone, ignoring the advice of others. We call these men artists, and Luiz is an artist of the food business. However, as with most successful men, Luiz can always count on the support of his girlfriend, Diele Pedrozo. In fact, it was Diele’s idea to make the new cafe accessible to people with disabilities. She is sensitive to the issue of the disabled and their access to public places because she teaches art to the blind and has her master’s degree in this field. As a result of Diele’s input and support, Luiz decided to make the cafe handicap accessible. There are fully operational bathrooms for men and women with handicaps as well as a ramp leading into the cafe for wheelchair access. “I wanted people with disabilities, whatever they were – blind, deaf, in a wheelchair – to feel at home in my cafe. I wanted them to be able to move around the cafe without assistance.”

To accomplish the difficult task of planning a cafe that is fully functional for the handicapped, Luiz looked to Diele. It was she who came up with the brilliant and unique idea to ask handicapped people themselves. So while the cafe was in its planning stages, Diele spoke to people with disabilities and asked them what was necessary for them to feel comfortable inside a cafe. These unofficial “consultants” proved invaluable to the planning of the layout, particularly with regards to the bathrooms, where the Brazilian regulations for handicap access don’t go far enough, according to those with disabilities.

With only the intention of providing a service to the handicapped, Luiz and Diele accidentally stumbled on a great source of marketing and promotion. Following the opening of the cafe in September, Luiz has been flooded with interview requests from Gazeta do Povo, Estado do Paraná, and Rede Massa, all of them interested in publicizing a cafe with handicap access.

Of course, media attention is always welcomed by a new business, but it’s not a guarantee of success. For that, you must have customers who appreciate the ambiente and love the food, so they keep returning. For Luiz, this is not a problem. “I never expected we would be so busy two months after opening. Of course, every new business owner dreams of this, but I was trying to be realistic. I knew it wouldn’t be easy to open and manage my own restaurant because I’d never done it before, but already I’ve surpassed even my own dreams, and it’s only going to get better.”

New York Cafe
Rua XV de Novembro, 2916
F: 9822-7037
Open Every Day except Monday

Michael Rubin is an American living in Curitiba.

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