Cabana With its authentic yet approachable menu of spicy Brazilian classics, Cabana aims to ‘transport people out of the UK for an hour'. James Stagg reports
Brazilian barbecue restaurant Cabana is the brainchild of restaurateurs Jamie Barber and David Ponte. Friends for 20 years, the pair wanted to bring some of the spirit and energy of Brazil to a UK dining experience. Cabana takes contemporary references and menu inspiration from Brazil, where Ponte was born and raised, without making reference to the stereotypical imagery of the girl from Ipanema or Mardi Gras.
Dishes are punchy, Anglicised versions of Brazilian classics. "Our aim is to blow people away with taste and flavour and transport them out of the UK for an hour," says Barber.
The most successful dish is the skewered spicy malagueta chicken (£8.95), which has become a Cabana classic. "The skewer is becoming a dish that people come back for," Barber adds. "It's sticky, sweet and spicy. And it's great theatre when it comes to the table."
Barber and Ponte came up with the concept in February 2011. "I think by May we had raised the first £2m, and in November we opened the first two branches," says Ponte. "You might say it was aggressive, but it happed very naturally."
Funding and growth
Although the pair will have opened seven sites in just under three years, they don't have any openings targets. Backed by what Barber describes as "a group of like-minded friends, family and customers" there is no institutional pressure to come up with a definitive figure.
"We wanted to have fun in the sector," he explains. "We didn't have anything to prove, but we wanted to do something enjoyable. The first two did unbelievably well. We were the highest-grossing restaurant at Westfield Stratford over the Olympics. We've no pressure to open. If we find great sites, we'll open them."
Ponte adds that the focus on Brazil has been a happy coincidence. "We've seen lots of great concepts where there has been an explosive opening, but then in year three it has settled into the doldrums. We're determined not to do that."
Design and character
Designed to reflect Brazil's creativity, imagination and vibrance, the restaurants feature 'upcycled' pieces of furniture and design. The colourful Westfield site has kites hanging from the ceiling, strings of coloured T-shirts, and the walls are hung with typographical posters. The seats are covered in recycled denim, old cocoa sacks hold condiments and the bowls that bills are presented in have been made from telephone cables.
"We try to use that upcycled element in every restaurant," explains Barber. "We particularly like the denim as it helps a charity in SÁ£o Paulo. The bill bowls came to us from a child in Copacabana, who had made one out of telephone wire. It's this 'needs must' creativity we're interested in - it provides good stories about the optimism of Brazil."
The World Cup
Ponte hadn't really considered that the football tournament might shine a light on their concept when they launched. "It was almost after the event that David said, 'you know the World Cup will be there in 2014?'," says Barber.
He hopes that the World Cup and the Olympics, along with the Cabana interpretation, will help encourage a more contemporary image of Brazil to replace some of the more clichéd pictures of the country. "Hopefully we'll help shine a lens on contemporary and urban Brazil," Barber says. "What we're showing is the fact that there's a vibrant, contemporary art, music and cultural scene. Hopefully, we're opening a window most people don't see."
Though modelled on the Brazilian rodizio, the menu isn't completely meat-focused. Apart from its malagueta chicken skewers, popular dishes include prawn moqueca (a prawn and salmon coconut curry), as well as salmon ceviche, vegetable skewers and halloumi. Ponte explains: "There is a good balance between us of me trying to champion Brazilian dishes - many of which Jamie will point out wouldn't be successful - and making it commercial by Anglicising it.
"There is a stew called feijoada, which contains everything from nose to tail," Barber adds.
"It's got a niche audience here, so ours is made with pulled pork. It's still got the integrity of flavour and the recipe is the same, but it's more accessible. It's an evolution in Brazilian food."
Will it succeed?
With this experienced pair at the helm, more than likely - they've certainly got the pedigree. Jamie Barber has had success with Hush, which now has three London sites, while Rioborn Ponte founded Momo. Although Ponte's high-end Brazilian restaurant, Mocoto in Knightsbridge, failed, the pair seem to have struck success in the casual dining sphere.
Ponte compares Cabana with fellow South American chain Wahaca. "In the early days people said we were a Brazilian Wahaca, which we'll take," he says. "And the other was that we're a posh Nando's, which we'll also take."
The restaurants don't have a problem standing out, even in the crowded casual dining market. "There are elements of what we do that are coincidentally on trend - like barbecue,"
Barber says. "We've happened upon that - it's not contrived. There is nobody doing David Ponte (left) and Jamie Barber what we're doing."
Number of sites 7
Predicted turnover by year end £10m
Average spend per person - £18
Number of covers at the 5000 sq ft site 200