Second Helpings

Blame It on Rio: One of the restaurant industry's hottest concepts is the rodizio. Think of it as a Brazilian grill, featuring endless courses of skewered meats, lavishly presented. Typically, waiters dressed as gauchos bring sizzling, sword-size skewers to the table and dramatically slice everything from beef to chicken hearts onto the guests' plates. Meals can easily consist of a half-dozen or more meat options: A hungry, dedicated carnivore, wearing pants with an elastic waistband, could get his Recommended Annual Allowance of animal protein in one sitting. Dinner is a full evening's entertainment and can be great fun.

Over the past five years, two Brazilian restaurants have come and gone in the Valley. Now, it looks like a third one may die before it even gets started.

It's called Rodizio Grill, a Colorado-based outfit. The first unit started up in Denver in 1996 and was so successful that the Brazilian-born founder quickly opened two more there. Recently, the company has expanded into Salt Lake City, Houston and Dallas.

The Valley was targeted about a year ago, and a site picked out near Arrowhead Towne Center in Glendale. Now, however, according to Rodizio Grill officials, "everything is indefinitely on hold."

They cite two reasons. Expansion is much more difficult than they had anticipated. As every restaurant owner these days will tell you, finding managers and staff in this full-employment economy isn't easy.

Brazil's economic woes are compounding the problem. The recent currency devaluation makes it harder for Brazilian investors to finance expansion. The company says it will make a final decision on the Phoenix project in the next few months.

Big Bird: For years, American ostrich farmers have been waiting for the public to discover their product. I share their enthusiasm: Ostrich meat tastes great--it's got a wonderful beefy flavor. It's also exceptionally low in fat, less than even skinless white meat chicken. You'd think that health-conscious meat lovers would be clamoring for it.

You'd think wrong. Despite the excellent taste and nutritional appeal, ostrich can't get off the ground in the mass market. It remains a specialty item on fancy restaurant menus, like venison or wild boar.

Part of the problem is price. Ostrich is very expensive. Sure, the price will come down when it gets more popular. But it may not get more popular until the price comes down.

However, the principal problem--and there's no way to get around it--is consumer revulsion. People don't want to eat Big Bird. The response I hear most: "I won't eat anything with eyelashes." "They look so cute" is another variation on this theme.

One determined company, Ostrim, is trying to overcome this obstacle. It's putting out ostrich-beef jerky, high-protein, low- fat, low-calorie, good-tasting snacks. They come in five styles: hickory smoked, teriyaki, pepper, barbecue and natural. You can find them at 7-Eleven, GNC stores and Hi Health Supermarts. A 1.5-ounce, 80-calorie stick goes for $1.99.

--Howard Seftel

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