This is Franco Noriega and Milan Kelez, the co-owners of Baby Brasa, the first organic Peruvian restaurant in New York City. Franco is the architect behind Baby Brasa but with Milan’s help has transformed what was once a small eatery into an international business. Franco and Milan have been friends for fifteen years after meeting in Peru, their native country, when they both were both working as models. At the time, Franco was already living in New York City. He had moved to the U.S. when he was 18 to study acting at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and was discovered as a model two years later. He modeled for the next few years but grew tired of the industry when he felt that he had hit the ceiling of opportunities available to him. After feeling like he was his own brand as a model, he wanted to create a business where the brand could be bigger than himself and grow exponentially. It was this idea, and his recognition that there was a huge lack of options for Peruvian food in the city’s food industry, that pushed him to enter the restaurant business and create the concept behind Baby Brasa. However, it’s been Franco and Milan’s ability to transform Baby Brasa into a lifestyle brand and their awareness that great ideas come from the people who surround them is what has made Baby Brasa so successful.
Growing up, Franco was always exposed to the restaurant business because his parents were restaurateurs who owned several different food chains in Peru. He says that he was born into the entrepreneurial side of building businesses based around food because his parents were always opening up a new store at home every three or four months with a new concept or cuisine and then selling the store once it was established. So when he decided to leave the modeling industry, it felt natural for him to transition into the restaurant business that he’d been familiar with his whole life. He decided to enroll in the International Culinary Center (ICC) to get his culinary degree, always with the idea of opening a Peruvian restaurant as soon as he graduated. In 2016 he opened the first Baby Brasa on the Lower East Side. It was a tight space with eight seats that offered counter service, takeout and delivery but he used it as a temporary location while he was sorting out the permits for a larger location in Brooklyn. But as the process dragged on and he continued to hit roadblocks with his restaurant in Williamsburg, he decided to shift gears and focus on building his business in Manhattan. He began looking for spaces and found a spot in the West Village that he says he had been crazy about his whole life because he had always seen it as a prime space for a restaurant. He loved the architecture of the building, the windows and the fact that it was located on the corner of 7th Avenue S. After seeing the interior, he immediately fell in love with it and decided to expand the business into this 100+ seating space where he had always envisioned the business operating.
It was during this time that Franco reconnected with Milan, who was working as a fashion and film producer. Although he didn’t have any experience in the restaurant industry other than being a maitre d at a restaurant in Brooklyn for a year, both Franco and Milan see Baby Brasa as a “production that never ends” and used Milan’s skills in bringing a project to fruition to open this new location together. They took six months to renovate the space and opened the second location in May 2017. Once the second space opened, it didn’t make sense for them to have two operations running at the same time, especially because they found that the food traffic on the Lower East Side was very limited. So they closed their first location to the public and turned it into a ghost kitchen, which has now become their catering division, and began to focus on building the reputation of their larger space. Although Franco had created all of the recipes for the menu and was involved in the kitchen at the Lower East Side location, he decided to remove himself from the kitchen in this new space and concentrate on the business operations. Watching his parents build up businesses and then sell them to someone else throughout his life taught him that you can’t be a part of the restaurant’s equation in order for it to work. So he trained a chef to use the recipes that he created and run the kitchen so that he wouldn’t be involved in daily operations. Instead, Franco put his energy into building an empire around the Baby Brasa brand.
As a brand, Franco and Milan want customers to associate Baby Brasa with being cool, sexy and healthy. Coming from the background of the modeling industry, they’ve always been concerned about what they’re putting into their bodies as individuals and believe that now eating healthy has become cool and trendy for consumers. Which is why everything at the restaurant is organic and made with fresh ingredients. They’ve used their food knowledge to come up with delicious dishes that are good for their customers, which they see as an added benefit of the restaurant- the customer doesn’t have to figure out if dish is healthy or not because they’ve already designed them specifically to be healthy, yet also flavorful and filling. The design of their restaurant also ties into their brand and is very cohesive throughout the whole restaurant. It was inspired by their love for the beach and the warm weather climate that they grew up in and incorporates a lot of bright colors, greenery and street art, which they’ve always been fans of. Both the mural outside the restaurant and all of the walls inside were done by street artists that they brought in to create their own designs. From their work with street artists in the community, they ended up creating The New Allen, which is a street art collective that they started and now have more than 30 walls in Manhattan designed by the street artists that they work with. They’ve also started a Baby Brasa apparel line, which includes sweatshirts, t-shirts and beanies, all with their restaurant name and logo on them. Because they’ve created such a clear brand voice and style for their business, they say that they have social media influencers coming in all the time to take pictures because being in the restaurant is part of the experience. Which is why every angle in the restaurant has a very specific design so that you can take a picture from anywhere and the background will always look good. Since influencers have become the new marketing device and give them free advertising, Franco & Milan made sure to keep social media appeal in mind when creating the layout of the restaurant to make sure that every area can double as a space for a photo shoot.
Franco says that one of the toughest parts of the business is dealing with employees. With any restaurant, the human workforce is so important but it’s also very tough to make multiple personalities work well together and it’s difficult to have to rely on other people to take care of the daily operations of your business. They do have some staff members that have been with them for a year but generally it’s a revolving process, which they believe is part of the nature of the restaurant business. Most of the men and women that are in the food industry are there because they’re in the middle of a transition and are trying to do something else with their lives. However, they also see their revolving staff as a positive part of the business because they always have new energy coming in and out. Franco and Milan believe that a core part of their business is that they’re really open to great ideas. They don’t think that they know everything and they’re always asking themselves, their staff and their customers, “what could be better here?” and take all responses and ideas into consideration. They’re always open to suggestions for how they can improve the business and constantly learn from their mistakes to try and get better every day. Their menu has evolved in the same way. Although they started out with all of Franco’s recipes, now they’ve had so many influences from so many different incredible chefs that come in and cook in their space that they’ve added these dishes to the menu. They pride themselves on being a big platform for young talent, who they always invite to the restaurant to explore what the culinary world is for them and express themselves in whatever way they think makes sense. They’re always looking to add new items to their menu so if any of these young chefs have dishes that they think would work, they’re always open to the idea and willing to see if it’s a fit for them.
Because they focus so much on the business from a brand perspective, Franco and Milan admit that they’re not as interested in how much the restaurant can physically produce but how much the brand can produce. Which is why they’re in the process of franchising the business and have two franchises opening in Miami and Rio de Janeiro by the end of the year. They believe that franchising is the best way to grow without having so much responsibility on their end and is a seamless way to extend the brand internationally. They have really high goals for themselves to open a Baby Brasa restaurant in every city that they’ve traveled to in the past and love visiting or want to travel to in the future, so that they can enjoy their food around the world. However, once the business is established and running efficiently, they see themselves selling the business and letting someone else take over the operations, similar to what Franco’s parents did with all of their businesses. He says that they’ve always had an exit strategy but are enjoying the process of building a successful business. For Franco, one of the most rewarding parts of the business is when he’s wearing a Baby Brasa sweatshirt on the subway or walking in the city and people will recognize it or ask him where they can buy one. It shows him that their efforts to create a strong brand are working and it inspires him to think of more ways that they can promote Baby Brasa. He says that that recognition as well as the crowds that come in on the weekends confirms to him that even in such a competitive market like New York, they’re on the right path, and it pushes them to keep moving forward.
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