From São Paulo to Indio
Hermosa Beach’s Silvio’s Brazilian BBQ takes on the wired masses at Coachella for the fifth year. A glimpse into the little-known world of food vending at the biggest festival in the country
We’re moving eastbound on the I-10 at a modest speed of some 60 miles per hour early Thursday afternoon. Behind the wheel is Doug Howarth, the 41-year-old co-owner and manager of Silvio’s Brazilian BBQ restaurant on the Hermosa Beach Pier Plaza. He’s chewing on sunflower seeds and effortlessly navigating his old school ‘88 RV, which he says he snagged last year for $6,000.
Just as some 80,000 others from around the world, we’re headed to the first weekend of the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival at the Empire Polo Club in Indio, about 150 miles east of Hermosa.
“Silvio used to come out with us to Coachella,” the New York native says, explaining that the business’ namesake and Brazilian co-owner, Silvio Correa, is staying put this year. “But if I’m gone, he’s the manager who covers the restaurant stuff since we lost our events manager last year.”
A crew of 17 part-timers, hailing from L.A., the South Bay and San Diego, is meeting us at the site, as is a reefer truck carrying about 3,000 pounds – or 1.5 tons – of fresh chicken, tri-tip and pork. “That’s about a 15 percent overkill,” Doug adds. “If it’s not too busy we’ll have some left over for next weekend.” By Sunday night, leftovers would be scarce.
This is the fifth year Silvio’s – which is one part restaurant, one part catering business – is occupying a vendor booth at Coachella, arguably the biggest annual noise-making music festival in the country.
Like a seasoned vet, Doug displays a wealth of knowledge about the ins-and-outs of mass-producing food at large festivals, including Stagecoach, an annual country music festival that follows Coachella. He is also on a chummy, first-name basis with the head of the festivals’ food divisions. Yet, he’s decidedly not complacent nor overconfident.
“Always figure that the worst is going to happen,” he says. That’s not pessimism, but a lesson learned.
Following Silvio’s BBQ’s successful debut at Coachella 2007 as the first Brazilian barbeque vendor in festival history – “I’d never seen this amount of money in one day, stacks of twenties like, this high,” – Doug decided to double efforts the following year. He enlisted some 35 crewmembers and ran a second booth selling his invention of “Burgerritos.”
Be it the recession, the record-setting high of 107 degrees or a lackluster musical lineup, by the end of Stagecoach weekend Doug found himself with a full-sized tractor of leftover food and an $11,000 hotel bill. It was enough to necessitate a three-year respite from Coachella, he says.
“It’s just, so much depends on the weather,” he says. “Nobody wants to eat in general when it’s really hot out.”
According to the weather forecast, this weekend is not looking so bad, comparatively speaking. Friday is posted at a high of 90 degrees, Saturday 91, and Sunday 88.
Curiously, not a single mention of high winds. This would be noteworthy by 6:30 p.m. on day two, when an impressive gust would flip over the canopy roofing our grills.
“This is what we call a shit show”
This year, Silvio’s is posted in the southwest food court of the main festival grounds, occupying one of some 65 vendor booths. It’s a considerable walk from the main Coachella stage and, to the delight of our eardrums, just about a stone’s throw from Yuma, the designated venue for house and electronica lovers and naturally, the birthplace of those explosive, ground-shaking bass drops that would be the all-consuming soundtrack of our weekend.
Being at the very end of the row means higher susceptibility to power outages, Doug explains to me. We would become well-acquainted with our next door neighbor, a Taiwanese street food restaurant from New York called Baohaus, over this mutual concern.
It’s 10 a.m. Friday, an hour before the festival gates open for the first time this weekend. The grounds are already clamoring with sound checks coming from what seems like every direction.
“I can stand the heat but not this,” says Nabil, wincing. He’s standing over two hot deep fryers behind the booth outside, the sun beating down on his neck. On fry duty, Nabil is a headphone-clad, quietly hilarious Algerian who lives in Pacific Beach near San Diego as a full-time musician. Just like most others in the crew, he books weekend gigs with Silvio’s to make extra cash.
Everyone in the morning shift crew is in their designated positions at the final hour before open, the calm before the storm: Kenny, a veteran griller and the eldest of the bunch, is working the mesquite charcoal-fueled grill outside; Arne, a vegetarian and father of four from Sherman Oaks, is marinating and cooking pulled pork; Regina, a former professional body boarder from São Paulo, is fixing up the menu board and manning the cash register; Tais, a former TV producer also from São Paulo, and Mila, a Porto Alegre native studying English in San Diego, are on filler duty, preparing an assembly line of plates; Reza, from San Diego and Doug’s second-in-command, is stepping in as block, dicing and shredding the chicken, tri-tip and pork.
My ears quickly adjust to the sound of Portuguese, as nearly half the crew are recent transplants from Brazil. Doug and Silvio avoid hiring through temp agencies and Craigslist as is common among other festival vendors. They handpick their people by reference, particularly in the tight-knit Brazilian community in Southern California.
Each has a unique story of how he or she found a place on Silvio’s BBQ’s weekend crew. Donald, a longtime Silvio’s crew member, met Doug at a street festival where he ran a donut maker with his friend Dan Kelly of reggae band Fortunate Youth. Regina, who befriended Silvio on a beach in São Paulo two decades ago, got in touch with him after moving to the South Bay. James, who grew up in Scotland, is Doug’s trusted brother-in-law, and David, also from Scotland, is James’ friend. Sati, who moved from Brazil to the States in 2011, met both Silvio and her husband Brian through her brother, Demian da Costa, a professional tennis player and coach in Redondo Beach. And so on.
Despite their varying cultural and professional backgrounds as well as ages (which ranges from mid-20s to 50s), the team bond is undeniable. For the first time since 2007, the entire crew is camping out at the vendor campsite, where their spot is marked by a Brazilian flag and an American flag hanging side by side under the canopy. Here, early mornings are passed with breakfast and banter, nights with ukuleles and beers.
Five minutes until opening. Inside the booth, lettuce is being chopped, pork being sliced, and outside, the grills and deep fryer constantly emit smoke and steam. “Everything needs to be overflowing and covered,” Doug reminds the crew inside.
At this time, Alex, the energetic Mexican-Hawaiian from Redondo Beach, appears bright-faced and ready to work, despite his shift starting at 3 p.m.
“Might as well,” he says, smiling. (Start and end times just turned out to be a technicality, after all. It seemed everyone was working 10-plus-hour shifts, eager to make each other’s lives easier).
Silvio’s menu at Coachella stays true to the restaurant’s concept: Brazilian backyard or beach barbeque for the masses.
“When people think of Brazilian, it’s either really expensive or it’s a mom-and-pop, where everything’s in Portuguese and nobody understands,” Doug explains, adding that their menu reflects quality Brazilian food that is familiar and accessible, kind of like what Chipotle does with Mexican.
Listed on the dry-erase menu board are sandwiches, plates and salads with the choice of pulled pork seasoned with 16 spices, their signature tri-tip grilled with rock salt and beer, and of course, frango de oro.
“The golden chicken,” Doug says, “that’s what put us on the map, man. People have never had chicken like that.” Made with Silvio’s grandmother’s recipe, the chicken is deadly good, especially when topped with their yellow “love sauce.”
Arguably their bestselling item is what was once called “animal fries” before a polite cease-and-desist letter from In-n-Out. It’s now dubbed “monster fries,” which is garlic fries topped with pulled pork and a scoop of coleslaw. Regular and garlic fries are a hit, too.
Each item is marked around $10, which initially strikes me as steep. But Doug explains that these prices are necessary for them to make a profit, as Coachella pockets about 40 percent of total sales.
After the clock strikes 11, clusters of two to five people begin trickling into the grounds. No one seems eager to eat just yet; rather, they look busy basking in the novel glory of Coachella. About 15 minutes in, a young couple approaches our booth and places the first order of the weekend: two pulled-pork sandwiches. Here we go.
After seeing modest waves of five to 15 customers throughout the day, the crew is in for its first test. It’s 6:30 p.m., and the heat has begun to simmer. Evening time after sunset would prove to be the prime time for business.
At least 40 people, a majority clad in Native American or animal costumes and/or covered in body paint, are standing in line. Passion Pit is supposedly playing at the main stage, but all that can be heard is the bass pounding from Four Tet’s DJ set at Yuma. It better fits the orchestrated clamor sounding deep inside Silvio’s BBQ’s booth anyway.
“Monster fries!” “Chicken sandwich!” “Tri-tip plate!”
Regina, Julia and Sati shout orders from their registers. From the back, confirmation immediately rings forth. “Monstah! Coming up!” Meanwhile, the ladies on filler duty prepare and pass the appropriate plate – baguette-style bread and vinaigrette for tri-tip sandwiches, salads and plates; burger buns and coleslaw for pulled pork, etc. –onto block duty, who bestows onto it a hearty half-pound of steaming hot meat.
There’s not a moment’s rest for anyone, constantly refilling, setting up plates, preparing more salad and coleslaw. The tarp at our feet is slippery with spilled vinaigrette, but that’s not slowing anyone down. Like an efficient machine, the crew is quick, systematic and prolific in spite of numerous challenges, including frequent power outages and swaths of flies, literally everywhere. Throughout the entire weekend, be it busy or slow, each order is executed between 30 seconds to a minute.
During these rush hours, the intensity is palpable, adrenaline pumping. Unintelligible words fly about in English and Portuguese. Alex, whom I’ve seen down cans of Red Bull like water, can be heard woo-hooing in the bustle as he slices tri-tip at lightning speed.
“This is what we call a shit show,” Doug interjects.
In contrast, the crew at the grill is unaffected by the bustle. They’re stoically doing what they’ve been doing all day: sweating their faces off and cooking hundreds of pounds of meat. Kenny, his cheeks red, is visibly exhausted.
He tells me he has built stamina for this job. At his first Coachella experience in 2007, he was 100 pounds heavier and recently diagnosed with diabetes. It was much more difficult then, he says.
“Have you heard of the tong song?” David, also on grill duty, asks me.
“The tong song.”
He holds up a pair of tongs he’s been flipping chicken with all day.
About an hour later, the sun has completely set, and the line, officially crushed. Flocks of tired-looking people cover the food court grass area, sitting in clusters, staring off and eating in silence. The bass is still thumping, and the crew at Silvio’s takes a moment to breathe.
Meanwhile back in Hermosa Pier Plaza, Silvio is manning the restaurant.
The jovial, 43-year-old São Paulo native would tell me a week later that he got his start on the beaches of his hometown, where at 16 he naturally picked up a pair of tongs and never put it down, so to speak. After teaching himself how to barbeque by watching others, he began hosting beachside barbeques every weekend and soon found himself the designated man behind the grill at most friends’ and families’ parties, for up to 60 people.
With a thick Portuguese accent, rising inflections and elongated vowels that translate into an unbridled enthusiasm for whatever topic at hand, he animatedly described his old routine.
“I do the barbeque with the ocean view, go jump in the water, come back to my barbeque, have some drinks, jump in the water, surf, come back…this is my style.”
Back in his hometown, Silvio became a reputed grill master. But with a nine-to-five marketing job and a father concerned about his becoming distracted from his career, he limited the barbequing to weekends.
In 2000, Silvio, then 30, left the beaches of São Paulo for Manhattan Beach, California, where his brother Fernando lived. Once again, word of Silvio’s Brazilian tri-tip, grilled with rock salt and beer, traveled fast. He again found himself back in his domain: behind a grill, as master of meat.
“Everybody started to call me and said, ‘Siiilvio, it’s my birthday. Are you coming?’” he recalled, chuckling. “You’d think I go to enjoy the party, but I’d have the apron and the tong, at the grill. So I start barbeque here again.”
Silvio and Doug met through mutual friends (Doug’s wife’s best friend is married to Brazilian former AVP player Eduardo Basille) and bonded over a shared love of food.
“We would see Silvio at house parties, and he knew no English whatsoever, but he was always the guy working the grill,” recalled Doug, who at the time was managing Baja Cantina, a Mexican restaurant in Venice Beach. “We would always talk about food because we’re both big foodies.”
But it wasn’t until the passing suggestion of Paul Lyon, a mutual friend from Manchester, that the two took their friendship to a business partnership.
“I was like, ‘Doug, you have the restaurant experience, and Silvio, you’re just unbelievable on the grill,’” Paul told me Friday night at the festival. “And there was nothing like Brazilian barbeque in the South Bay at the time.”
In 2001, the duo together began Silvio’s BBQ catering, operating out of a small kitchen in Torrance. They frequented local street fairs, art festivals and farmer’s markets, and soon they found themselves catering on a much larger scale, from the Redondo Beach Spring Fest to the 2006 AVP Beach Volleyball Tournament.
In the world of Jiu-Jitsu, a combat martial arts sport popular among Brazilians, Silvio’s BBQ has established itself as a household name. It is the official caterer for the World Jiu-Jitsu Championship, which annually draws tens of thousands of competitors and spectators from around the world to Cal State Long Beach, as well as the Pan Am Championships, the largest Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu tournament held in the U.S.
Employees donning their Silvio’s T-shirts have been recognized by Jiu-Jitsu fighters in various corners of the world, from the south of Brazil to Hawaii, Silvio said.
“We just kept answering yes,” Doug recalled. “Everything is figure-out-able, you just have to break it down into pieces.”
In late 2008, Silvio’s BBQ restaurant opened doors in the Hermosa Pier Plaza.
“We’ve made a lot of mistakes, but it’s always the food. That and Silvio’s Brazilian connections is why we’re successful,” Doug says, adding facetiously, “besides my incredible management skills.”
Off the Clock
It’s Sunday morning, the last day of Coachella weekend 1. By this time, every pair of eyes I see is glossy from exhaustion. Doug tells me he had received a phone call back at the campsite from his son Joseph, whose sixth birthday is today. “It’s my first time missing his birthday, and he lost his first tooth two days ago,” he says. “That was rough, poor guy.”
By noon, Alex is on Red Bull number two. When asked what his final count was yesterday, he ponders for a second or two. “I lost count,” he says, before throwing out an estimate of eight. Throughout the entire weekend, I didn’t see this guy look tired once.
As it’s considerably windier today, a few of our grillers have covered their nose and mouth with a handkerchief to fend off dust particles. Despite the tricky weather conditions, unending calls for tri-tip sandwich or a pulled pork plate ring about inside Silvio’s BBQ’s booth.
Last night during her belated half-hour lunch break, Sati told me over a much-needed can of Rockstar how much she missed her 10-month-old baby girl, Sophia. She and her husband Brian left their baby with Sati’s mother for the weekend, so they could work the gig in Indio. Arne previously shared with me that his 20-month-old baby is the reason why he’s here at the festival.
“It takes a rare breed of person to do these types of events,” Doug says. “It’s a whole different kind of lifestyle. You’re making money, but if you have kids and you’re married, it’s brutal.”
But for the childless, unmarried majority – including myself – good times prevail. Doug has one rule for his crew once they’re off the clock: no Silvio’s logos. Let’s just say I was beyond happy to find a group of folks who can hang as hard as they work.
Around 10 p.m. Sunday, with the Red Hot Chili Peppers blaring from the main stage, we’re wiping down surfaces and cleaning up. Doug is dismissing the crew early for the long trek out of Indio, while he and Reza hold down the fort.
Aside from Alex and Kenny who are camping out here until the end of Stagecoach, everyone is packed up and driving home to report to their full-time jobs or attend class tomorrow morning. But just four days later, they would be right back in Indio, donning black Silvio’s BBQ T-shirts and pumping out chicken sandwiches and monster fries for the masses of Coachella weekend 2.
Doug doesn’t like to talk dollar amounts, but he says Silvio’s sold an average of 1,500 to 2,000 items per day this weekend. An above-average year so far.
“The restaurant business, you love it or you fail,” he says. “There’s no in between.”