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Brazil: Recipe for Success

Case Study: How Aldaci (Dadá) dos Santos built a culinary brand name in Brazil.


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Aldaci dos Santos, better known as Dadá in her native Brazil, was born in 1961 in Conde, a rural town on the northeastern Brazilian coast 120 miles from Salvador, the capital of the state of Bahia. For a black woman from a rural area, her geographic, racial and gender groups were all significantly disadvantaged or underrepresented in economic and entrepreneurial endeavors. Still, Dadá was able to become a successful businesswoman: She is the owner, head chef and general manager of two restaurants in Salvador -- with over 20 employees in each -- offering traditional Bahian cuisine in an upscale setting. She also produces yearly carnival events, is director of a catering service, the co-author of a successful cookbook and the star of a DVD film about her life.

In Brazil’s managerial and entrepreneurial ranks, women are significantly underrepresented. In 2005, only 36 percent of Brazilian entrepreneurs heading their own businesses were female, and those enterprises were usually smaller and had been started for survival -- rather than opportunity, growth and expansion -- purposes. In Bahia, women held less than a third of managerial positions in companies. Credit and assistance resources to obtain investment capital were scarce, and starting, let alone growing, a business was extremely difficult for Brazilian women.


The rich Bahian cuisine, which combines European, African and Native American influences, charmed Dadá immediately as a young girl. At age 10, she prepared her first real meal: a dinner for 15 guests at the home of a local judge in Conde. As Dadá recalls, “Dinner was an instant success, and I realized then that cooking was what I wanted to do.” 

Years passed and ultimately Dadá became a neighborhood celebrity, known for her effervescent personality and tasty food. In 1987, Dadá opened O Cheiro da Dadá: Comida Baina e Francesa (The Smells of Dadá: Bahian and French Food) literally in her backyard in the Alto dasPombas neighborhood where she lived with her husband and two daughters. Her next big move was an ambitious one. Antonio Carlos Magalhães, the long-time governor of the state of Bahia and a highly influential public figure (often dubbed “The King” among Bahians), announced that he was renovating Pelorinho, Salvador’s historic colonial downtown neighborhood. The plan was an attempt to modernize the neglected area and attract tourism; and many businesses vied to be part of this potentially lucrative project.

Dadá met with Magalhães and show cased the business potential of an authentic Bahian restaurant in the heart of the new tourist center. Magalhães was not only convinced, he was won over. He issued a US$20,000 grant from the state agency for small businesses. Dadá borrowed an additional $50,000 -- with the same agency acting as a guarantor -- and in 1993, opened Temperos da Dadá (Dadá’s Flavors), her first commercial restaurant.

Dadá then received word of another incredible opportunity: to open a restaurant in São Paulo, Brazil’s capital. Making it there could mean national (and international) fame. Dadá applied for a loan and decided to pursue this new venture. She opened the second Temperos da Dadá in 1996 with a local partner, and a second branch in Salvador in 1998.


Dadá divided her time between the two cities. Her restaurants succeeded because, despite offering a traditional Bahian menu, they created a completely innovative experience: The food was authentic but upscale. “For my upper-middle-class audience, dining out was an opportunity to internationalize, to be non-Brazilian,” says Dadá. “My competitors were sushi, Italian and BBQ restaurants. People dined out to get away from the traditional food, which they considered inferior, mundane or simple. Bahian food, especially, was considered the quintessential Brazilian cuisine, because the state was so central to the country’s cultural development -- which made people think of it as even more plain or second-rate. My idea was unique because it took traditional cuisine out of the closet and out of the kitchen. I managed to reinvent the way people thought of these so-called ordinary dishes that they were already acquainted with, and give Bahian food another dimension.

Dadá’s differentiating factor was the ability to upgrade what people thought of as everyday food into an exquisite experience, and charge prices similar to (or even higher than) many foreign cuisine competitors.

Problems arose when her business grew, but the organizational structure remained simple and limited. Dadá’s lack of business education eventually caught up with her. The additional restaurants functioned poorly without Dadá’s constant presence, partly because she had little experience hiring and training managers to do work similar to hers. Rather, she was accustomed to doing it all by herself. In addition, she was going through a divorce. With the Pelorinhorestaurant still her primary source of revenue, focusing on itwas the best strategy. In 2000, she both finalized her divorce and closed the two other locations.

“This was a period of endings in my life,” says Dadá. “Besides the end of my marriage, I had to let go of things that I worked very hard to establish. Antonio Carlos Magalhães, who was a big supporter of mine, had died, and I no longer had someone to rescue me. I had to let go nearly 100 people. It was very painful. But, in the end, it made me a better businessperson by forcing me to reach some very important conclusions.”

Dadá decided to hire a personal manager. No one was more qualified than her daughter Rafaela, who had studied business in Salvador’s national university and abroad in Texas, was closely acquainted with her mother’s established operational methods and knew the priorities that required immediate attention within each business line.

Rafaela was able to bring structure and organization to the Dadá brand name. After several years of Rafaela’s stabilization efforts, Dadá was once again ready to open another branch. She picked Pituba, a thriving middle-class neighborhood. In 2009, Sabor da Dadá (The Tastes of Dadá) opened for business with the same concept, décor and menu as the other restaurants. Says Dadá: “What [I have] learned throughout my lifetime will allow [me] to think up new ideas and not only survive, but excel, in business.”

Republished with permission from http://www.knowledge.wharton.upenn.edu -- the online research and business analysis journal of the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania

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