Lessons of the Meat Coaster

At the Brazilian steakhouse, a simple tool can teach us about how humans and brands should communicate.

Matt Herlihy
Sep 19 · 6 min read

A true carnivore should consider the Brazilian steakhouse a natural habitat. The churrascaria provides a dance of quality and quantity that’s just as seductive as the samba — an unending supply of fire-grilled meats, lovingly carved at tableside by roving passadores.

Sure, we flesh-eaters admire our servers’ wide-legged gaúcho pants and jaunty red neckerchiefs. Some even praise the salad bar, however begrudgingly. But above all, we flock to our local Fogos de Chão for one reason above all: meats without end.

While our wandering carver may sport fetching trousers, his foodstuffs are bottomless. Our gullets surrender to the abundance in kind. Why bother with farm-to-table when you can live spit-to-mouth?

Yet the true genius of rodízio-style dining lives beyond the skewer, knife or tongs. It takes a more modest form: a small coaster with red on one side and green on the other. However humble, this unassuming device contains critical lessons for how humans should communicate — and how brands should behave.

That’s right. The meat coaster has much to teach us. As long as we’re ready to listen.

Like many a sacred totem, the object itself can take many forms. Some older-school establishments opt for a handled paddle shape, while others have evolved the tool into a two-sided plastic widget. But Fogo de Chão has found minimalist perfection in its cardboard disc.

Whatever its form factor, the meat coaster enables diner and passadore to communicate with steely efficiency. Green means go: Yes, I would like more meat. Red signifies a break: No, I would not like meat at this time.

There is beauty in the binary.

Wherever the appetite goes, the steak flows — and a seemingly rudimentary item wields great power. Language barriers vanish. Between red and green, intent becomes indisputable, and consent is either granted or denied. There is no yellow.

In our ever-opaque world, this level of clarity is a wonder to behold. While truth squirms from our grasp and cultural norms fade, there’s a rare beauty in the binary — a level of certainty and precision that even a hardened vegan can savor.

For the meat coaster enables two-way communication in its ideal form. Both parties receive the information they need, and each side gets what it wants immediately. Gaúcho and diner operate in perfect harmony. In a balanced exchange of pure satisfaction, brand and consumer become one.

If only the rest of us had it so easy.

But we don’t — and both people and companies are to blame.

As individuals, we’ve grown afraid of yes-or-no questions. Maybe our culture has tacitly decided that seeking a direct answer is distasteful and pushy. Instead, we’re trained to solicit input instead of forcing a choice — to facilitate engagement rather than risk a microaggression.

Or we’ve noticed that no one answers direct questions anymore, so we’ve adapted accordingly. On the airwaves, media-trained talking heads brandish two kinds of responses: hemming and hawing. Facts are fluid, even regarding the weather. All is subjective, so we agree to disagree.

At best, a sharp query will elicit little more than the most egregious non-response: That’s a good question. Had Charlie Rose not been canceled, he could at least offer his masterly rejoinder. “I know it is. What’s the answer?”

The meat coaster reminds us that a straight answer is still possible, provided both sides are clear on the question and it’s posed in good faith. And for those willing to insist on a proper response, the resulting clarity can be as delectable as fresh-skewered picanha flank.

While we humans can have trouble conveying our intention, we’re just as challenged in signaling whether or not we’re paying attention.

Our devices are a constant portal to somewhere else, whether a scrolling screen before our eyes or a disembodied voice in our ears. From sidewalks to living rooms, these digital escape pods share a common destination for our awareness: anywhere but here.

Even a setting designed for fixed-state focus, the office, sends mixed signals. Open-floor arrangements arrived years ago with the promise of flexibility and collaboration. Yet for the modern laborer, headphones have become a clear visual signifier to colleagues.

My attention is elsewhere, they say. And by extension: I am not available. In alliance with noise-cancellation technology, the workers have revolted. Bose and Beats now represent a high-tech version of the meat coaster, flipped to red.

In retort, companies must revert back to a vintage tactic: the real-time physical meeting. But even in the sacred space of the conference room, the glow of open laptops lights the way. And with notebooks near extinction, a steady clack of butterfly keyboards provides the soundtrack.

When attention is scattered everywhere, it lives nowhere. But the opposite signifier — the equivalent of a meat coaster showing green — can be charmingly low-tech. A closed laptop and good old-fashioned eye contact can send a clear signal, however disarming they might seem.

For as our two-sided coaster so elegantly illustrates, attention signifiers don’t have to shut out the world — they can also communicate that a person is ready to receive. No speaker wants a message falling on deaf ears, or an important slide competing with distracted eyes.

Stripping away our tech in key moments tells our colleagues precisely what they want to hear — the office equivalent of bring the meat.

Clearly the meat coaster is a potent individual symbol for the power of direct questions and clear signifiers of readiness. But what can brands learn from it?

First, provide consumers with clear choices. Of course, industries vary in their need for nuance, and a dichotomy equivalent to meat or no meat may not always be realistic. But every company has the ability to sharpen its menu of offerings and simplify how it sells.

Where endless customization may have seemed compelling in the boardroom, the typical customer finds an excess of choice to be paralyzing. Streamlining forces a brand to make some tough calls, but fewer options can translate to easier decisions — and therefore, more buying.

Secondly, take yes for an answer. Your friendly neighborhood passadore does not ask how you feel about the cut of carneiro before you; he spots green and slices away. Nor does he pause to secure your plans for the next few skewers — you’re entrusted to flip to red when you’re ready.

Too many brands complicate the moment of transaction with add-ons, warranties, memberships and the like. Companies that simply execute a purchase without friction can still pursue those additional opportunities — but do so when the customer is prepared for a deeper conversation.

Which leads us to the third lesson of the meat coaster for organizations — read the proverbial room. You may not have the luxury of a two-colored disc to help your customer broadcast intention, but similar signals are all around you. Haranguing an inattentive consumer is the equivalent of slicing through a red coaster — a não-não for any gaúcho worth his sea salt.

Remember this lesson with your volume of marketing content, even when your customers have opted in. Be attentive to their response rates and behaviors, in the moment and over time. Sophisticated digital tools can reveal green and red if you’re willing to look — and act accordingly.

Tempting as the prospect may be, the churrascaria is not a prudent choice for routine dining. Like the storied Afro-Brazilian martial art of capoeira, the experience can be beautiful in the moment, sweaty in the aftermath, and deadly in excessive measure.

But while we reserve its fleshy indulgences for special occasions, let us regularly appreciate the wisdom of the humble meat coaster for what it is: both infinite and delicious.

Better By __

At The Office of Experience, we believe the experience is the brand®. The best brand experiences are better by design. But they’re also better by strategy, technology, and message. Better By explores the ways in which the world around us made better by design.

Matt Herlihy

Written by

Executive Director, Strategy, The Office of Experience

Better By __

At The Office of Experience, we believe the experience is the brand®. The best brand experiences are better by design. But they’re also better by strategy, technology, and message. Better By explores the ways in which the world around us made better by design.