Franco Noriega and Milan Kelez of Baby Brasa: “Be flexible in your plans”

Be flexible in your plans. I have learned to embrace the saying “expect the unexpected” because it really is the essence of running a restaurant group. You never know when you are going to be down a cook, get an unexpected rush or have an essential piece of equipment break on you in the middle […]

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Be flexible in your plans. I have learned to embrace the saying “expect the unexpected” because it really is the essence of running a restaurant group. You never know when you are going to be down a cook, get an unexpected rush or have an essential piece of equipment break on you in the middle of dinner service. Sometimes all three can happen at the same time, which is why you need to be flexible in your plans but also in your role. If we need someone in the back cooking and my team is strapped, I am back there cooking. If we have a back-up of drinks and no free hands, I am running drinks. You have to be able to adapt to the situation you are in and just go with the flow of the night depending on what needs to get done.

It has been estimated that each year, more than 100 billion pounds of food is wasted in the United States. That equates to more than 160 billion dollars worth of food thrown away each year. At the same time, in many parts of the United States, there is a crisis caused by people having limited access to healthy & affordable food options. The waste of food is not only a waste of money and bad for the environment, but it is also making vulnerable populations even more vulnerable.

Authority Magazine started a new series called “How Restaurants, Grocery Stores, Supermarkets, Hospitality Companies and Food Companies Are Helping To Eliminate Food Waste.” In this interview series, we are talking to leaders and principals of Restaurants, Grocery Stores, Supermarkets, Hospitality Companies, Food Companies, and any business or nonprofit that is helping to eliminate food waste, about the initiatives they are taking to eliminate or reduce food waste.

As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Franco Noriega and Milan Kelez, Co-owners of Baby Brasa restaurant Group.

Franco opened Baby Brasa in 2016, pursuing his love for cooking, entertaining, and for his culture. His dream was to bring the iconic Peruvian cuisine he loved to NYC. Now with Milan’s help and a renewed goal to provide an unforgettable experience, the two of them are transforming Baby Brasa into a celebration of life with a Brazilian twist.


Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Franco: I was pretty much born in a kitchen; I am lucky to have two parents who are both restaurateurs and have a few places in Brazil and Peru that I grew up around. I always loved the energy of a restaurant, even as a little boy. The people, the atmosphere, the music, when you feel it all come together it creates a very special place that you just can’t get enough of. Once I moved to NYC, I felt lost without that lifeline to my food and my culture. I felt compelled to open Baby Brasa and once I did in 2016, I knew that it would turn into something special. The past 5+ years have been some of the most rewarding in my life and I am lucky to have a partner like Milan to help make Baby Brasa an unforgettable experience and oasis for anyone in New York City.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company or organization?

Milan: COVID-19 force a major shift in the direction of our business. When everything shut down suddenly, it really pushed us to think about what we were trying to build and how we were going to do it. Franco and I decided that we were going to double down on our mission of building a tropical oasis in the city and have a place that would celebrate local artists. The first thing we did, once things started opening back up, was build a one-of-a-kind outdoor space and fill it with beautiful plants and flowers to give it life. We then invited New York City’s best Latin singers and dancers to come and perform on a scale we had never done before. Since then, things have been amazing, and it wouldn’t have happened if we weren’t forced to pause and take a step back from our business due to COVID. What we are doing now has raised the bar to a whole new level and for those who live in New York City or are just visiting come to Baby Brasa in West Village and see it for yourself.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Franco: One of our funniest moments of running Baby Brasa actually happened pretty recently. When we were building our outdoor dining space we were really trying to make it feel like a seamless extension of the restaurant and were playing around with the décor. We had this idea to buy a giant blow up flamingo, which we thought would be a fun way to add some life to the space. However, when it arrived it was GIGANTIC, this blowup flamingo was truly massive and we didn’t know what to do with it. We just sat there looking at it trying to turn it different ways to make it seem less imposing but no matter what we did we couldn’t hide this 20ft tall neon-pink flamingo. So instead we decided to embrace it and we placed it right outside of Baby Brasa on the street so it was the first thing you saw, which turned out to be the best thing we could have done. People went crazy for it. It was like this beacon for people to follow from all around the city and it couldn’t have worked better with everyone looking for a fun place to go to after the lockdown ended. Now, the flamingo is the icon of our business, and it goes to show you that being bold can really set you a part.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

Milan: To us leadership is defined by your actions and the examples you set for others. You need to show your employees that you are not afraid to dive headfirst into a problem and take each step with them as part of the team. This team-first mentality is essential to the success of a restaurant and is the cornerstone for how we lead here at Baby Brasa. Everyone is accountable for the daily success of our business, including ourselves and instilling that into the essence of our business has proven to work time and time again.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Milan: “Unleash the potential that is in another, and you unleash the potential that is in you.” This quote embodies what we promote each and every day at Baby Brasa. Our goal is to elevate people’s lives through great food, phenomenal drinks and unforgettable entertainment. The only way we can do that is by bringing the best out in each other. If you follow that philosophy, it will carry over into the atmosphere of your restaurant and the rest will fall into place.

OK, thank you for all of that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. Let’s begin with a basic definition of terms so that all of us are on the same page. What exactly are we talking about when we refer to food waste?

Franco: Food waste has to be one of the biggest battles we fight every day in the restaurant industry. Not only is it a major contributor to overconsumption and climate change but as a business it is a huge factor in our bottom line. Food waste refers to the excess food that you order from your suppliers, the left-over food that people order but don’t eat and the unused food that is sent for take out or catering but is never eaten. Lowering food waste is one of our primary goals at Baby Brasa not only to help our business but also because we know it is the right thing to do.

Can you help articulate a few of the main causes of food waste?

Franco: First and foremost, the main cause of food waste at a restaurant is over ordering. People’s eyes tend to be bigger than their stomachs, especially when they are with a large group of friends and are looking to celebrate. The second major cause is office catering. A lot of these corporate offices don’t account for changes in their in their office staff count and when they order they just do a blind number based on how many employees they have, not how many people are actually there for lunch. It can be shocking how much food goes to waste in those big corporate offices.

What are a few of the obstacles that companies and organizations face when it comes to distributing extra or excess food? What can be done to overcome those barriers?

Milan: I think a major obstacle is the risk of getting sued for providing something that someone is allergic to or has some sort of reaction to. I believe it is something that is top of mind for all restaurant owners and is a major reason why people are so apprehensive about providing free food to organizations. At Baby Brasa, we focus on providing the correct amount of food for the order placed. This allows us to reduce food waste at the source and prevent overordering and supplier waste, which we feel has a greater economic impact.

Can you describe a few of the ways that you or your organization are helping to reduce food waste?

Franco: We focus on reducing food waste in two ways at Baby Brasa. The first is using a sophisticated AI system that helps manage our inventory by accurately anticipating the real-time capacity of the restaurant and customizing each table’s portion size to fit that need. We also use this same system for catering, allowing us to account for outside circumstances such as the weather, which can affect people’s desire to eat at the office. The second is a family-style tapas approach to our menu, which is proven to reduce food waste by encouraging guests to share smaller plates instead of ordering individual sides that go uneaten. As a result, we have built a consistently optimizing restaurant that works to have the smallest impact on the environment possible.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help address the root of this problem?

Milan: I think that for the most part the community is aware of it. I have noticed a shift in how people order and what they are willing to take home compared to 5 years ago. I think the biggest push that is missing right now would come from the city funded initiatives. There should be a larger investment in helping restaurants donate extra food, which could go a long way for supplying shelters in the city. They could also make a larger investment into composting, which could have a significant impact in ensure that any excess food that does exist is disposed of in the proper way. Composting is a such a great system that is next to impossible to do in this city where there is very little support for it currently.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Franco: Your team is the most important thing you have in your business. I think most entrepreneurs feel like they have to go it alone but that so rarely works out and you find out very quickly that you can accomplish so much more when you partner with people you trust and respect. Those moments when you are in the thick of a make-it or break-it moment are the times when those partners you have brought with you along the way will really prove their worth. Everyone needs help sometimes and you can’t let your ego get in the way of that.
  2. Milan: Be flexible in your plans. I have learned to embrace the saying “expect the unexpected” because it really is the essence of running a restaurant group. You never know when you are going to be down a cook, get an unexpected rush or have an essential piece of equipment break on you in the middle of dinner service. Sometimes all three can happen at the same time, which is why you need to be flexible in your plans but also in your role. If we need someone in the back cooking and my team is strapped, I am back there cooking. If we have a back-up of drinks and no free hands, I am running drinks. You have to be able to adapt to the situation you are in and just go with the flow of the night depending on what needs to get done.
  3. Franco: Don’t take anything personally. There will also be people who try and bring you down or discredit the work you have done. The important thing is to never take it personally. Focus on the success of your own business and don’t let the concerns or issues of others stand in your way. More often than not, people will see your work for what it is and celebrate your success. There will always be critics to what you do but if you stay true to your passion and what you believe in then nothing can hold you back.
  4. Milan: Manifest what you want in your business and your life. Your business becomes your life, regardless of if it is a restaurant like ours or something completely different. If you don’t whole heartedly believe in the success of that business, then it cannot succeed. Because if you don’t believe in it who will? I am a firm believer in speaking your dream into existence. Verbalizing what you want will help you make it happen. It gives you a command over your dream and allows you to work towards it with positive action. It might seem silly at first, but that is all part of the process.
  5. Franco: Never stop pushing yourself. Becoming stagnant in your work is the kiss of death. You should always be asking yourself what’s next? What can I do better? How can I push this to the next level? It doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy and celebrate the success you have built for yourself but you shouldn’t let that momentary success distract from that original drive that got you there. Business, especially restaurants are living things and like all living creatures they need to grow and change over time.

Are there other leaders or organizations who have done good work to address food waste? Can you tell us what they have done? What specifically impresses you about their work? Perhaps we can reach out to them to include them in this series.

Franco: BK ROT is a phenomenal organization that is a true leader in reducing food waste. They are New York City’s first community-supported, bike-powered, fossil fuel free food waste hauling and composting service. Their project is staffed by young people of color who haul residential and commercial organic waste and transform it into high quality compost. With this operation they are able to provide accessible jobs and sustained professional development for emerging environmental leaders. This kind of grass-roots entrepreneurship is the exactly what the city needs to bring it into a sustainable future. Manhattan is so far behind in these kinds of programs, and it should be something the city celebrates and promotes to transform the way our world-class restaurant industry thinks of their food waste.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Milan: I would love to inspire a greener city. I have grown up immersed by nature my whole life in Peru, Croatia, and Miami. I see a lot of inspiring initiatives that are underway in the city and across the country, but things can’t be done quick enough. A greener New York will benefit everyone in the city and we will only get there if everyone chips in and makes an effort.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Franco: I would definitely have to say Serena Williams. I have always admired unstoppable work ethic and as a retired pro swimmer I understand the kind of dedication she has put herself through to get to that level. I would love to talk to her about how she continues to be at such a high performing level and get some pointers for myself. The principles applied to becoming a professional athlete can be applied to almost all aspects of life, especially running a business, and being able to sit down and talk with her about how she has gotten to where she is now would be incredible.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

You can follow us on Instagram at @babybrasa and our website babybrasa.com. We also have a new sports club in Brazil @babybrasasports and our personal accounts are @milankelez and @franconorhal

This was very meaningful, thank you so much, and we wish you only continued success.

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