SPOTLIGHT ON SMALL BUSINESS: Cafe Bossa Nova Brings a Taste of Brazil to Hillcrest

Marcio Veiga spent over 30 years enjoying the scent of clean clothes, as the owner of the Max Cleaners dry cleaning business. But since 2020, he’s been enjoying tastier aromas, as the head of the popular Brazilian restaurant Cafe Bossa Nova in the Hillcrest area of Little Rock. Looking back on the eatery that his mother established 20 years ago, Veiga takes great pride in what his family created since emigrating from Brazil when he was just 14 years old.

“My mother had the courage to move to America and start over with three children, knowing no English and with almost nothing, to start over in a new country,” Veiga recalled.”She was the first in the family to own a dry cleaning business, in Texas. I became a dry cleaner in 1991 and my brother became a dry cleaner in 1992. [My brother] was able to help my mother achieve her dream of owning a restaurant.”

Moose Cleaners had a spacious location on Kavanaugh Blvd., and Joe Veiga found that he could operate from the back section while inviting his mother to open Bossa Nova in the center. She started with a simple menu of black beans and rice, cheese bread and salpicão – a beloved Brazilian staple consisting of shredded chicken, peas and carrots, as well as shredded Fuji apples and fried potatoes, served with white rice and mista salad. Originally open for lunch, the eatery quickly proved successful enough to serve up dinners as well. Moose soon closed down so that she could expand to cover the entire space.

Today, the menu is packed with exotic dishes, such as Moqueca, a seafood stew cooked with coconut milk and palm oil, and Picanha, a traditional Brazilian cut of beef served on a hot skillet with rice, fries, vinaigrette and fried banana. But the tour de force is Feijoada, a black bean stew with three types of Brazilian sausage, baby back ribs and white, sun-dried meat, white rice, collard greens, farola, vinaigrette and a slice of orange. The national meal of Brazil, Feijoada, is also a hit in Little Rock as Veiga’s Saturday special.

“A lot of people associate Brazilian food with Mexican food, but once they experience it, they realize it’s very different,” said Veiga. “One thing that makes Bossa Nova stand out is the freshness of the food. We make everything from scratch and the flavor is not overwhelming. It’s very soothing, like comfort food, and healthy. To be authentic, we import most of our products so we can make it as close to the real thing as possible.”

Veiga took over the restaurant from his mother in October 2020, after the COVID pandemic slashed her sales by 60%. Applying the sound business principles he established throughout his decades with Max Cleaners, Veiga staged a comeback that not only brought business back up to pre-pandemic levels, but surpassed the sales of 2018 and 2019.

Dealing with inflation has been another difficulty, as Veiga notes that prices on food and supplies have increased significantly. Another hurdle is finding great staff in an economy in which many people have seemed to drop out of the workforce. But while it was hard getting the right mix of people together on his staff, Veiga is happy to note that it has its own unique flavor.

“I wanted to build around Brazilian people because I wanted to keep the very unique vibe of Brazilian culture. There’s a warmth I wanted to share,” noted Veiga. “I consider us a [group of] ‘united nations,’ because we also have people from Honduras, El Salvador, Mexico, the US and Portugal, and that’s great because a multicultural workplace gives everyone in it a different angle on life.”

Through it all, Veiga has found that all of the challenges of turning the business around have been surpassed by the ample rewards of the restaurant’s success.

“The reaction we get from people is the biggest reward. For me, I think food is all about energy,” Veiga explained. “You come in with a bad mood, and a good meal recharges you and helps create connection with other people when you have a meal together. The greatest gratification is uplifting people.”

Bossa Nova is located at 2701 Kavanaugh Blvd., Ste. 105 in Little Rock. Call (501) 614-6682 or visit cafebossanova.com. 

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