Umami Burger, the California burger chain with a modern spin and cross-cultural vibe, has struck a chord with Angelenos and now has the potential to join McDonald's, Fatburger, In-N-Out and Tommy's Hamburgers as one of California's best-known exports. To celebrate, Umami founder Adam Fleischman is building the chain's flagship location in a 3,000-square-foot former spa at the Grove, scheduled to open in late fall. With indoor-outdoor seating for 175, this will be the biggest Umami Burger yet.
This summer Fleischman got the financial backing he needed to move fast when Sam Nazarian's massive SBE hospitality group and his brother David's investment firm, Nimes Capital, became 50-50 partners in all of Fleischman's future endeavors, including yet more Umami Burger restaurants, a ritzy downtown deli called Umamicatessan and an environmentally conscious fast-food place called U-Ko. The idea is to roll out 35 new Umami Burgers nationally over the next three years. That's rapid-fire expansion for a brand that began as a single restaurant on South La Brea Avenue in 2009 and has grown to five locations, selling about 5,000 burgers a day.
Future restaurants are planned for San Francisco, Anaheim, New York, Miami, Texas and Las Vegas, all hubs that SBE will expand to as well with its hotel and restaurant brands. Fleischman says the new flagship will be among the first burger chain restaurants in Southern California to be LEED certified, which means it will be built according to strict environmental standards as approved by the Green Building Council.
"I was wanting to do 50 restaurants from Day One," says Fleischman, sitting at a round table surrounded by decorative rubber shavings on the floor at the back of Umami Urban in Hollywood on a recent Wednesday. "So, although I was surprised by how quickly we became popular, I wasn't like, 'How do we do No. 2?'"
Wearing shorts and a brown T-shirt, his round face topped by a mop of wavy brown hair, Fleischman nibbles on tater tots and comments on how the ketchup tastes particularly good that day. The ketchup — like the burgers — is made fresh daily and infused with Fleischman's secret umami ingredients. He won't say what exactly those are, but he calls it "burger crack" and says that when he first decided on the concept he went to a lab and tested more than 100 items from a Japanese market, "looking for the three different glutamic acids that comprise umami."
He says that almost everything savory and crave-worthy falls into the umami category and that the top three foods with the most umami are kombu (a kelp that is common in Japanese soups such as ramen), Parmesan cheese and shiitake mushrooms. Once he decided on his ingredients, Fleischman began experimenting with layering umami flavors inside burger meat. Before that, he says, he had never made a burger. Nor has he been to Japan, the country that coined the word "umami."
But he does have the U.S. trademark to the word "umami." This he purchased from a restaurant on Long Island called Umami Café, and its availability might have been due to the fact that the trademark office thought "umami" was a brand and didn't realize it's considered the fifth taste, after sweet, sour, bitter and salty.
Fleischman, 41, didn't study business in school. In 1994, he graduated with a degree in liberal arts from the University of Maryland and then tried his hand at journalism in Washington, D.C., before moving to Los Angeles in 2000. Here he got involved in the retail wine business before securing investors to open BottleRock Wine Bar in Culver City, which he sold his stake in to open the first Umami Burger — investor-free — for $40,000. Two years later, that location pulls in $2 million a year in sales, Fleischman says.
This is what Nazarian calls "capturing lightning in a bottle." And it's why he wanted to invest in Fleischman, not just Umami Burger.
"I look at Adam as the brand," Nazarian says over the phone from Sardinia, Italy, where he recently celebrated his 36th birthday. "My goal is to support him in a way that allows him to focus his time on the hardest part, which is to have that idea. The next idea could be equally exciting, and I want to make sure he has the bandwidth to think of it."
Nazarian, who as chief executive of SBE owns 25 hotels, restaurants, nightclubs and lounges, is equipped to do that by offering the hospitality business he has built over the last seven years, including human resources, managerial and kitchen staff support. Fleischman says this appeals to him because — despite all indicators of success pointing to the contrary — he is not a businessman and would like to focus on the fun and creative parts of making food and designing new restaurants.
As he moves Umami forward, he wants to keep each restaurant unique, so no one restaurant looks the same or has the same menu. The nonconformist strategy is a reaction to burger chains such as Fuddruckers and Johnny Rockets, which Fleischman considers outdated and tired.
"People are bored of those concepts," he says. "I was focused on doing something new and exciting."
And the recession certainly didn't hurt. Umami was doing brisk business by December 2010, when GQ magazine named it burger of the year, partly because the recession was making diners look for less expensive options for a night on the town. Soon after, the article was featured on the front page of Yahoo, which led to 200-million hits on the Umami Burger website in one day.
"Our business doubled overnight, and it hasn't slowed down since," says Fleischman. "I was at the Burger Bash in Miami, and my phone was just blowing up."
Nazarian, who sold Fleischman a Santa Monica location that houses an Umami Burger (other locations include Los Feliz and Studio City), had been watching the hype from afar, as had his brother David. It was David who finally approached Fleischman about making a deal after hearing chef José Andrés talk about how much he enjoyed an Umami burger in a speech he gave at SBE's SLS hotel in Beverly Hills, which is home to the Bazaar by José Andrés.
"Here on the West Coast we are really driving pop culture," says Nazarian. "When you eat at Umami — outside of the burger itself — you see the culture. They aren't just selling burgers, they are selling an experience."