Q & A with Adam Fleischman of Umami Burger, Part 2: the Drawbacks of Standardization, a Certain Controversy + Umami Universality
photo courtesy of Adam FleischmanAdam Fleischman
In the first part of our interview with Umami Burger founder Adam Fleischman, he discussed Umami's origin -- which coincided with L.A.'s burger mania -- how Umami Burger's going national won't change its identity, and why In-N-Out can claim real umami street cred. In the second part, Fleischman talks about tailoring each Umami to its own neighborhood, the downside of standardization, l'affaire Red Medicine vs. Virbila, and the universal appeal of umami as an overall idea and experience. And check back later for a recipe.
Squid Ink: What about the design aspect of your restaurants? Do you go by neighborhood feel?
Adam Fleischman: Yeah, we go by neighborhood feel. We usually hire a different designer for each one, we kind of tailor them. We do different things. With the Valley we wanted it to be more posh. We play around with it and have fun with it, so each one has its own identity and its own feel based on the neighborhood.
SI: But the prices don't change?
AF: The prices don't change. The menus are 80% the same, and about 20% latitude. And the alcohol is all different. None of them have the same alcohol or bar program. The one in the Valley has a full bar, the one in Los Feliz has beer. Which makes it more fun for me not to standardize. To me standardization is overrated. The Baja Freshes and Boston Markets are failing and that's one of the reasons I think they are, because they just weren't exciting to people. You have to let your chefs have some experimentation in the kitchen.
SI: How do you go about finding people who you think can execute that vision?
AF: It's tough. It's usually word of mouth. Most of the kitchen staff has been with us since the beginning, so we keep the same people, and add new people that they train. The same crew opens each Umami.
SI: And how will you do that when you expand to other cities?
AF: We'll send them also, or we'll ship the people here to L.A. for training. In Northern California which we're doing now, I think we'll go there.
SI: And how about your process for finding investors?
AF: It was friends and family for the first five, and now we're raising eight figures.
SI: Is this something you're doing on your own, or do you have people advising you?
AF: All on my own. Well, I have a legal team that's advising me.
SI: So you've been traveling up to San Francisco a lot? Is it a totally different real estate culture?
AF: It's pretty similar. I was surprised. It's a cool city, too. I think they'll embrace Umami because they don't have a lot of burger concepts up there that are really that interesting. So far a lot of the chefs have embraced us already, so we've kind of gotten a head start.
SI: So you said you're an investor in Red Medicine and not really involved.
AF: Well, I was involved setting everything up, and I managed the financials. But other than that, I trust the partners to do what they do.
SI: It seems to be humming along quite nicely.
SI: So how do you think the notorious scandal has affected things there?
AF: I don't think it is affecting much at all, really, because it's such a targeted restaurant to a specific person that's gonna like it anyway. The people that were offended are probably not the right customer. It's pretty out there. A lot of the food is very specific stuff that you're not going to find other places.
SI: When Umami opens in San Francisco or Chicago, do you think people will think of it as being "very L.A."?
AF: It's interesting because it's going to be like In-N-Out. In-N-Out is a quintessentially L.A. thing but it worked totally well in other states they brought it to. Now they're going to Texas. So I think it's going to work well because of the universality of the concept of umami is big enough. Like if it was called Umami L.A. Burger and more focused on that and the style, it might not work. But the fact that Umami is sort of open architecture, you can basically plug any cuisine into umami and it works. Most cuisines are based on umami. That's what attracted me to Vietnamese cuisine because it's based on fish sauce and these types of flavors that are so umami. It's universal.
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