Given that we're deep into Los Angeles' full-blown Golden Burger Age, with the evidence amply documented on this site, it's almost hard to remember a time before it. The burger landscape was just on its way to becoming fully fleshed out (pun intended, we suppose) when the first Umami Burger opened in February 2009. And from that modestly sized, parking-challenged shop on La Brea between Olympic and Wilshire, owner Adam Fleischman might become the newfangled Ray Kroc of his generation and an entrepreneurial ambassador for a certain brand of food culture.
Or will Fleischman be the Steve Ells of the burger? Or occupy the overlapping areas of the Kroc/Ells Venn Diagram? Time will tell as he begins to execute Umami expansion plans beyond the borders of Los Angeles County. (The newest and fifth location is Umami Valli in Studio City.) Did Fleischman know he'd found the food of the Los Angeles zeitgeist in such a fitting expression, and during a recession, no less? Does he want Umami to become the new Chipotle? Keep reading to find out. And check back later for part two of our interview and a recipe from Fleischman.
Squid Ink: How do you describe your job title now?
Adam Fleischman: Now it's CEO, because I have so many deals and restaurants that I'm more like a coach and entrepreneur. What I like to do is the entrepreneurial and then the technical side, like the dishes and the cooking. But not the management side. We'll probably have close to 100 restaurants so it's a lot to manage. We're doing a whole pizza chain. There's concepts that take a lot of time. But with Red Medicine I'm just an investor, I don't really have anything to do with the food.
SI: How did you get involved with food to begin with?
AF: I was in the wine business, and we had a food component which I thought was really interesting. We would do charcuterie and cheeses.
SI: Was that BottleRock?
AF: Yeah it got really fun, and I was always interested in cooking. And then the cooking just kind of became the hobby that became an obsession, trying to perfect different recipes. And then when I sold BottleRock I was playing around with burgers, and I'd never made burgers before at all, I didn't even know how to make them. I was like wow, this could be done so many different ways. And that's when I decided to do a burger place.
SI: Did you have a sense that burgers were going to be the next big thing in the culture?
AF: No idea. I wasn't even interested in burgers, I was just trying to play around with umami and get those flavors going.
SI: So you were experimenting, but you really hit on something.
AF: Exactly. I realized that umami was the flavor people were craving in the burger, so if I focused on that rather than on a specific recipe, that it would work. I thought certain burgers had more umami than others. Some of them really seemed to have an umami flavor, but some of them didn't.
SI: The burgers you were making, or the burgers you were eating out?
AF: The burgers I was eating out.
SI: Like which burgers?
AF: The one I thought had the most umami was the In-N-Out burger, for sure. That's why I think it's so popular. Their onions or something has a really strong umami flavor to it.
SI: So what style do you get your In-N-Out?
AF: Just the regular with cheese and the grilled onions. So, once I said that, why don't we try to do a burger that has all the umami in it but more of an upscale experience with better design, and things like that. So we started small, we just did the one on La Brea. We didn't expect to do much, and it turned out really great.
SI: So this is all a surprise to you?
AF: We knew it was good. We knew the product was great. We didn't think we'd do five restaurants in two years. That was a surprise. We thought we'd be slower. But the demand was furious, and we get over 500 inquiries to franchise a week. Every country in the world has called us, and we're not interested in franchising. But there's a lot of demand for a new burger concept, believe it or not. These concepts like McDonald's are so old, that there really hasn't been a new wave of burger concepts, and it's just kind of starting. You have the high-end restaurant stuff, but the Shake Shacks are all within the last five or ten years.
SI: So you don't think the burger market is saturated yet?
AF: Maybe in L.A. But I really don't think so. Depends where your locations are.
SI: The inspiration for your burgers came from trial and error in the kitchen, not trying to replicate other burgers that you were seeing around town?
AF: Definitely not. I was trying to do something original. There was a lot of experimental stuff going on with different cheeses and stuff. We were reading a lot of other people's recipes, but it was really trial and error.
SI: What do you think explains the success?
AF: I think the success is based on the fact that people respond to something different, and we're not cookie cutter and all have their own quirks. They really like the food. And then… I don't know!
SI: How do you keep that combination of product consistency but location variation on a much bigger scale?
AF: Well, the thing is, we're not going to do it on a much bigger scale. We're going to do only 30-40 Umamis.
SI: That's a lot!
AF: Those we could totally do. But we have another concept that's like a Chipotle that's standardized, it's all green construction. We're going to try to do one maybe this year experimentally. We don't know if it's going to work yet, though.
SI: So you don't want to become Chipotle in terms of standardization?
AF: The concept would be. This is a cheaper price point, it's like a $6 price point, and we can compete with Chipotle.
SI: That's the one you'll pilot downtown?
AF: No, that's a different concept, too. It's Umamicatessen. It's like a Jewish deli mixed with a burger place mixed with a dessert concept. We're making everything from scratch, the whole deli, all the meats cured.
SI: Are the meats going to be sustainably raised, and that sort of thing?
AF: Everything we buy is that way, same as Umami. One of the products we buy they only kill, like, ten cows a week. It's really small production! We have supply issues. We need a lot more producers to come online. Mostly we use Niman Ranch, which is the biggest one, but we're taking all of their cuts that we use. I wish they were bigger.
SI: Well, for what they do, they're big.
AF: That's the bulk of it now, but we're trying to get a bunch more places that we can use. All the meat will be sustainable and naturally raised. We're big on that.
Check back later for Part 2 of this interview and a recipe.