When you think of burgers and California one iconic name has come to mind for decades: In-N-Out. But now, another much higher-end Los Angeles-based chain is growing in popularity: Umami Burger. And while In-N-Out has resisted expansion — moving eastward to only Utah, Arizona, Nevada and Texas — Umami is embracing it with fervor.
On a recent sunny afternoon at Umami’s 3.000 square-foot flagship location at The Grove, server Danielle Hanson introduced the restaurant to customers.
“Umami actually means savory in Japanese,” she explained to a young couple. “It’s like the fifth taste.”
Nearby, Founder and CEO Adam Fleischman surveyed his cramped kitchen, where the meat is ground fresh every hour and the ketchup made from scratch.
“I’m always tasting, making sure everything looks right and feels right,” he said, grabbing a French fry off a plate, and popping it in his mouth.
Fleischman opened the first Umami in 2009 on La Brea Boulevard. (It closed earlier this year.)
Soon after famed GQ food critic Alan Richman paid a visit, and declared that Fleischman deserved to be on the Mount Rushmore of the Burger World.
“It's half beef and half beyond belief, raved Richman. “I arrived in Los Angeles not much taken with umami, at least not the way true believers are. Too much mysticism, not enough science. Nor did I care much for the L.A. burger culture, not like the locals. Too many toppings, not enough meat. Then I tasted the Umami Burger, Adam Fleischman's cross-cultural merger of Japanese ingenuity and American know-how. And I thought to myself, This is a man among burger men, worthy of our adulation.”
An outsider reinventing the burger
The heaps of praise came despite the fact that Fleischman has no formal training as a chef. His lack of experience is an asset, Fleischman said, sitting at one of the tables on Umami’s patio.
“Because of the way I approached it from an outsider’s perspective, I think I was able to look at the burger in a new way, not as something that was classic and had to come with bacon and American cheese, but something that could be done differently,” he said.
Everything Umami serves up is different, from the double fried smushed potatoes, to the truffled beet salad, to the very popular truffle burger, to the signature umami burger, loaded with shiitake mushrooms, onions, tomatoes, and a parmesan crisp, and imprinted with a “U” logo on its fluffy fresh-baked bun. (Health food this is not. The truffle burger clocks in at 810 calories.)
Fleischman said he came up with the Umami recipe in a single day, after he left a job in the wine business.
“I was basically just fooling around in my house and cooking,” remembered Fleischman. “I wanted to try to add more the savory fifth taste to burgers, so I went to the Japanese market and got a lot of products that are high in glutamates, which is the fifth taste, and figured out a way to work them into the burger.”
Fleischman regards In-N-Out as having the best fast-food burger in the world. It inspired him to think what else he could do with a burger, one that costs about four times as much as a double-double.
“We just wanted to take it to the next level,” said Fleischman.
Most of the customers at the Grove location are tourists. People were sitting around us from Washington D.C., Istanbul, and South Africa.
“I had friends who said Umami is amazing,“ said David, from South Africa. (He declined to give his last name) “It is amazing. It’s really good.”
A rapid expansion
Umami now has 16 locations in Southern California and four in the Bay Area.
Fleischman has also expanded into pizza, with the wildly popular 800 Degrees Neapolitan Pizzeria. Lines out of the original Westwood restaurant often snake out the door.
A new location just opened at Los Angeles International Airport and a New York branch is on the way.
“Pizza was done pretty horribly in L.A.,” said Fleischman. “We saw a real opportunity in the market.”
A fast-food take on Umami, U-Mini, has been less successful. The frequently empty Westwood restaurant has gone through several different menus, none of which seem to have caught with customers.
This year, Umami opened its first branches outside the state, in South Beach, Miami, and in New York City.
The New Yorker noted that the line to get a table at the Greenwich Village restaurant was three-hours long during the first few weeks, but also tried to tame some of the hype.
“Best burgers in New York? Among the best,” wrote Hannah Goldfield.
Fleischman, never prone to modesty, says there’s literally no limit to Umami’s expansion.
“It wasn’t designed to be a small brand,” said Fleischman. “It was designed to be a global brand from the outset. The guys that stay small weren’t thinking globally from the beginning and we were. We wanted to see it all over the world.”
50-50 partners with SBE Entertainment
To help finance his ambitions, Fleischman has teamed up with the L.A.-based SBE Entertainment Group, which bought a 50 percent stake in Umami in 2011.
SBE is best known as the company behind glamorous nightclubs like Hyde and swanky hotels like the SLS, not burgers and fries. For Umami, they made an exception.
“First and foremost the investment we made was into Adam Fleischman,” said SBE Chairman and CEO Sam Nazarian, on the phone from Las Vegas, where he’s building a new hotel that will include a spacious Umami opening right onto the Vegas strip. "We thought we could lend Adam and his team the expertise to grow at a rapid pace, but at the same time do it in a manner that allows him to focus on the product itself."
Nazarian — who adds that he and his brother invested personally in Umami — said that he shares Fleischman's agressive nature.
“We would look at the next three to four years as a being a very major growth period for us."
So, the expansion is shifting into high gear. In the coming years, armed with Nazarian’s wallet and Fleischman's recipes, they’re planning to open hundreds of Umami’s around the world.
Fleischman says they are considering locations in Asia, Europe, the Middle East, and South America.