Umami Burger wins cult following with a mini menu of savory gourmet burgers

Umami Burger wins cult following with a mini menu of savory gourmet burgers

Achalkboard sign on the wall at one of the Umami Burger locations in Los Angeles reveals a key reason why this casual-dining better-burger concept is a hit.

“Umami: It makes things taste good,” the sign states.

For founder Adam Fleischman, it’s all about umami—what the Japanese refer to as the “fifth taste,” a savory deliciousness that comes from glutamate and other naturally occurring elements in certain foods.

In creating his short and simple menu, Fleischman infused his burgers with flavors culled from ingredients high in umami—truffles, anchovies, tomatoes, kombu, soy, Parmesan, shiitake mushrooms, to name a few. He developed seasonings and sauces with those flavors, and then topped the burgers with more umami-rich foods.

The result is a concept that is quickly earning itself a cult following—not an easy feat in a town where most worship at the altar of In-N-Out Burger, the more than 60-year-old chain based in Irvine, Calif., which dominates the burger landscape.

As Los Angeles Times food critic S. Irene Virbilia wrote in a recent review, In-N-Out rules for the classic drive-thru burger, but “Umami makes a strong case for the embellished burger.”

In-N-Out, however, has more than 200 locations, while Fleischman just opened his fourth in Santa Monica, Calif., after debuting the first in February 2009. But he has dreams of a chain with 50 to 100 units. Next year, he plans to launch a quick-service variant of the brand as a new growth vehicle.

Fleischman isn’t sure he’ll call the quick-service version Umami Burger. Perhaps the name will just be a symbol or logo, he said—like when the pop star Prince had to be called “the artist formerly known as Prince.”

Whatever the formal name might be, it will be the “fast food of the future,” Fleischman promises, with environmentally friendly operations and self-service technology.

Fleischman envisions it as an international chain offering umami-spiked burgers, fries, and house-made condiments and pickles with “real sodas”—what Fleischman calls bottled versions made without high-fructose corn syrup, including Coke bottled in Mexico. There will be no soda fountain.

He also plans to grow the casual-dining version of Umami Burger. The original outlet, a minimalist location with less than 900 square feet space off the beaten path in mid-city, had about $1.8 million in sales in its first year, and Fleischman has tweaked the concept with each new opening.

The first offers no alcohol, for example, but the second includes an adjacent Japanese beer bar called Salaryman, and alcohol accounts for about 20 percent of sales. It is the largest Umami Burger outlet, with roughly 3,500 square feet of space in L.A.’s hipster neighborhood of Los Feliz. Fleischman expects that unit to do $2.5 million to $3 million in sales in its first year.

Umami Burger

HEADQUARTERS: Los angelesMARKET SEGMENT: casualMENU: Gourmet burgers and friesNO. OF UNITS: 4SYSTEMWIDE SALES: $8 million to $10 millionMETHOD OF FUNDING: cash flow, investorsLEADERSHIP: Adam Fleischman, founder and owner; Chris McIntosh, director of operationsFOUNDED: February 2009NOTABLE COMPETITORS: Father’s Office; In-N-Out—Double Double “animal style” with grilled onions; countless high-end restaurant versions

At No. 3 in Hollywood, the name is Umami Urban and the full bar includes beer, wine and sochu cocktails. The newest location in Santa Monica, in a Fred Segal retail collection complex, has the largest beer and wine selection within the chain.

Umami Burger’s menu is small. There are about 10 burgers, each priced from $9 to $11.

The top seller is the Umami Burger, which is an all-natural beef patty—all the meat is ground in house and never frozen—cooked medium rare. It is topped with a Parmesan cheese tuille, a grilled shiitake mushroom, roasted tomatoes, caramelized onions and the signature house-made ketchup. The bun is soft Portuguese bread, baked locally, with a glossy sheen.

Other burgers on the menu include the Manly Burger with beer-cheddar cheese, smoked salt, onion strings and bacon lardons. A vegetarian Earth Burger has a mushroom-and-edamame patty, white soy and truffle aioli, ricotta cheese, cipollini onions, lettuce and tomato; and a Triple Pork burger matches a mix of ground pork, chorizo and applewood-smoked bacon with manchego cheese and pimento aioli.

There’s a truffle beet salad for $6 and a plate of house-made pickles for $4.

Otherwise, there are two types of fries: thin French style and fat, rectangular fried potato logs, stacked crosswise, both for $3.50. Malt-liquor tempura onion rings are available for $3.

At this point, Fleischman said he has no plans to franchise and the company has had no trouble finding financing.

“We could have had 20 by now, if we wanted to,” he said. “But we didn’t want to.”— [email protected] [3]