Umami, or the ‘fifth taste’, is what makes all our favourite savoury dishes so delicious. It’s why we hanker after bacon, why we add Parmesan to spaghetti bolognese and why that dash of Worcestershire sauce complements a Bloody Mary to perfection. Umami Burger, the Californian restaurant chain, has taken the concept of the fifth taste and turned into a winning formula, offering delicious burgers with the umami flavour punch that punters crave.
The brainchild of wine writer Adam Fleischman, Umami Burger started in Los Angeles in 2009. The idea behind the concept was inspired by Fleischman’s obsession with umami, which he’d come across while reading Heston Blumenthal’s books during his travels in Europe. “I was trying to figure out why Americans craved pizza and burgers more than anything else,” he recalls. “I had that ‘a-ha moment’ when I realised that burgers and pizza were great vehicles for delivering umami, that savoury and craveable taste. I didn’t have a pizza oven in my kitchen, so I started with burgers.”
Fleischman bought any ingredient he could find with umami properties and experimented for a month in his kitchen by mixing together seaweeds, miso, fish sauce, soy sauce, aged cheeses and dried mushrooms, until eventually he developed his secret signature Umami Master Sauce.
He launched Umami Burger in a former Korean taco stand before opening his first restaurant on La Brea Avenue and becoming an overnight sensation. For what started as a humble burger joint has become one of the biggest success stories among US upscale fast food chains. “We first opened in February 2009. In 2010, we were named burger of the year by GQ Magazine. Today, we have over 20 locations in California, New York, Florida and Nevada,” Fleischman says.
The company, which currently employs 75 people full-time as well as 750 part-time, has a number of financial partners, including SBE Group, Fortress Financial Group, Nimes Capital and Sam Nazarian. Fleischman remains chairman but has acquired a seasoned executive team, including former SBE Group analyst Saul Cooperstein as chief strategy officer; lawyer Gabriel Halimi as vice president of corporate operations; restaurateur Trevor Sacco as vice president of restaurant operations; and chef Thomas Curran as director of food and beverage.
Each of Umami’s restaurants is different. “From the beginning, I wanted Umami Burger to be a restaurant group, not a chain,” Fleischman insists. “Every location is designed and built for its surrounding neighbourhood and community.” Having grown from one to 21 sites plus a food truck in five years, Umami Burger plans to open 10 new restaurants a year in the US and eventually go global. “In the US, we’re immediately looking to expand into Washington DC, Philadelphia, Chicago, Las Vegas and really any major metro market,” says Fleischman. “Internationally, we’ve looked at the UK, Middle East and Asia in the past. We’re really open to anywhere if the right opportunity presents itself.”
The secret to Umami Burger’s success are of course the burgers, which are designed to deliver a powerful umami taste explosion that makes diners come back for more despite the hefty $20 price tag for a burger, side and drink. By comparison, fellow Californian burger chain In-N-Out Burger has an average spend of less than $10.
Made from ground short-rib, beef patties are infused with the Umami Master Sauce and cooked sous-vide before being seared on the grill and served medium rare in a variety of different concoctions that always feature a number of umami-rich ingredients. There’s the signature Umami Burger, loaded with shiitake mushrooms, onions, tomatoes, and a parmesan crisp ($11/£6.60); the wildly popular Truffle Burger, topped with a mild truffle-infused cheese and a truffle glaze ($12/£7.20); the Manly Burger, featuring beer-cheddar cheese, smoked-salt onion strings and bacon lardons ($11/£6.60); and the Cali Burger ($10/£6), with slow-roasted tomato, house-made American cheese and caramelised onions.
But it’s not just the burgers that make Umami Burger stand out from its competitors and everything served up at its restaurants is different: from the double fried smushed potatoes (£4.50/£2.70) to the truffled beet salad ($7/£4.20), tempura onion rings ($3/£1.80) and the fried pickle wedges ($5/£3). The drinks include a selection of craft beers and Californian wines, and the company has also launched a line of Umami-brand condiments available to buy on its website, including its Umami Master Sauce, Umami ketchup, Umami dust and Umami spray.
More recently Umami Burger made headlines with its new Monte Cristo Burger, a collaboration with celebrity chef Michael Voltaggio, which comprises a patty covered with Gruyère fondue and prosciutto on a custard-soaked and fried bun, topped with powdered sugar and served with a side of maple syrup. “The Monte Cristo Burger is the third in a series of burgers that we make in collaboration with artists,” explains Fleischman. “$1 from each burger will be donated to the Los Angeles Mission, which provides help, hope and opportunity to men, women and children in need.”
Next to Umami Burger, Fleischman has a number of other businesses, including 800 Degrees, a fast-casual Neapolitan pizza concept. “We have three of them open today and will open five to 10 more in the next year,” he reveals. His other projects include a forthcoming Spanish restaurant called Smoke.oil.salt, as well as Truffl, a new private members club in which he is an investor and strategic partner. And then there’s ChocoChicken, a chocolate chicken concept set to launch later this year. “ChocoChicken is part of my AdVantage Restaurant Partners,” he says. “We will open the first location this year and hope to expand very quickly after that. Most people think we’re putting Hershey’s Syrup on a chicken wing and that we’re crazy. It tastes nothing like you think it does and it’s just delicious. Fried chicken is ready for some innovation in the fast casual space.”
In just five years, Umami Burger has grown into a brand that has not only changed the culinary landscape of Los Angeles and beyond but has seen writer-turned-restaurateur Fleischman develop into a food industry powerhouse, who has a string of successful hospitality businesses to his name. It’s his innovative approach to food that has seen him capture the hearts and stomachs of US diners and his creativity seems to know no bounds. With global expansion on the horizon, the sky’s the limit for this serial entrepreneur