After months and even years of hype, the LA-based "it" burger chain Umami Burger finally opened its first Chicago location last week to welcoming crowds and two-hour waits in Wicker Park. But founder Adam Fleischman, who was in town for the opening, is not even close to being finished opening locations in town. He chatted about how many he wants to open, the umami concept, and his impressions of Chicago.
Give an introduction to the Chicago community.
We were founded in 2009 in Southern California and once we got some traction it was conceived as a global brand. A lot the culinary destination cities, we started looking at those and then we went to San Francisco and New York. Chicago to us is becoming a great culinary city destination with all of the chefs that have come up there in the last five years so we definitely wanted to get into the Chicago market. We're going to try and do multiple locations in Chicago, like we're doing in New York, and hopefully capture the imagination of the taste buds of the people in Chicago.
Did you think this would be a large-scale company from the beginning?
Yeah, that was the plan. Back in 2009 I found the burger world was very backwards-looking and nostalgia-driven and "mom and pop." The gourmet burger scene really hadn't taken off yet, so I wanted to spearhead that and be the innovator in that field.
What do you know about the Chicago scene?
Our impressions of it are the impressions we have of LA. It's coming into its own over the last five or ten years and been really amped up and a lot of chefs have been introduced in Chicago. Paul Kahan has come up and Stephanie (Izard) from Girl and the Goat, all of these younger chefs have really made Chicago into a culinary destination with their international flavors and influences. That kind of fit well with the Umami model, that kind of global attitude.
Why did you decide to pick Chicago now?
We have our East Coast and West Coast stores and we didn't have anything in the Midwest, so it was the best place to start. I'm not super familiar with Chicago and I've been there many times, some of our execs have lived there and some of our employees have worked there and run restaurants there so they have a lot of familiarity with the markets.
Take me through the process of scouting locations.
We come out and look around and check out the general dining scene. Once we like that, we work with the different real estate brokers and get locations that fit our model and our style, so hopefully our Milwaukee Avenue location works for that. We do a lot of research and a lot of trips, we send a bunch of people.
We took like six or eight trips. We look at a lot of spaces and we liked the fact that it was an existing restaurant space; it had the right infrastructure for what we needed. We're going to go in like four or five different neighborhoods, but it'll be our only location there.
What's the time frame for other locations?
Usually once we find one, we go hard and immediately start looking for more. We're looking for more right now...I would say in two-to-three years we will have five locations opened.
Chicago has many burger places. How is yours different?
We try to get the chefs and take more of a culinary approach. We're definitely more of a full-service experience, with wine and cocktails. Shake Shack has you wait in line and it's fast-casual, Smashburger is a franchise place. You can go on a date in our restaurants and have a really great date rather than being like a lunch-type place.
And you have other ideas and concepts too...
We have a whole culinary ideas (team) incubating multiple concepts. I think Choco Chicken is the most likely to get to Chicago before any of the other ones we're doing now.
Describe Umami Burger in three to five words.
Food forward and minimalist, that's sort of our company philosophy.
Tell people how you use the umami flavors.
We do it in two ways, one through the ingredients like parmesan, tomato, things that are high in umami or even seasonings like sauce, liquid and powdered umami that we add on top of the burgers, not inside of the patties. When they're done cooking it gives them more umami flavor. Creates more craveability.
How did you come up with the concept?
I got it through European cookbooks, these modern chefs were really looking at umami as a part of the flavor palate, not just a Japanese coronation thing but really the basis of every kind of cuisine. That was exciting and I wanted to integrate that into other foods like burgers, pizza, and so forth.
Why do you think nobody thought of it before?
In 2009, I googled umami burger and there were no hits. I don't think people really had looked for the patterns among different cuisines close enough and seen the basis of a lot of craveable foods like burgers, pizza, and fried chicken and the umami factor in it. People had just looked at it as its own category and they didn't see it in the family of other great culinary inventions. Once you look at it as a natural dish, then you can really open it up more.