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    The Mad Scientist of Fast Casual

  • Adam Fleischman is not a chef or a restaurateur in the traditional sense, but he is a force to be reckoned with in the limited-service industry.

    Umami Burger
    Taking a hands-on approach, Adam Fleischman will spend hours in his kitchen experimenting with new dishes.

    The new fast-casual generation has welcomed an eclectic mix of innovators, from fine-dining chefs to dot-com moguls and former Wall Street investors. But even among such a varied bunch, Adam Fleischman stands apart.

    A liberal arts major, Fleischman originally planned for a career in journalism before he fell in love with wine during a trip to France. He worked in the import business for a while before he cofounded two wine bars in Los Angeles. But in 2009, he used funds from selling his wine bar shares to found Umami Burger—one of the early better-burger concepts to shepherd in a new quality standard in the category.

    As it happens, the now-26-unit chain revealed a sweet spot for Fleischman, namely turning classic categories on their head with bold flavors. In ideating new concepts, he says, it’s simply a matter of fulfilling an unmet market need—a strategy that has yielded fruit both with Umami Burger and later fast-casual pizza chain 800 Degrees, which he cofounded in 2011.

    But if you ask Fleischman to delve into the specifics of his brand-building process, the answers become more ambiguous. (In a 2015 Q&A with Fast Company, he explained how the concept of continuum physics could be applied to building a fast-casual empire.) You could attribute this unorthodox methodology to a personality quirk, but given the success of his creations, it’s more likely that Fleischman is one of those mad scientists who, through some at-home experimentation, can divine the right concept at the right time in the right format.

    And as an incorrigible innovator, he’s keeping busy, with plenty of new projects in various stages of development. Last summer, Fleischman and three business partners brought gourmet peanut-butter-and-jelly concept PBJ. LA to Los Angeles’ Grand Central Market. Within the next month or so, he’ll open Cold Cocked Coffee—a concept he’s been working on even before Umami Burger—in a food hall in L.A.’s Koreatown. Also in the pipeline: an Italian deli restaurant and a new incarnation of ChocoChicken, which was a failed chocolate-fried chicken concept that Fleischman predicts will have better success in a food-hall format.

    It’s a lot to juggle at once, but Fleischman wouldn’t have it any other way.

    You’re a self-taught cook in a space that is increasingly dominated by chefs and fine-dining restaurateurs. How does your fast-casual strategy differ from the competition?

    I think my ideas are fresh because I am approaching it from a different angle. I don’t have preconceived notions of the way things should work, so I feel more of an imperative to innovate in those fields. I wanted to approach burgers from the point of view of umami; I’m doing a coffee brand now that I want to approach from the perspective of a bar, like a bartending/mixology–type angle. We like to do things differently. We call it differentiated.

    It’s disruptive and differentiated, but also classic. I’ve worked in all the classic categories, like pizza, burgers, sandwiches, coffee, and Asian food. In a sense, those are the safer areas to be in because people really like them.

    What’s the draw of fast casual?

    From a business point of view, what was really appealing were the numbers you can do in a fast-casual setting. Obviously this isn’t normal, but our airport location, which is like 500 square feet, does better than some of the restaurants that are 3,000 square feet.

    If you’re in a food court or food hall, you can get good foot traffic, like in Grand Central Market, where [PBJ.LA is] now. It’s a lower labor model with the same food quality, and I think customers are gravitating toward that. Millennials are into it; they would rather go to a fast-casual place like Shake Shack or Chipotle than an Applebee’s or a TGI Fridays, which are more casual dining. I think that’s the sector that’s really hurting.

    And [fast casuals] are more interesting in specialization. [Millennials] want the best coffee and the best burger versus a Chinese menu with lots of options.

    It’s almost better to do one thing really well than trying to do so many.

    Yeah, we based Umami Burger on the In-N-Out Burger model, where it only has one thing. It doesn’t have chicken; it doesn’t have salads. It does good numbers.

    We’re starting to call our places “fine casual” over “fast casual” because I think fast-casual innovators like Chipotle and Five Guys are not necessarily the level of quality that we’re looking for. We’re looking for a more elevated experience, so we’re calling them fine casual to differentiate them. But it’s a fast-casual format.

    You seem to open a new concept right when the category explodes. Umami was at the beginning of the better-burger surge; 800 Degrees coincided with the fast-casual pizza craze. How do you foresee these trends?

    That was totally coincidental. There were no gourmet burger places when we did that. There was no Neapolitan pizza in L.A. when we did 800 Degrees. It’s really just what I feel like reinventing and innovating in that category rather than what the trends are. I don’t really even pay attention to the trends in terms of what I’m serving.

    I tend to go by the fortuitous nature of the origin stories and the way I’m approached to do certain things. Sometimes it has to do with the people involved. With PBJ.LA, the people who were involved were very good, and I wanted to work with them.

    Umami was just me. I did that that all myself. There was no one to work with, but that was my first thing, and I saw an opportunity for a gourmet burger brand. I thought that was a great opportunity to do a forward-looking take on a nostalgic thing.

    We focus on the craveable flavors, because for something to work, it needs to have a craveability factor to get people coming back, and we up the umami quotient if we can.

    What flavors do you think are on the cusp now?

    Vegan-type, vegetable-based flavors, like our peanut-butter-and-jelly concept; those are really popular now. How do you create really delicious food that’s vegan and healthy and organic? Asian flavors are popular—they always have been, but not really in the fast-casual space—and so are different cultural foods, like Italian deli sandwiches. I’m going into that sector next.

    It’s called Heroic Deli, and it’s basically a reinvention of the deli sandwich. It’s very similar to Umami in the sense that it’s based on a classic dish, but it’s completely rethought from top to bottom so that it delivers a much better experience and craveability.

    You’re planning to reincarnate ChocoChicken as a food-hall concept, and PBJ.LA and Cold Cocked are also in food halls. What’s the appeal of that format?

    We had success with them in the past. Grand Central Market approached us, and it’s an iconic institution in L.A., so we didn’t want to turn that down. We had [PBJ.LA] all conceived and menus and everything, and we were just trying to find the right location when Grand Central approached us.

    The fast-casual format is appealing because of the low-labor model and the high-traffic model, so you get to see a lot of people coming through. It’s an appealing format today because a lot of these food halls are springing up. It’s definitely a lower operating cost, and people like diversity. They like to be able to get coffee in one place and peanut butter and jelly in another and have lots of options.

    How has fast casual or even “fine casual” evolved since you started Umami Burger nearly a decade ago? How do you see it changing in the future?

    It’s still evolving for sure, but I think the evolution has been great, because it’s allowed chefs like José Andrés, who were high-end and only served food to wealthier people, to be more accessible to the Monday-night diner and the lunch diner. I see [the segment] continuing to grow in the food-hall format, but also in the bigger spaces where there’s online ordering, delivery, self-ordering, and those types of things.

    Burgers and pizza, I think, are going to hit capacity. Coffee still has more capacity because there’s just so much consumption of it. But I think there will be some shakeout in these traditional fast-casual models—sort of like your sandwich players, where there are so many Subways and Quiznos, and there’s a lot of competition.

    I think [some operators] want to keep doing the traditional. In L.A. and New York, when something goes out of business, things pop right up and they’re not always innovative. Sometimes they’re just trying to do the same old thing, or it’s product-based and they’re not really thinking through the entire experience.

    Are there any brands in the limited-service space that you admire or consider worthy competitors?

    In the chicken category, Howlin’ Ray’s, which is in L.A. That’s a really good one; it’s one of the busiest restaurants in town, if not the busiest. I like Sweetgreen as a salad concept, but I’m not really in that [category].

    Cold Cocked Coffee has some pretty funky flavors, like Mexican mole and Danish licorice. Did you collaborate with R&D experts or chefs for this?

    I did all the R&D myself on that. It’s like when Umami started. I wanted to do something that had no other input. I’m even doing the design of the restaurant; I’m doing everything.

    I usually do a lot of R&D in my home test kitchen and try a lot of different things. I’ve actually been working on Cold Cocked for 10 years, so it predates Umami in a sense. I’ve had time to see what works and experiment [with Cold Cocked], whereas I’m just getting started now with the deli sandwich concept.

    We look around, we try all the classics; we think about what’s good about them, what’s bad about them, what can we improve, and then we kind of merge what we would like to eat with what traditionally does well.

    Is growth something that you think about early on or is that just something that comes into focus later on in the process?

    We always aim to make brands that can be global. Two of them are already global, and I can see all of them being global at some point.

    I like to start here, because if you can make it in L.A., you can probably make it in other markets. It’s a very demanding customer. I think even New York and San Francisco customers are somewhat less discriminating and not as hard as the L.A. customer. It’s just a bigger, sprawling, more spread-out city with more options. It requires more of the customer. In San Francisco and New York, you just walk somewhere, whereas if you have to get in your car and drive, it’s more of a commitment.