Postscript: Empire of the Bun

In the May issue of Los Angeles magazine, dine editor Lesley Bargar Suter reports on the casual-dining revolution of Adam Fleischman and his Umami Group—an assignment that unexpectedly required nearly a year to complete. Here’s the back story:

Photograph by Misha Gravenor

My first official interview with Umami founder and CEO Adam Fleischman was on April 27, 2011. My Los Angeles magazine profile of Fleischman and his company hit newsstands on April 26, 2012. It wasn’t our intent to take nearly a year to research the piece—we’re talking about hamburgers, after all—but the delays allowed me to watch, from a privileged position, the way a particularly ambitious business deals with supersonic growth. It also made for a worthy reporting challenge: trying to stay on top of the ever-expanding, ever-morphing empire of Adam Fleischman.

At our first meeting, which took place over iced green teas at the Urth Caffé on South Beverly, Fleischman filled me in on the origins of Umami (his home kitchen) and future plans for the company. At the time there were only five branches of the burger restaurant open, none outside Los Angeles. He told me about 800 Degrees, an upcoming Neapolitan pizza enterprise, and Umami Ko, a more conventional fast-food burger concept. There was no mention of UMAMIcatessen—the five-restaurant foodplex located next to the Orpheum Theatre downtown that would open ten months later— or of the San Francisco branch of Umami Burger being scouted at the time.

My next meeting with Fleischman took place while testing recipes for 800 Degrees pizza inside Cobras & Matadors on Beverly. Over nine variations of the margherita, he casually mentioned plans to open a large food and coffee complex inside the very same office building that houses Los Angeles magazine. It was almost a done deal, he said. I came back to the office bragging about how easy it would soon be for staffers to score an Umami fix. “Great coffee is in our future!” I boasted. Months later, with no sign of gourmet patties or fancy drip in the building’s lobby, I found out that the deal had fallen through. To this day colleagues still ask me about it. And I continue to feel guilt about raising their hopes.

Over the summer Fleischman and I went on a walk-through of the raw space that would become UMAMIcatessen­ (it was finally happening) and looked at construction plans. We also spent the better part of an hour talking about the status of the company—always “great!”—and other development tidbits of note. This time that meant chatting about some surprise celebrity chefs in store for UMAMIcatessen­; he would only dish on one, “a certain San Francisco pork lover.” What wasn’t discussed? The deal for SBE to acquire 50 percent of the Umami brand, which was announced 48 hours later. Was I grumpy about the fact that I’d just spent an hour with the guy and he hadn’t dropped a hint about a multimillion-dollar investment that would forever change the direction of his company? Yes. Surprised?  No.

Fleischman’s lack of forthcomingness was part of the reason the piece took so long to come to fruition. As soon as I thought I had a handle on where the company was going, a new enterprise would be launched, a new branch opened, nationwide plans exposed. Sure, it made my job a lot harder—and I have to say I haven’t craved my beloved SoCal burger for a while—but it turned what began as a straightforward profile of a burger joint into the story of a burgeoning, national culinary powerhouse. For that, I thank him.

 —Lesley Bargar Suter

ALSO: Read “Empire of the Bun
Read “A Day In the Life of Adam Fleischman