Is Umami Burger Really a Kroc?

It seems impossible that yet another millionaire should have made his mint on the basis of burgers, but one has.

In his New York Times column, Frank Bruni profiles Adam Fleischman, founder of a restaurant, now a chain, called Umami Burger. What started as one 30-seat restaurant is now a 22-restaurant chain in multiple cities. How did Fleischman do it?

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The burgers of Umami are really good, but, notes Bruni, there is more to it than that. “Like other food-industry entrepreneurs, [Fleischman] appreciated that young diners of limited means craved distinctive restaurant experiences every bit as much as older, wealthier people did,” Bruni writes. “But he pulled off an even more precise mind meld with his potential audience, realizing that they also wanted to feel adventurous, erudite. . . . Umami was familiar principally to food insiders as the ‘fifth taste,’ first defined in Japan.”

It also helped that Fleischman loved his work. “Passion gave him the energy for the 18-hour days that were necessary during that first, whirlwind year,” Bruni writes. “People can sense whether you’re going through the paces or going for something better, something novel.”

One striking thing about the success of Umami in a seemingly saturated burger market is how much it parallels the story of another burger joint: McDonald’s.

Like Umami Burger, McDonald’s had plenty of competition, but it found unmet customer needs. As Peter Drucker explained in Managing in a Time of Great Change, “Ray Kroc, the founder of McDonald’s,  . . . is reputed to have said, ‘A mother with two small children does not come to our store because the hamburgers are delicious. She comes because the restrooms are clean.’ This is often considered pure whimsy. But it was meant to express a radically new concept of what ‘shopping’ means.”

Of course, McDonald’s offered more than that to customers. “McDonald’s studied what ‘value’ meant to the customer, defined it as quality and predictability of product, speed of service, absolute cleanliness and friendliness, then set standards for all these, trained for them and geared compensation to them,” Drucker explained in Innovation and Entrepreneurship.

For would-be restaurateurs, both Umami and McDonald’s are reminders that innovation in the kitchen might be nice, but there’s probably even more profit to be found in innovations in other facets of the restaurant experience, including the restrooms.

And, yes, passion about it helps. In his old age, Kroc delegated nearly all day-to-day operations to a top management team, but even when he was in his 80s, he stayed engaged. “Until shortly before his death, he visited two or three McDonald’s restaurants each week, carefully checking their food quality, the level of cleanliness and friendliness and so on,” Drucker recalled.

Do you see an untapped niche in the burger market—one you’re willing to reveal?