Restaurateur Adam Fleischman was feasting on ramen at high-end, invite-only sushi restaurant Yamakase with video-game developer Andy Gavin in May when he saw its potential to be something more.
“After dinner, I turned to Andy and said we should open a restaurant that’s more casual with the same chef, and he agreed,” said Fleischman, 46. “We wanted to bring his cuisine to an affordable price because he’s really talented.”
Later this year, the two plan to open Ramen Roll, a $20-a-person fast-casual Japanese restaurant serving ramen and hand rolls, with Yamakase chef Kiyoshiro Yamamoto in Culver City.
Fleischman wants to do for sushi and ramen what he did for traditional American fare with Umami Burger and 800 Degrees Neopolitan Pizzeria, two local restaurants that grew into lucrative chains. He said he plans to follow the recipe of his past success with a chef-driven, fun dining experience.
Although the ownership group, which is funding the bulk of the venture, declined to say how much they were spending on Ramen Roll, Paul Pruitt, founder of L.A. restaurant consulting group New School, estimated it as around $1.2 million based on the size of the space.
Given Fleischman’s track record, the restaurant could be worth the investment. Pruitt estimated that each of Umami Burger’s 24 locations generates around $3 million in annual sales while each 800 Degrees generates $2 million to $2.25 million.
“He definitely swings for the fences,” said Pruitt. “Uncharted waters are where the best ideas exist, but you don’t know until you set voyage.”
Not all of Fleischman’s concepts have succeeded, but those that have more than made up for the flops.
“You can’t deny the impact he’s had on the food scene in L.A. and nationwide with the fast-casual segment,” said Pruitt. “Umami and 800 Degrees are on a short list of the most successful casual brands in the last five years.”
Fleischman’s first big hit was with Umami Burger in 2009, when he opened the first location in Mid-Wilshire. It was part of a wave of chef-driven gourmet burger joints.
Sam Nazarian’s SBE, the hospitality firm that is in the process of acquiring Morgans Hotel Group, took a significant stake in Umami in 2011 and expanded the chain outside of Los Angeles. This month, SBE reportedly raised its stake to 78 percent. Fleischman remains on the board and retains his stock. He said moving on was always part of the plan.
“I’m more of a brand creator and chef,” he said. “I’m not just an operations guy, per se.”
SBE has said it plans to expand Umami internationally, adding 10 restaurants a year, starting with one in Japan.
Fleischman lit up 800 Degrees in Westwood in 2012 with chef Anthony Carron, a concept Los Angeles Times food critic Jonathan Gold said was “based on an idea so simple that it is hard to believe nobody came up with it decades ago: high-quality pizza reformulated as fast-food – cheap, delicious, made with sustainable grown ingredients, infinitely customizable – and in and out of the ferociously hot wood-burning oven almost before you have gotten to the cash register.”
In June, Umami Restaurant Group, which owned 800 Degrees, sold its stake in the pizza chain to Murfey Ventures, a family office out of Ohio.
Fleischman opened ChocoChicken in 2014 downtown through his hospitality firm AdVantage Restaurant Partners. The business, which served chicken covered in a mole-like sauce, closed before the end of the year. Pruitt attributed its failure to the location and idea.
“To be honest, I never quite understood the concept,” he said. “Of all his concepts, this was the biggest reach.”
Space in market
Ramen Roll co-owners are more optimistic about their venture. Although there are only plans for the one location now, the group hopes it will be a hit on the level of Umami Burger and 800 Degrees.
“If it’s successful, we will expand,” said Fleischman. “We never plan for a certain size, but create plans that can work in a number of places.”
Fleischman and Gavin, 46, knew Yamamoto before approaching him about partnering.
Fleischman had been introduced to the chef in 2010 through colleagues at Umami. Gavin, who sold his video-game company Naughty Dog to Sony Computer Entertainment in 2001, reviews restaurants on his food blog All Things Andy Gavin and has been a longtime follower of the chef.
Gavin had toyed with the idea of opening a restaurant, but never took the plunge until now.
“It seemed kind of crazy, even though I had multiple small businesses which had all done well,” he said.
Fleischman said he saw a space in the market for Japanese food made more accessible and fun.
“We’re doing sushi a little more branded,” he said. “Most sushi places are so traditional. Generally, they have the same menus unless it’s very high end, where they create an individual menu for the customer. We’re trying to take some elements of the high end and bring it low end.”
For the décor, Ramen Roll has hired Studio Unltd, which designed Otium, a restaurant that opened next to the Broad Museum this year, and commissioned artist John Park to create surreal murals.
“It will have a very distinct style,” said Gavin. “The vibe will be Asian-inspired pop rock ’n’ roll with David Bowie in Japan in the ’60s coloring.”
Fleischman and Gavin, both certified sommeliers, are curating a wine, beer, and sake menu. The restaurant will also serve Gavin’s homemade gelato.
Darren Tristano, president of industry research firm Technomic Inc., said that Ramen Roll had a good chance of succeeding because of Fleischman’s track record.
“His success in taking a concept and expanding it has been pretty remarkable,” said Tristano. “So it seems like he has the process down and is just making sure the concept is on trend.”
Tristano added that Japanese food is becoming more mainstream outside of California, as evidenced by the rise of the poke trend and sushi burritos. And yet, there aren’t many concepts along the lines of Ramen Roll.
“Looking at the white space for the Japanese segment, there are not a lot of Japanese concepts for $20 that are expandable,” he said.
Fleischman said there is no secret to his success.
“I really just create things I want to see exist,” he said. “I reimagine existing verticals like ramen and sushi, which hasn’t been done on a big scale except for a few places like Sugarfish and Sushi Nozawa.”
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