Refusing to customize in a build-your-own world

We’ve heard time and again that consumers, especially millennials, want customization. Researchers describe it as paramount to today’s consumer, and restaurants from burger joints to salad bars to Mediterranean concepts are buying in. Even McDonald’s, the granddaddy of chains that others look to for direction, recently announced that it’s expanding its build-your-own-burger trial. And who can forget the ‘Have It Your Way’ mantra that the King’s been touting for years.

But what about those unwilling to conform, asserting that customers shouldn’t mess with the flavor profiles in-house chefs have spent ample time cultivating? Does the lack of compromise with guests’ supposed “need” to customize affect business?

It doesn’t seem to. Umami Burger, the famed Los Angeles-based chain from restaurateur Adam Fleischman, made its first foray into the Midwest with a store in Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood. On opening night, the wait reached as long as two hours. And it hit that time while promoting one phrase on the front of the menu: “There is no substitution.”

While this self-proclaimed motto is intended to call out Umami as something different than the other better-burger restaurants on the market, it’s also a not-so-subtle hint that customization is not welcome. Our waiter proclaimed that the chain “perfected the recipes to achieve umami—the seventh flavor—with these exact combinations of ingredients.” In other words, “don’t mess with what we’ve created.” So I guess both meanings of the motto stands true; not many burger places out there outlaw customization.

That isn’t to say the growing burger chain isn’t willing to compromise. A note on the menu says customers can opt for a portobello instead of meat patty or lettuce instead of a bun upon request. But the line has been drawn … well, written. And yet, despite the anti-customization decree, hordes still came and ordered the Manly Burgers and Sloppy Mamis without requesting a DIY build. So this begs the question: do consumers really “need” customization, or is it nothing more than the latest ploy to appease customers? Will there come a day in the not-too-distant future that consumers tire of the control, reverting back to trusting restaurants to be the flavor creators?


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