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Tasting menus aren’t just for fine dining anymore

umami burger old fashioned

The idea of a tasting menu often brings to mind six to 10 bite-size dishes from a high-end restaurant. Each bite is elaborately plated and presented with a certain “you’ll never find such amazingness elsewhere” attitude. The price tag is upwards of $200 per person. And then, two hours and several tiny courses later, diners are driving through McDonald’s on the way home. Because, believe it or not, 10 bites over two hours, no matter how unbelievable those bites are, doesn’t equate to a full meal. Yes, I’ve had friends leave Chicago’s famed Alinea with $275 less in their pockets, only to hit the drive-thru for a Big Mac to sate their appetites.

The tasting menu I experienced recently was nothing like that. In fact, dare I say, it was a nine-course tasting menu built for millennials… at a casual better-burger joint. The reaction I got from most of my friends, who happen to be millennials: “That sounds like the best thing ever.”

Admittedly, the Umami 101 Experience at restaurateur Adam Fleischman’s Umami Burger isn’t for the faint of heart, nor the dainty eater. This new tasting option on the menu at select locations—which includes three sides, eight burgers and beverage pairings—was designed to give diners a real feel for what Umami is all about. And it did.

Being told Umami 101 was designed for groups of four, I went to Umami Burger in Chicago with three male millennials, ranging in age from 26 to 32. None had been before, though all three consider themselves burger aficionados. What better way to introduce them to the restaurant than with a tasting of the majority of the menu? The meal started with three sides—tots, sweet-potato fries and onion rings—and a soda pairing to ease us in. Then, for each of the following eight courses, our server brought out drinks (mostly boozy) as well as one of its signature burgers. Before cutting the burger into fourths tableside, he explained all of the toppings and paused to give us a chance to snap pictures. After all, food porn is huge with millennials (if you don’t believe me, check out my Twitter feed @RBMillennial).

 

 

By the end of the meal, we were stuffed, tipsy and in love with Umami Burger. “I’ve got a new favorite burger place,” said my 26-year-old hipster brother. When I asked the following day if he plans to go back, he said, “most definitely. I’m already getting together a group to go in for the tasting. I want to try it in reverse order this time, if they’ll let me.” My fiancé shared a similar sentiment. “They were all so good. But now I know my favorite,” he said. “I want to go back and get a full Manly Burger.”

So clearly, the tasting worked; Umami has new repeat customers who plan to come back. And each of them considered the tasting—a high-ticket item on the menu compared to the $13 burgers—a good value. When asked about the price tag ($174 for the group with the drink pairing, $95 without drinks), they all thought it was “a steal.” As my brother said, that’s tastings of eight burgers (or two full burgers total), sides and drinks for $50 a guy—something they all referred to as a great deal.

What do we know about millennials? They aren’t huge spenders, but they do open their wallets for casual, authentic, unique meals. And they think dining is all about the experience, with socialization as a key element. A two-hour burger-eating event with a lot of server interaction and a range of funky can’t-find-these-elsewhere burgers is just that.

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