Our ATG Hidden Gems series highlights Las Vegas communities that contribute to our core DNA of music, art, and fashion. We find it incredibly important to draw emphasis to those who make our city one-of-a-kind and in the latest edition, we highlight Las Vegas-based restaurant, Fukuburger. Created by Colin Fukunaga, his passion and artistic skill for food started from humble beginnings. But over time we have seen him develop a solidified presence within the Las Vegas valley as he provides a unique theme to his delicious creations.
Born in California, Colin remembered the liveliness of the city as he grew up near Dodger Stadium. California had a lot to offer, but he realized that the city meant more to him because his family and grandparents were close by. But at a young age, Colin had to say goodbye to the bright lights of Los Angeles and moved to Washington, DC. He ended up growing and establishing himself in Washington, which led to him earning his degree in Political Science. But California kept calling his name, especially since his grandparents were longing for his company. So in 1995, with the plan to move to LA he was actually stopped in his tracks. During this time, Los Angeles was experiencing trying times so his grandparents thought it would be best to hold off. But with the determination to move to the west, he made it as close as he can to California and landed in Las Vegas.
For Colin, Las Vegas was only a temporary destination and in 6 months he would head to his family in Los Angeles. But during this time, he was exposed to the restaurant industry as a means to get by. Colin remembered being told by one of his mentors that he would become a success within the industry and eventually he would be. After six months, he decided to stay in Vegas as he fell in love with the city. After receiving exposure from the restaurant industry, Colin’s aspirations grew and he knew he wanted more from life.
When it came down to it, Colin wanted to create his own restaurant. His food would be different and something fresh in comparison to the other venues we see; therefore he introduced a concept that fused classic burgers with his Japanese heritage. So in 2008, he decided to open up his own restaurant but due to the recession of this time, it turned out to be even more difficult than usual. With this roadblock, it was back to the drawing board and waiting tables. The idea was shoved to the side until Colin’s mother brought the idea back to life with the introduction of a food truck.
Due to the declining economy food trucks were making their rise as many couldn’t afford the high cost of leasing an establishment. With this in mind, Colin seized the opportunity, and later that year he opened up the Fukuburger food truck. This was a great start as food trucks were fairly new within the valley, so he was able to corner an unknown market. It was the locals, foodies, nightlife, and sub-communities that jump-started Fukuburger’s success. Over time, the name would become a classic Vegas delicacy and gained even more popularity as it was introduced within public magazines and on television, specifically The Food Network. Fukuburger has become a staple and we sat down with Colin Fukunaga to talk more about the restaurant and the future of the company.
For those that have not heard of you, how would you describe Fukuburger’s style?
Basically, it’s all-American burgers with a Japanese twist. When I was trying to build the restaurant, I went to the Small Business Association and they gave me a score mentor- which is a person who gives you the advice to help your business succeed. And they would assign you a project on your company and provide critical feedback, which is great. But the hardest thing for me to do was to describe what Fukuburger was. He told me to explain it in one sentence, this was difficult for me because it’s hard to describe your art and concept to other people.
I kept going back to the drawing board to create the perfect one sentence explaining what exactly Fukuburger is. So when I presented my concept, a man from the Small Business Association said, he didn’t understand what Japanese burgers were and what people really wanted were American burgers. But because of this riveting feedback, I realized that this guy simply did not get it, and someday I would be able to tell this story.
He just didn’t understand the fact that in Asian households you would have a specific cabinet for particular spices. Eventually, these Asian spices would see their way into traditional foods like pizza, chicken, steak, and more. I would show my burger creations to friends and they would try to convince me to create these Japanese burgers in a restaurant. But when I tried to explain the concept, many would think I was making Japanese food into burgers like squid or Kobe steak. So the phrase all-American burgers with a Japanese twist truly explains what Fukuburger is without any confusion.
What does the name ‘Fukuburger’ translate to?
My last name is Fukunaga and growing up in Washington suburbia, this last name completely stood out. When I was a young kid it was hard to fit in but as I grew up I realized how special my last name truly was. Fuku is everywhere, it’s ambiguous. If you go to Japan or Chinatown, the red lanterns are Fuku lanterns- Fuku also has a common definition in many languages and translates to luck. Luck Burger. Also, it looks like a double entendre. We have a lot of first-timers that come in because they think our name is ‘Fuck-You Burger’ but hey, it got them through the door therefore it works.
Fukuburger is known as a food truck - why did you decide to start as a food truck vs. a brick-and-mortar location?
The food truck wave started because of the financial crisis in 2008, it was almost the perfect storm, to be honest. Many chefs didn’t have the capital to start a new restaurant so they started looking into trucks as a safer option. If things didn’t work out then you would be able to sell your truck and get your money back. As opposed to a lease where you would have to make an even greater investment.
But also, the trend of social media came at a perfect time. Twitter offered a marketing tactic that would allow you to reach your guest without going through traditional channels. This was direct to consumers which gave us the opportunity to bring Fukuburger to different areas. Because of social media, I think it allowed the food truck to succeed quickly in comparison to a traditional brick and mortar. For me, it was an accidental opportunity but everything worked out.
When finding locations (during the time of the food truck) was there a specific strategy?
My background was initially in Summerlin, so a lot of people thought I would launch there. But I knew that the concept wouldn’t catch on, so I wanted to be closer to my former brethren at the strip. I knew that foodies and the industry people would have a better understanding of Fukuburger. I wanted to be close to the strip but also reach a wide range of demographics. It only made sense that we tried Chinatown. So in 2008, we launched in Chinatown and parked in different lots.
What does 8 till 8 mean for Fukuburger?
So pretty much we started at 8 PM so normal businesses could catch us for a later dinner but then we would stay up until 4-5 AM. We would sweep up the first cuts of restaurants and clubs and eventually, the closers of the industry people would make their way over. With the late-night lifestyle, we would be up until the earliest of mornings. That was implemented during our first year and we became pretty successful through that method.
When did you decide to expand the food truck into a restaurant?
During the second year of the food truck, I decided to open up my first location in Los Angeles. It lasted for a year and a half- it was a little before its time in California and partnerships are pretty tricky. So pretty much it took me a couple of tries to finally find something that would stick. So I decided to go back to what worked, and it was Chinatown. Some folks that I knew, owned a lease in the Jones area and asked me to take it over and it made me realize that if I started here (in Chinatown) then I would probably already have 10 locations. The different demographics in this neighborhood helped us gain momentum eventually allowing us to create the location in the suburbs on Buffalo and Warm springs.
What would you say is your number one selling item?
That’s funny you ask this, initially, I wanted to go for the jugular with foodies. So the #2 (the Tomago) and #3 (the Budha) are the ones I would recommend to the foodies. Those two options introduce classic Asian flavorings including a runny egg, Japanese BBQ sauce, and Sapporo reduced dressing. But I also wanted to offer something that wasn’t too experimental, so the #1 is modeled off of a traditional burger but with slight Japanese hints, a great burger but nothing too crazy. Also, #6 follows close to #1, as it introduces a chicken cutlet katsu which is very popular in other cultures so I would say #1 and #6 are the safer options. But it’s all based on demographic so one option can be really popular in one area and vice versa.
How did local Las Vegas communities help Fukuburger grow?
When we started as a food truck, one thing I was able to identify was what kept bringing guests back to our spot. Out of the blue, a car community would park next to the truck. This was insane because it was such an intricate event and I soon realized how big the car community truly was in Vegas. So then I started putting together car meets and asking attendees to put our stickers on their cars but these meets would grow into something more as we realized how cool these people truly were.
They would come to the events in really awesome clothing and sneakers so we would add new events on top of what we were already doing. For example, on Fridays, we did a sneaker contest and I would put it on the Fukuburger blog for the public to vote. Then I would collect prizes from different venues like FEATURE, Suite 160 and whoever won would take the prizes. This was cool because it was engaging and helped us become more than a food venue and now a cultural experience.
Eventually, dance communities would show up after practice and I took note of that and marketed towards them and now I would have kids break dancing in front of the truck. It is so insane that you can give these groups a platform and now we are more than just burgers but a lifestyle destination as well.
What is tip jelly and how did it start?
When I quit my job, everyone at Tao (my previous job) would come and support us to the point where our tips would become larger than our sales. Because of them, I have such a deep appreciation for the industry and their support. With this great influx of tips, I would have to search for a larger jar. I ended up with the giant panda jar found at Asian stores and these contained jelly treats. We would set the jellies aside because we thought no one would want them. At some point we were accumulating so many jellies, we needed to get rid of them. So every time someone tipped us, they would receive a jelly and the cashier would yell tip jelly and the cooks would respond with the same phrase. This temporary interaction was implemented until the jellies were gone. But once they were gone, it actually caught on and completely became a part of our culture so now I have to go out and buy more of these treats.
People loved the acknowledgment, it pretty much shows the restaurant that this person is generous and people loved being involved. Because of this, we got bigger tips and customers enjoyed the jelly and attention. It’s kind of a psychological experiment I played with and it all worked out on its own. Everyone at the end gets rewarded during this small interaction.
What’s next for Fukuburger?
In the 10 year plan, which was never certain, I planned to initially start off as a food truck and then take over a second-gen restaurant and turn it into a successful spot. This second-gen spot is now the Jones location. Then eventually search for a first-gen brick and mortar and with time we were able to develop the Buffalo location- I was able to accomplish this around the 7th year. Now looking back, I am realizing how Fukuburger keeps elevating with time. And I think the opulence of the Buffalo location has drawn more attention to us. So when the Raiders reached out 2 years ago to create a restaurant in the stadium we were completely stoked. Right now we are preparing that restaurant so when the stadium is ready for its official opening, we are ready as well. But I am also planning on opening up two more restaurants within the Valley in the future- I don’t think I want to open up locations out of Vegas. I want to keep Fukuburger a local spot.
For more information on Fukuburger and its locations, you can click here to head to their website.
We’d like to thank Colin for taking the time out of his day to talk to us and give us a better understanding of the history and culture of Fukuburger. On Friday, April 2nd, we will be launching a capsule of clothing and a limited-edition meal that celebrates our long-lived relationship and signature aesthetics. Stay tuned for the FEATURE x Fukuburger collection.