Counter Culture

Counter Culture

YOUTHFUL VIBE: Designed for 20- and 30-somethings, The Counter has found fans in all age groups.

BURGER BARON: Weinstein's build-your-own strategy has paid off.

D-I-Y MENU: Guests can truly have it their way.

Jeff Weinstein says he never expected to get into franchising when he opened The Counter. But a little article in GQ Magazine changed all that. The piece, which appeared about 18 months after Weinstein had opened his contemporary burger joint in a Santa Monica shopping strip, pegged The Counter's build-your-own burger at number 15 on a list of "20 Hamburgers You Must Eat Before You Die." The clincher, though, was a spot on "Oprah" in which Winfrey's best friend sampled every all-beef patty on the GQ list. The impact was instant.

Barely two years after opening for business, the 70-seat eatery saw sales explode from $44,000 during its first month in business to $245,000 a month post-Oprah. Even before all the hoopla, thanks to a glowing review in the Los Angeles Times and positive buzz on the street, potential investors were buttonholing Weinstein, asking how they could get in on the action. With the help of franchising guru Lou Gurnick, who helped provide the connections he needed, within a few months he was looking at 60 signed development agreements in California alone.

Detour from the Fast Lane
Weinstein's idea for The Counter grew out of his experience running exclusive restaurants and a tony bar/nightclub. Fresh out of Johnson & Wales, hoping to eventually own a restaurant, he moved to Los Angeles in 1998 and worked under David Reiss, managing Red, Club Sugar and The Brig. In 2001, he teamed up with two partners to launch Firefly in Studio City. Firefly was known for its Country French menu, hip atmosphere and ultracool clientele. Guests had to be a regular, or know somebody, or have the right look, just to get past the front door. One of the most popular dishes, oddly enough, was a gourmet made-to-order burger that was available by request only.

Weary of late night hours and the hipster scene, and about to be married, Weinstein mulled the idea of upending Firefly's business model: Instead of catering to the select few, what about a restaurant that welcomed all, and serve something they all wanted? "You've got all this demand for a product, but you're only willing to give it to some people. Why not do something everybody can relate to...that everybody has experience with?" He wanted to try a relaxed, casual neighborhood place and he decided to focus on doing one thing well: a really great burger.

In February 2003, Weinstein sold his interest in Firefly. He turned around and sank it all into The Counter, which opened later that year about 10 blocks from his home.

The restaurant features some elements of Weinstein's hipster days, such as an industrial-influenced dècor and modern music. Friendly, youthful service. The star of the menu, a hodgepodge of classic American comfort foods, is a build-your-own burger with a dizzying number of variations and gourmet components. Shakes, malts, premium beers and a wine list are offered, along with a brief kids' menu.

Originally, the 31-year-old Weinstein figured The Counter would appeal to folks like him: young guys with a few extra bucks who were hungry and wanted to trade up from fast food or wanted a neighborhood place where they could take a casual date. But soon after opening it was clear that target was a bit narrow. "It depends on the time of day, but we serve everyone from 4-year-olds to 95-year-olds," Weinstein observes.

Learning the Ropes
While the concept might sound conventional, The Counter was designed to rectify some of the pitfalls Weinstein saw in existing restaurants. The ordering system, for example, gives the guest total creative freedom. Servers present them with clipboard menus on which they check off exactly what they want in a burger—all told, there are 312,000 possible combinations of protein (beef, chicken, turkey, veggie burgers), portion sizes (1/3 pound to a full pound), 40-some cheeses, sauces and toppings (blue cheese to marmalade to guacamole) and buns. At first, a staffer posted near the entrance would explain the system to incoming guests; but eventually when the regulars started returning with their friends they would educate the newcomers. "Once they understood it, it turned into a strength for us," Weinstein says. "People took ownership of this restaurant. They could say, 'I made this burger.'"

So, with all those possible configurations, what is the most popular? "Whatever you like," Weinstein replies.

The interior is not the run-of-the-mill Formica-heavy decor one might expect. Weinstein borrowed from his nightclub experience to create a hipper feel. "I wanted to bring the design and vibe of those places into a mood that was accepting of everybody," he explains. He describes the look as "industrial loft" with some nostalgic nods, such as globe lamps. The bar is made of Caesar stone, a pressed quartz product and the booths are covered in Italian naugahyde instead of some generic fabric, Lighting changes throughout the day to create different moods and the initial location was equipped with giant garage doors that let in light and can be opened for fresh air. Future locations will have outdoor seating and typically run 2,500-3,000 square feet with seating for just over 107 guests at tables and a counter.

That design, intended to appeal to a younger audience, is a key factor separating Weinstein from the competition. So is the food quality. The proteins are natural, farm-raised, hormone free and certified humane; veggie burgers are house-made, not frozen. Nearly everything is made from scratch.

The servers' attitude is another point of difference. "We hire people based on personality, and we expect it will carry through to the customers," Weinstein says. He seeks youthful staffers with a positive attitude and a belief in the product. The restaurant's personality, or "counter culture," as he calls it, encourages loud music and low-slung jeans. The training program, which now involves five or six days of training for servers, is evolving as the system expands.

Where from Here?
Weinstein's plans for cloning The Counter are still evolving, but he seems to have the basics covered. He teamed up with Craig Albert to help set up the franchising structure and make deals. He's seeking licensees who can commit to at least three units, and he expects most agreements to be for up to 10 stores. The company will provide franchisees site selection, lease negotiation, construction, marketing and ongoing support.

To keep the product consistent, owners and managers will go through a six-week training program at the home office in Los Angeles and the original Santa Monica location, followed up by field reps who will visit each store several times a month to ensure quality. Eventually he would like to set up a central commissary that will produce sauces and other items.

He has never spent money advertising The Counter, and there are no plans to change that. For this concept, he thinks guerrilla marketing makes more sense. At the first location, he distributed flyers in the neighborhood. For a store opening in Palo Alto, for instance, the company ordered bibs to tie around the many statues on campus at Stanford University. The message on the bibs: "I'm not moving until I've had a burger." Mainly, he's counting on continued positive buzz to push business.

Eventually, Weinstein envisions a system of 400-600 Counters in major markets. His initial sights are set on New York, Florida, Arizona and Nevada. He admits the exposure on Oprah "has been huge for us...it put us on the map." But he's also a believer in the path he has chosen. "We are going to be the best out there and the industry leader in this segment," Weinstein says. "There are not a lot of players in the premium-burger segment."

On the Menu

Counter Burger
Fresh ground beef, provolone, lettuce, tomato, fried onion, sautèed mushrooms, sun-dried tomato vinaigrette
$8.50

Grilled Cheese Trifecta
Cheddar, American and provolone cheese
$4.75

Fried dill pickle chips
$3

Caramel and chocolate brownie
$3.75


Will It Fly?

Darren Tristano, executive vice president with Technomic, Inc., says The Counter's philosophy of do-it-yourself burger building lines up nicely with current consumer trends. "The whole customization factor is really important; people do want to have it their way," he says. He also thinks the company will continue to get some mileage out of the media attention the first restaurant has attracted. Tristano also agrees with The Counter founder Jeff Weinstein's contention that there isn't really one dominant player in the casual burger niche—although that is potentially a two-edged sword, since it may mean that the demand is not there.

Despite 60 development agreements, he's taking a waitandsee attitude toward this new concept achieving its goal of 400-600 units. He points out that often development agreements don't pan out, either because of financing or support issues. "It just doesn't always happen as quickly as most people say it's going to," he says.

JUST THE FACTS

NAME: The Counter WEBSITE: thecounterburger.com [4] CONCEPT: Casual premium hamburger joint with a modern vibe LOCATIONS: 1 in Santa Monica, CA; 4-5 opening in 2006 EXPANSION PLANS: 60 in California over next three years, 400-600 in major U.S. markets, mainly through franchising CHECK AVERAGE: $10-$11 lunch, $13 dinner FOOD COST: 28 percent ANNUAL SALES: $2.4 million MANAGEMENT: Jeff Weinstein, founder/partner; Craig Albert, partner/franchise sales; Richard Demarco, COO; Ken Brown, corporate executive chef