After features in GQ and on Oprah naming The Counter one of the Best 20 Burgers of All Time, demand soars for locations nationwide.

Jeff Weinstein’s original premise for The Counter was simple. He wanted to create a laid-back, family-friendly hamburger joint, but with a modern look and ambiance. He wanted it to be close to his home in Santa Monica, Calif., the kind of place where he and his wife, Kelly, could go for a casual lunch or dinner.

Weinstein accomplished his objective in December 2003 with the opening of The Counter in Santa Monica – the 21st century’s bold answer to the classic burger joint with its industrial décor, today’s music and most importantly, more than 312,000 premium burger options, each more creative than the other.

The Counter opened about 10 blocks from the couple’s home. Mission accomplished on all ends it would seem. The story could have ended there and been nicely wrapped with a red ribbon.

But in July 2005, GQ magazine columnist Alan Richman travelled across the country sampling 162 burgers in search of the “20 Hamburgers You Must Eat Before You Die.” The Counter – not even two years old – was ranked No. 15.

The mention in GQ followed a glowing review by venerable Los Angeles Times restaurant critic S. Irene Virbila less than six months after The Counter had opened. How much better could things get? Well, when Weinstein saw Oprah Winfrey’s best friend, Gayle King, dining at The Counter, his heart should have been beating through his shirt. But it wasn’t.

“We just thought she was there for a burger,” Weinstein recalled. King was there for a burger no doubt, but she was also there to feature The Counter as part of a February 2006 “Oprah Winfrey” show in which King sampled every all-beef patty on Richman’s GQ list. A favourable mention on the “Oprah” show is worth, well….

Boom! The Counter had monthly sales of $44,000 when it opened in December 2003. Ever increasing, they soared to $245,000 after The Counter was featured on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” and the buzz continues to grow louder.

“To this day, I still haven’t spent one dollar on advertising, but it was nice to see that people have responded to what I created and built and what we as a team have continued to build,” said Weinstein, the 31-year-old founder of The Counter, where customers can build their own beef, chicken, turkey, veggie, salmon or ahi tuna burger with a list of mouth-watering ingredients that includes 10 cheeses, 26 toppings, 17 unique sauces and eight types of buns.

Now, The Counter is poised to spread its wings in a big way from the Santa Monica strip shopping centre where the original began. In early 2006, The Counter launched its franchising program in conjunction with Flavour Firm, a Los Angeles-based franchisor that specializes in developing unique franchise restaurant concepts.

The development rights have been sold to 60 restaurants scheduled to open throughout California over the next three years. National growth is also on the docket, with Florida, New York, Arizona and Nevada expected to be the initial growth areas outside of The Counter’s home state of California. Four to five restaurants are expected to open in 2006, followed by 12 to 15 in 2007 and increasing to between 20 and 25 locations in 2008. Long-range projections call for 400 to 600 U.S. locations.

The Counter is a bold, innovative, upscale entry into the fast-casual food segment, one of the restaurant industry’s strongest growth areas with sales expected to exceed $70 billion in 2006, according to industry publication Fast Casual magazine.

“We are going to be the best out there and the industry leader in this segment,” said Weinstein. “There are not a lot of players in the premium-burger segment. The idea behind The Counter is to serve great food at a fair price.”

That Weinstein has taken The Counter to where it’s at today should come as no surprise. A native of the Washington, D.C., area, Weinstein and his family spent summers in Atlantic City, where Weinstein worked as a barback and busboy at the Flying Cloud Café when he was only 13. When Weinstein’s older sister, Julie, had her friends over, Jeff provided the munchies – not chips and pretzels – but fresh-cut French fries and hand-rolled mozzarella sticks.

Weinstein went on to graduate from Johnson & Wales University College of Culinary Arts in Providence, R.I., with a bachelor’s degree in Food Service Management in 1998. “A restaurant ownership role was what I had my sights set on,” Weinstein said.

Heading west to Los Angeles, Weinstein worked under highly successful restaurateur David Reiss, managing three of his successful restaurant ventures including Red, Club Sugar and The Brig. In 2001, Weinstein joined with two partners to open Firefly in Studio City, Calif., which quickly became one of the premier bar/nightclubs in Los Angeles, recognized not only for its nouveau Country French cuisine, but also for its hip atmosphere and ultra-cool clientele.

Firefly wasn’t for everyone. You either had to be a regular, or you had to know someone or have the “right” look just to get in the door. It was that kind of place. Hoity toity would be an accurate description. And in keeping with its air of exclusivity, Firefly featured a great-tasting gourmet hamburger that wasn’t even listed on the menu. It was immensely popular, but customers always wanted it crafted to their own liking with their favourite toppings and sauces.

That’s when the wheels started turning for Weinstein. Although, Firefly was prospering, Weinstein was tiring of working until 4 a.m. He was eating burgers four to five times a week and believed there were only three major food groups: burgers, pizza and Chinese takeout. So why not serve a great burger in a family-friendly setting, with modern, cutting-edge décor, along with beer and wine all delivered in great customer experience?

“Firefly appealed to 100 percent of the population. Seventy-percent of the population could afford it, but we were only willing to let 30 percent of those people in the door because we had that hipster/scenester thing going on. What an ineffective business model,” Weinstein recalled.

“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? The beauty of The Counter concept was that everybody would be able to build their burger their own way. I had done the hipster thing, but now I was going to go into a neighbourhood and draw customers from business parks and surrounding neighbourhoods. I had to adjust how I thought and the way I was used to treating people to create an environment that worked for everybody and was friendly to everyone.”

Weinstein sold his interest in Firefly in February 2003 and opened The Counter 10 months later. After the early success of The Counter, Weinstein attracted the attention of Lou Gurnick, known as the “Grandfather of the Franchising Industry.” Gurnick was a personal assistant to McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc and worked in the initial development of such franchising giants as Midas Muffler, Domino’s Pizza and Orange Julius. Gurnick helped pave the way for Weinstein’s partnership with Flavour Firm and the launching of its franchising program.

The Counter’s franchising growth will come exclusively from multi-unit development, with franchisees operating a minimum of three locations within exclusive territories. Most agreements are expected to be for three to five units.

“When I started The Counter, I just had thoughts of making enough money to support my wife and me,” Weinstein said. “Consciously or subconsciously, I built the restaurant for duplication and luckily we have been able to franchise the concept. Watching what has happened is just incredible to me.”

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