Thinking of Buying a Fast-Casual Franchise? Read this report first.

Ones to Watch | By Lynne Miller

The Counter
Menu item from The Counter, a fast-casual restaurant brand.

As soon as they step inside The Counter, diners realize they’re not in a typical hamburger joint.

The clipboards and the contemporary décor make an immediate statement. A server greets customers at the door and explains how to place an order. Diners then fill out burger order forms, choosing from among four proteins, three sizes of burgers, 27 toppings, 17 sauces, three buns, and 10 cheese choices. Modern pendant lights, aluminum furniture, concrete floors, and exposed ductwork give the restaurant a distinct urban vibe.

When he was developing the concept for The Counter, Jeff Weinstein visited casual-dining restaurants and chatted with customers to find out what people really want from a hamburger establishment. He found out there’s a lot more to it than just a perfectly grilled patty slapped on top of a toasted bun.

“It’s more than just the food,” says Weinstein, who previously ran restaurants and bars for others. “It’s about creating an experience, giving the customer control, creating the right music, the right vibe, the right energy, all those things. That’s where the build-your-own-burger concept came from.”

The Counter’s first store opened in Santa Monica, California, in 2003. The concept caught on quickly. From the first to second year, sales jumped from $1.3 million to $2 million. Weinstein was eager to grow the business. He didn’t know a thing about franchising so he found someone who did, teaming up with Craig Albert.

Today, Weinstein and Albert are seeking franchisees to expand the business beyond the four states it currently operates in and intend to have 75 percent of the stores run by franchisees.

The Counter strives to be a cool brand. The company’s Web site treats visitors to a selection of rock and hip-hop tunes from the likes of Run DMC, Aerosmith, AC/DC, and Lenny Kravitz. The burgers, which are made using only certified-humane beef raised without hormones or antibiotics, appeal to hipsters with a conscience.

That premium beef is the top choice for burgers, but turkey, chicken, and veggie burgers are also available. Hamburger patties are shaped by hand in the restaurants. For diners watching carbohydrates, the restaurants offer a bunless “burger in a bowl” option.

Other items on the menu include fried dill pickle chips, sweet potato fries, turkey chili, and mini cheeseburgers.

Burger of the Month and Milkshake of the Month programs are used to test new products. A curried black sesame shrimp burger was recently featured. May’s Milkshake of the Month is the Churro Milkshake, made with vanilla ice cream mixed with real chunks of cinnamon sugar churros topped with whipped cream.

Desserts are big at The Counter. Permanent menu items include apple crumble, key lime pie, and chocolate chip cookies. On the beverage end, customers can choose from a selection of microbeers, handcrafted brews, wine, and specialty drinks such as a root beer martini.

The average check ranges from $12 to $13, Weinstein says. A typical unit measures 2,500 to 3,000 square feet and has a dining room that seats 70 to 80 people. Diners typically spend about 40 minutes at a table, and nearly all business comes from customers who dine in. Takeout orders generate only 10 to 20 percent of sales, Weinstein says.

“I’d rather have you in the store,” he says. “Burgers from anywhere don’t travel well.”

The hip image fostered at The Counter can also be seen in the management structure. No one at the company holds the title of president, for example.

“We don’t like to use the word corporate at all,” Weinstein says. “We try to create a family feeling.”

Finding like-minded associates who understand and appreciate the culture has been one of the most challenging aspects of his job.

The Counter
Founder/Partner: Jeff Weinstein
HQ: Culver City, California
Year Started: 2003
Annual Sales: $51 million*
Total Units: 7
Franchise Units: 7
*Estimated

“We want to make sure our employees and franchisees and vendor partners are philosophically aligned with what we’re about,” he says. “What we look for in franchisees is their connection to The Counter.”

Despite the trendy vibe of the company, Weinstein is adamant that The Counter is a simple concept. “We’re about the burger. You’ll never see fajitas or steak on the menu,” Weinstein says.

He and Albert plan to open more than 100 franchise units, including 20 to 25 restaurants scheduled to open this year. A franchisee can make about $2.8 million in sales per store, Weinstein says. Operators must agree to open at least five units to join the family. The franchise fee is $40,000, the continuing royalty fee is 6 percent of gross sales, and the promotional fund fee is 1 percent of gross sales. Franchisees also should plan to spend an additional 1 percent of sales to promote the business.