Monday, June 8, 2009

Interview with "The Counter" founder: Jeff Weinstein

i don't get to go to the Counter as much as i'd like b/c the closest one to me in Santa Monica is a bit of a hike. looking forward to this expansion and a location closer to me in the silverlake area of LA (heard rumors there might be one in Studio City, but i'll have to check)... also was surprised to find out that the founder is a "homeboy" of sorts, from DC like me... another reason for me to like this guy... wonder if he's a redskins fan? : )

note: i would like to properly attribute this piece to the "BurgerBusiness" website/blog. Another good article from a few years back, i think, on the business and its expansion plans can be found here.

The Counter’s Founder Wants More Locations, More Bun Choices

Originally Posted: 04 Jun 2009 10:31 AM PDT

Jeff Weinsteinthecounterburger2Jeff Weinstein opened the first The Counter burger restaurant in Santa Monica, Calif., in 2003. Now there are 21 locations, including 11 in California and single outposts in Ireland and Australia. The concept remains a celebration of customization: Diners can choose from among three sizes of burger (starting at $8.50 at most units), 10 cheeses, 28 other toppings, 18 sauces and three buns. It claims to offer 312,120 possible burger builds. The restaurants serve alcoholic beverages as well as shakes, floats and sodas.
Weinstein (shown), a Johnson & Wales culinary-arts graduate who serves as the chain’s co-CEO (with Craig Albert), was kind enough to enlighten about the concept’s growth and–oh, yes–to answer the “10 Burger Questions.”

countersdYou describe the concept as a 21st century answer to the classic burger joint. What’s new about The Counter?
Yeah, we’re all about the oldest menu item in the restaurant business, in the oldest segment. But we were able to find some innovation by putting the power of choice back in customers’ hands. I consider this the “Me Generation” with Facebook, MySpace, custom ringtones and what not. Everybody’s about themselves and what makes them special, and I think our concept speaks to that.

But were there elements of the classic burger joint you wanted to keep?
Sure. I think part of what made the classic burger joint classic was that it was this neighborhood place. With our first location, we made a concerted effort to be part of that neighborhood. There are throwbacks in the design and certainly in the attitude of our staff. It’s not “Hi, my name is Jenny. Can I tell you about our specials?” It’s about personality and we encourage our staff and our food to have that.

Your food has, what, 312,000+ different personalities, doesn’t it?
The original was 312,120 but we’ve added different cheese and sauces and so on. We were contacted recently by a teacher in Chicago who didn’t think the number was [high enough] and made it her class’s assignment to figure out what the right number would be. And we also were contacted by a math professor in Boston who said “Your number’s wrong.” We don’t even have a restaurant in Boston. But people take to this; they take ownership.

Did you have people telling you The Counter concept was too complicated?
There was some of that. We had people who said “This is like taking an SAT test.” That’s why we have the signature burgers on the menu. There are standard beef, chicken, turkey and veggie burgers, so if it’s overwhelming to you, then you can go with those.

But I have to ask: Only three bun choices? Isn’t ciabatta legally mandatory now?
You know, we started with the three choices and have stayed with them. But I agree with you. Now that we’ve spread out nationally and internationally, we’re investigating new options. We want to get a pretzel bun, a jalapeño bun, an onion roll.

You must get suggestions and requests from customers all the time.
Sure. People say, why don’t you offer this or that, and a lot of our research is done through responses to our Burger of the Month and the Shake of the Month. We just started a promotion in our store in El Segundo, Calif., called Mix It Up. It’s four mini beers and four mini burgers paired together. It goes from 4 p.m. to the end of the evening. We bring a DJ in at 8 p.m. You try to stay fresh, to keep current with what people want.

Who gets to pick the Burger of the Month?
We have a culinary team who are constantly trying new things. But we say this is a limited democracy so at the end of the day generally I’m making the choice about stuff like that.

The Counter is your baby, but you moved into franchising early on. Was it difficult to cede some control of the brand?
We really wanted to stay in California at first, but when the right partners approach you, who have experience, a passion for the brand, are philosophically aligned with your culture and who have been successful, it’s hard to pass that up. They’re out there looking for something. We wanted to be in partnership with those people because we believed they could execute the brand at a high level.
The challenge is to make sure that [corporate-culture] pixie dust gets sprinkled on all the restaurants. We spend a lot of time during training on that culture piece and our core values.
But it’s also about how not to become the next Brinker brand [like Chili's], you know? No offense to Brinker, but we don’t want to be a [multibrand] culture like that. We want to be rooted in the communities and setting the trends, not following them.

How do you do that?
I think we’ve learned to be more nimble than the 6,000 or 8,000-square-foot restaurants. The straddling of fast casual and casual dining that we do makes us more nimble. I’m not seeing, at our price point, too many customers going away because of the economy. Morton’s and Ruth’s Chris may be taking an ass whipping, but we can be an affordable luxury. People are still going out. They will spend $13 or $14 to have a great experience. They just don’t want to spend $35 any more.

Are you ready to tackle the 10 Burger Questions?
You bet.

1) On a scale of 1 to 10, how much do you like burgers?
I’m an 11. I grew up in the Washington, D.C., area and my grandmother would take me to Hamburger Hamlet, which is part of what inspired me; the mini burgers they would do and zucchini circles. Our fried pickles are partly inspired by their zucchini circles.

2) Flame grill or flat-top? Which cooks a better burger?
I’m going to go flame grill with the caveat that it needs to be executed correctly. Sometimes I have a flame-grilled burger and I can tell the chef’s not good at it, but generally I enjoy the char. I think you can do a better job controlling the internal temperature on a flame grill. I’m a medium-rare guy, but I love a good char with medium-rare inside.

3) What’s the highest price a restaurant should charge for a burger?
I guess I don’t think that, because of the popularity of burgers now, and of premium burgers especially, that restaurants should be gouging customers. That price/value relationship needs to be right. So, our burger at $8.50 is an unbelievably value; but at the same time, In-N-Out’s at $4 is a great burger, too. It’s about the sum of the parts: the atmosphere, the music, the waitstaff, the environment and the quality of the ingredients going on the burger. I’ll pay anything if the price/value relationship is right.

4) Your favorite burger topping?
My favorite lately has been a Gruyère burger with our honey-cured bacon and a fried egg cooked over medium. With garlic aïoli on an English muffin, man, it’s so good.

5) What should never be on a burger?
I don’t know, to be honest. I don’t think candy should ever be on a burger, but how bizarre would that be anyway?

6) Your favorite non-beef burger?
In October every year we do a lamb burger with feta cheese and tzatziki sauce, like a gyros burger. That’s probably my favorite.

7) What’s your favorite burger beverage?
I’m a beer guy. Give me a draft Stella Artois, my burger and let’s call it a day.

8) What’s the best restaurant burger you’ve had, other than your own?
Back in the day, it was Hamburger Hamlet. It’s not the same [now] as it was, but it was a great burger.

9) What’s the best under-appreciated restaurant?
I think among national restaurants it’s probably Houston’s. They do an incredible, consistent job. They execute at such a high and consistent level. I know what I’m getting every time, the vibe is always good and their burgers are good too.

10) Finally, if you weren’t a restaurateur, what would you want to be?
A food critic.

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