Wednesday, January 24, 2007

How To Sell A Burger That Has 312,000 Options

"I started the restaurant out of a desire to do something that was different from what anybody had ever done before," says Jeff Weinstein, proprietor of the Los Angeles-based burger joint, The Counter.

And he has. At The Counter, customers can order ultra-customized burgers for about $6 to $12 apiece, starting with a choice of beef, chicken, turkey, veggie, salmon or ahi tuna. Then they can choose from 10 cheeses, 26 toppings, 17 sauces and eight types of buns.

That all adds up to an astounding 312,000 options, not to mention the several kinds of beer available.

Indeed, this unique concept has proven so appealing that it's grown from a stand-alone shop to a soon-to-be national franchise in the space of just a few years.

Thanks to a fast-growing following, the Counter broke even and began posting a profit just three months after opening in Santa Monica in December 2003.

"We believe we're the first to do the premium burger, and we're the best at it," said Weinstein, the 31-year-old founder.

In July 2005, GQ magazine ranked The Counter at No. 15 in its list of "20 Hamburgers You Must Eat Before You Die." But things didn't explode until Oprah Winfrey's best friend, Gayle King, sampled every all-beef patty on GQ's list for an episode of the "Oprah Winfrey" show.

After the show aired this past February, sales soared to $245,000 a month, up from the $44,000 a month it grossed when it opened in 2003.

Soon Weinstein's success attracted the attention of Lou Gurnick, who had worked on the initial development of franchises like Midas Muffler, Domino's Pizza and Orange Julius.

"I was so focused on getting The Counter successful that I wasn't thinking about duplicating it," said Weinstein. "It wasn't until after I saw the response that it was evident I could expand."

Gurnick helped pave the way for Weinstein's partnership with Flavor Firm, a Los Angeles-based franchiser, earlier this year.

With a modern industrial setting and contemporary tunes, "the concept lends itself to be ever evolving," Weinstein said. "Some other concepts, like Fuddruckers, are stuck in the 50s era and they don't ever evolve."

Weinstein, who is a graduate of the Johnson & Wales University College of Culinary Arts, didn't know much about what it takes to take a business nationally, so he was eager to partner up with a more experienced team. "It made sense for me to piggyback on their structure."

Since launching The Counter's franchising program, the development rights have been sold to 60 restaurants, which are scheduled to open throughout California over the next three years.

Four to five restaurants are expected to open in 2006, followed by 12 to 15 in 2007 and between 20 and 25 locations in 2008.

Long-range projections call for 400 to 600 restaurants across the country.

Weinstein is also contemplating opening another spot himself in Las Vegas.

"When I started The Counter, I just had thoughts of making enough money to support my wife and me," Weinstein said. But now, "watching the growth is the best part - seeing people who believe in it and are willing to back it."

The Wizard of Ads: Turning Words into Magic and Dreamers into Millionaires