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At the Counter chain, burgers get the personal touch

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Jeffrey Weinstein once swept through 19 Denver restaurants in six hours, a feat that most people would characterize as gluttony.

Weinstein calls it research.

Eating out is more than a hobby for the founder and co-chief executive of the Counter, a growing Culver City chain of build-your-own-burger eateries. In its 10 years, the company has been mentioned on “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” adored by reviewers and touted as one of the forefathers of the so-called better burger craze.

Weinstein, a culinary school grad, spends his time at the helm reading cookbooks, determining whether his Midwest menus are ready for spicy Sriracha sauce (yes) and, occasionally, scoping out competing eateries.

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And he’s not alone. He said he catches spies from other eateries doing the same “all the time” at the Counter, some even wearing shirts with their employers’ logo.

“At least try to be incognito,” he scoffed.

Any undercover agents were well disguised during a recent lunch with Weinstein, 37, at the Counter’s downtown Los Angeles outpost.

Motown tunes and rock music throbbed as patrons crowded at the bar, the high tables and the maroon booths. As in all 38 restaurants worldwide, diners created customized burgers by marking off ingredients — including dozens of toppings — on a long checklist.

Weinstein, in a checkered shirt and dark jeans, his ever-present iPhone on the table, dished about his favorite Counter treat: two-thirds of a pound of medium-rare beef with smoked bacon, fried egg, jalapenos, roasted garlic aioli and cheddar cheese atop a toasted English muffin.

Weinstein said his privately owned burger business is dedicated to the “everyman.” Case in point: the three firefighters that Weinstein’s co-CEO, Craig Albert, once saw chowing down on Counter burgers — next to actor Harrison Ford.

The burgers accommodate a customer base that is increasingly diverse, well-traveled and particular about food, Weinstein said. By giving patrons control over their meals, the Counter can whip up healthful options for the body-conscious, gluten-free versions for the allergy-prone and decadent displays for the self-indulgent.

“This is the Me Generation, with their personalized phones and apps,” Weinstein said. “Their food should be the same way, so they can come in a few times a week and not get bored.”

Weinstein said he’s wary of “growth for growth’s sake.” He said the Counter avoided same-store sales declines by being careful about expansion. He and Albert own just four Counter locations and franchise out the rest.

Weinstein’s vision for the Counter initially involved as many as 600 units nationwide before he scaled back projections to roughly 250 locations, with as many as 15 openings in 2013.

The company survived the recession with flat comparable sales and is now profitable enough to internally finance future build-outs, he said.

One such initiative: the birth of the Counter’s so-called baby brother, a new chain called Built designed for college kids, travelers and other on-the-go guests.

The burgers there are smaller, less expensive and made to order on an assembly line like the burritos at Chipotle Mexican Grill. Instead of the Counter’s standard 3,000-square-foot store size, each Built location will be about 1,750 square feet, allowing it to fit inside airports and university campuses.

The concept, which opened last month near USC, is the Counter’s answer to the burgeoning fast-casual industry, which includes rapidly growing brands such as Chipotle and Panera Bread.

Weinstein worries about not only competitors but also larger forces such as looming healthcare reforms, proposed food labeling regulations and rising commodity prices.

The original Counter burger cost $6.50. Inflation and price increases have since pushed it to $9 or more.

“We don’t want to gouge anyone,” he said. “But prices may have to go up — it’s a reality of our business, and we’re not going to be the only ones doing it.”

Weinstein enjoys his job but doesn’t find it glamorous. Fewer than two dozen people work at the company’s headquarters. Albert, a lawyer by trade, handles most of the franchising and growth strategy while Weinstein heads up menu innovation and branding efforts. Weinstein’s business card doesn’t mention that he’s the Counter’s co-CEO.

“We run like we’re a small business,” he said. “Though as we’re growing, it’s harder to make changes, to zig and zag.”

Another contributor to Weinstein’s change in pace: his 4-year-old daughter and twin 1-year-old sons. He swears it’s just a coincidence that the Counter recently put baby-changing stations in the bathrooms.

Otherwise, the chain — which serves alcohol — isn’t especially family focused. Customers have asked for an expanded children’s menu with chicken nuggets and hot dogs, but Weinstein declines, quoting the theory that pizza doesn’t belong in a Chinese restaurant.

Weinstein grew up around Jewish food but came to love classic American cuisine growing up in suburban Washington, D.C., when his grandmother took him to the Hamburger Hamlet for mini-burgers.

He had summer jobs as dishwasher and busboy at restaurants starting at age 12 — “obviously underage,” he said.

He pursued a criminal justice degree at the University of Maryland but was “asked nicely to leave” after what he’ll describe only as high jinks and poor grades.

Eventually, he earned degrees in culinary arts and food service management at Johnson & Wales University in Rhode Island, and he relocated to California in 1998. There, he helped launch a series of bars and eateries, including the Brig in Venice, Firefly in Studio City and Freddy Smalls in West L.A.

Soon, Weinstein began thinking about burgers. He accuses the “Big 3” — McDonald’s, Burger King and Wendy’s — of “commoditizing the burger, turning it into a snack.” Other chains, he said, were “stuck in nostalgia, doo-wop and the bow-tie era — not relevant to new generations anymore.”

With the Counter, he set out to “modernize the burger joint.”

“We need to take it back, as opposed to being the lowest common denominator, the cheapest competitor in town,” Weinstein said.

In 2002, he pushed back his honeymoon to prep the first outpost in Santa Monica, 10 blocks from where he was living at the time.

“My whole life was on the line,” he said.

A decade later, burger aficionados are lumping the Counter into a category dubbed “better burgers” — which involves fresher ingredients and more careful preparation than chains that take after the Golden Arches.

Brands such as In-N-Out, Smashburger and Five Guys Burgers & Fries are popular examples.

But Weinstein, whose burgers use beef without hormones or antibiotics, contests the comparison.

“We opened long before there even was a better-burger category,” he said. “Anyone coming to the burger game now is a little late.”

tiffany.hsu@latimes.com


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