If there’s anyone who understands the potential of a build-it-yourself burger, it’s The Counter California franchisees Craig Cappai and Jason Doherty.
Doherty and Cappai own two The Counter locations?one in Studio City and the other about 30 minutes away, in Pasadena. Cappai and Doherty opened the Studio City location in May 2009 and the Pasadena location only a few months later in September 2009. They first came to know the brand because they lived nearby the brand’s original location in Santa Monica, visiting the restaurant a few times a month.
“Jason and I had no restaurant management experience prior to owning our franchises with The Counter,” Cappai said. “Jason had worked in restaurants throughout college and after college, but his professional experience was in sales and pharmaceuticals, and mine was in finance and investment banking. Back in 2003, we were in positions in our corporate careers where we wanted to do something different. I was just starting my MBA at the University of Southern California at night, going through their entrepreneurial program.”
Cappai and Doherty started to research several restaurants and toyed with the idea of starting their own concept. They also sought advice from others, some of whom suggested franchising. One day, they saw an ad on a table at The Counter to franchise with the brand.
“My stepfather is in the restaurant industry and owns a chain of bakeries, and he served as a guide for us as far as what we should look for. We started talking to The Counter and signed franchise agreements for the Pasadena and Studio City locations in 2007,” Cappai said.
The Counter concept was created back in 2003 and launched in Santa Monica, California. It was the first build-your-own burger idea at the time, which gave it a competitive edge, particularly in the burger industry, Cappai noted. Indeed, this ability to customize one’s burger is what helped Cappai and Doherty decide to franchise with the brand they already loved so much.
“It was the only place where you could build it how you wanted,” Cappai said. “Customization is huge.”
Cappai noted how the brand’s customization provides options that allow customers to be healthy, but also treat themselves from time to time.
“It can be health-conscious, but you can also cheat a little,” Cappai said. “I could be healthy one time, then I would go back another time and have a fried-onion burger with bacon. It’s a great mix.”
The brand has also made waves for its look. Cappai noted the brand’s unique restaurant design and layout and how The Counter’s founder, Jeff Weinstein, wanted to create a welcoming atmosphere that would provide families with more options to eat out.
“The California locations, for example, have garage doors that are built into the restaurant,” Cappai said. “These doors can be opened and bring the outside in, which is great because, in California, the weather is always so nice. It makes you feel like you’re outside. Early on, the feel of the restaurants was more modern: very industrial with stainless steel and cool blue tones. Now, it has softened a bit. It’s a little more relaxed and warm, but it still has that progressive feel. Customers can come in with their kids and have beer and wine in a nice, hip, trendy environment.”
According to Cappai, what also sets The Counter apart from the competition is the high level of service. The people working at The Counter are what make everything else so successful. He noted that when he hires staff members, he looks to hire people from every walk of life for their personality and the diversity they bring to the table. This is more important than their previous experience in the restaurant industry.
“I’m looking to see what their personalities are like and whether they can engage with guests,” Cappai said. “We aren’t order-takers. We’re extensions of the guest and we want to make them feel part of this brand.”
To that effect, Cappai and his team like to discuss what they refer to as “encore experiences” with customers by going above and beyond to serve them.
“We have a lot of regulars who come in for just that kind of service,” Cappai said. “It’s about knowing their drinks, their orders and talking about their life and family and really getting to know them, and not in a corporate way. It’s more of a casual, California-style way. California certainly lends itself to a laid-back, relaxed atmosphere.”
Those regulars include individuals whose dietary restrictions, such as gluten allergies, are respected, and customers who have a select amount of favorite items that staff members can identify. The Counter also offers a rewards program, one that allows employees to look up customers by their phone number. This helps facilitate positive relationships with guests.
“It really says something when staff members know a customer’s phone number by heart,” Doherty said. “We have quite a few regulars and our staff members have their numbers memorized.”
The way Cappai sees it, The Counter can easily position itself for success in just about any market with the right introduction.
“Each state lends itself to whatever is unique to those cities, and that’s what’s positive about the brand,” Cappai said. “You can take The Counter concept and adapt it to relate to that city. It’s all about the execution and having the right people in place. The food speaks for itself, as it has quality and allows for customization. Those traits are universal and highly desirable in all states.”
As multi-unit franchisees, Cappai and Doherty are conscious of growth opportunities to increase their sales volumes. Cappai noted the popularity of delivery services such as DoorDash and UberEats. He and Doherty are staying on top of catering and delivery opportunities.
“We’re always looking at that,” Cappai said. “We’re trying to push our catering business right now, which is a huge upside for the brand. We are working with a couple of large and lucrative accounts at our locations. If we can expand those relationships, it will mean a lot of money for us and it also won’t cost so much labor-wise. Strong growth could come from there.”
At the same time, Cappai and Doherty are thrilled with their two restaurants and completely devoted to the success of them.
“I think what we anticipated when we signed on was to have six to 12 stores, but the way Craig and I are involved, we put a lot of our heart and soul into these two locations so that they run at an optimum,” Doherty said. “We’re focused on making these two the best they can be and understanding and fulfilling the concept.”
Prospective franchisees should note that the brand flourishes when franchisees are involved, according to Cappai and Doherty.
“My number one piece of advice would be to not be a franchisee who is 100 percent removed from your business,” Doherty said. “We have found that we have had great success with our locations with The Counter because we are present. I do feel that being a bit more involved in your location and your business is a key to success. It also helps that this brand is a fun brand. Craig and I like to be involved because we like the staff, the concept and the food. This is where we eat our meals every day.”
The startup costs for a franchise with The Counter range from $746,000 to $2,340,250. The franchise fee is $35,000. To learn more about franchising with The Counter, visit https://www.thecounterfranchise.com/.
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