Everywhere, restaurant owners are singing the blues. High gas prices and a sour economy are keeping diners home, and business has suffered as a result. But none of it seems to be hurting The Counter, the hipster burger joint that's been packing them in on Ocean Park Boulevard in Santa Monica for the past three years. Frankly, I still don't get it - jotting down the toppings you want on a pad (there are 300,000 possible combinations, but does anyone ever choose dried cranberries?), and then waiting in line to place your order, and then waiting some more to get an open table, and then waiting quite a while longer before the adorned burger finally arrives. It's a very good burger, but waaay more trouble than it's worth.
Anyway, that's me - and obviously I'm in the minority. The place has gotten enormous coverage - mentioned on Oprah, ranked 15th in GQ's list of "20 Hamburgers You Must Eat Before You Die," blah, blah, blah. Astoundingly, the place turned a profit in its first three months. Now, owner Jeff Weinstein and franchise guru Lou Gurnick are taking The Counter on the road. The plan calls for 60 restaurants over the next three years in California (a Palo Alto location opens at the end of the month). Nationwide, they're looking at 400-600 Counters, which is an awful lot and naturally raises the question of whether a successful local concept has legs in the franchise world.