LOS ANGELES — 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, Calif., 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.
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, jalapeŮos, 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 the University of Southern California, 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 health care 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."