Obviously, a burger from a ramshackle, kitschy little indie burger shack is going to kick the ass of one from a chain. Chains are evil; the little guys are doing things right. Right?In September, the Counter (4609 14th Ave NW, 706-0311), a Southern California–based "modern burger joint," opened in the new Ballard Blocks development. The 6-year-old chain has 25 locations throughout the United States, as well as two in Australia and Ireland. The Counter's concept: review mammoth menu and customize your heart attack from (no joking) over 312,120 possible combinations, or (simpler) choose a signature one. The kitchen then makes your burger to order. It's the same idea as popular, critically acclaimed, independently owned Lunchbox Laboratory (7302 15th Ave NW, 706-3092), one and a half miles away.
The Counter's website is undeniably irritating: Customers are "empowered" by their ability to stuff themselves with a gazillion burger combos; the "matrix" of choices gives the customer the "ultimate freedom of choice." But your knee-jerk initial response might be subject to change.
The remarkably human director of marketing for the Counter, Brian Berman, says each franchise is locally owned and operated. "We try to source locally for certain ingredients if they meet our standards. We want franchises to adapt to fit the community." The Counter uses organic produce when possible and does seasonal, too, like Ballard's halibut burgers. The beef and poultry is hormone-, antibiotic-, filler-, and additive-free; the beef comes from Meyer Ranch in Montana. Each batch of USDA prime chuck beef is ground to its specifications, delivered fresh three to four times a week, and origin verified (read: traceable in case of E. coli, etc.). The beef is vegetarian-fed (i.e., mad-cow free). Yes, Meyer Ranch finishes its cattle in a feedlot on corn, which ecologically is a fossil fuel–burning, chemical fertilizer–utilizing nightmare—but the feedlot is certified humane. At a certain point, you have to pick your battles: Meeting demand with consistent product is tough for chains (as well as high-volume independent restaurants), and 100 percent grass-finished beef isn't always regionally available. And regardless of what the Counter isn't doing, it represents a quantum leap in operational, environmental, and agricultural ethics for a midrange, multi-unit burger establishment.
The Ballard franchise is owned and operated by Drew Reed and his wife, Michelle. They live in Seattle. Reed recognized the risks of opening near Lunchbox Laboratory: "It was like, great, a 'big box' place coming in, but we're not that. We're local owners, and our dollars are on the line. I do everything from management to cooking and washing dishes. We're in a LEED-certified building and fortunate to be able to compost and recycle... the reception from the community has been great."
The space is spotless without feeling sterile, with attractive if familiar industrial modern decor. There's sustainable wood, recycled-content Staron tables, Energy Star–rated kitchen equipment. (The company plans to eventually achieve LEED certification for every franchise. Berman says, "We're pushing to leave a smaller footprint in every market we open.") Reed features only local, handcrafted beer on tap, a selection of Washington wines, a full bar, and handmade shakes. Service is friendly and efficient, and while it's easy to go overboard on the toppings, healthy options include turkey and housemade veggie burgers. Carb-phobes can have a Burger in a Bowl. It's $8.25 for a one-third-pound turkey or beef burger with one cheese, four toppings, and a sauce; $13.25 for a one-pound monster. My Counter beef burger with grilled onions, jalapeño jack, and avocado was quite good. It needed a touch more seasoning, but was plump, the toppings fresh.
You don't have to eat at the Counter, but it's hard to argue with the company's overall philosophy. For a chain, it's goddamned enlightened.
Detractors attack indie champ Lunchbox Laboratory for its high prices. However, considering costs, 12 bucks for a third-pound, organic, grass-finished, house-ground, prime-rib/sirloin/rib-eye blend, pan-seared cheese- burger is pretty awesome. But is everything there worth it? Owner Scott Simpson wouldn't reveal his proprietary beef sources—"The Counter had their people coming in here every day, being so obvious about [wanting to know] where we sourced our meat," he says—but he guarantees it's all from Washington. Out-of-state suppliers include heritage pork from Snake River Farms and antibiotic-free duck from Maple Leaf Farms. His lamb is conventional, from "a source in Colorado." The chicken is "standard chicken." And the turkey is Butterball.
Simpson doesn't bill Lunchbox Lab as a temple for local, sustainable gastronomy, but charging premium prices for shitty industrial poultry is a tad at odds with the emphasis on ecologically sound, hormone- and-antibiotic-free beef—not to mention in complete defiance of customers' assumptions. Recollect: The Counter's turkey burger costs $8.25. (The comparable Lunchbox Lab turkey burger is $12.) It is free of antibiotics and additives. It is not Butterball.
When Simpson heard that the Counter was opening, "I was scared outta my skin, but now I know there's room for us both. A few of my friends like it better because it's bigger, so it's comfortable taking their kids there. Besides, people should try out different options—you never know what one place may have that you like better." Like, maybe, the turkey burger.
Simpson can apparently afford to be magnanimous. He says his investors are "at this moment" in negotiations for a move to a new Ballard location, which "will be a futuristic soda fountain with more items—it'll still be full of really weird Americana, but it will be bigger and more kid-friendly." And he says he intends to open as many as five more units in Seattle and the West Coast in the next few years. Ironically, if Lunchbox Laboratory became a chain, his sourcing problems would be solved. "If I go big," he says, "I'll be able to fulfill the ordering requirements of Thundering Hooves," an organic Washington family ranch with grass-finished beef and lamb, and pasture-raised pork, chicken, and turkey.
Personally, I prefer the messy beef burger at Lunchbox Laboratory. But the ethics of big versus little, Counter versus Lab, are all over the place, too.