The Wahlberg name is synonymous with Hollywood and show business, and now, it’s also synonymous with food. Paul Wahlberg, older brother to actors and musicians Donnie and Mark Wahlberg, launched the burger concept Wahlburgers in 2011 in suburban Boston. In a decade’s time, the concept has grown to nearly 80 units around the country and has been the setting for a family reality television show. Wahlburgers started primarily as a fast-casual restaurant and has since transitioned to a full-service venue with a bustling bar, with Paul at the helm and Donnie and Mark offering support.
“Creating an atmosphere that’s upbeat, lively, and inviting has been a priority since the beginning,” Paul Wahlberg says. “Restaurants are supposed to be a fun place to hang out with your friends, have a great time, and enjoy amazing food and cocktails. We focus on everything from the décor to the music to the lighting. We’ve evolved into a full-service restaurant that offers more than just our signature burgers so that we can provide as many opportunities for diners as we can.”
While it started with just burgers, today the menu at Wahlburgers is varied. The restaurants offer several types of their signature hamburgers, but have also branched out with a variety of chicken and fish sandwiches, salads, and sides like chili and bacon mac and cheese. These are joined by regular and alcohol-enhanced milkshakes and a full roster of beers, wines, and specialty cocktails, many of which are named after pop culture references involving the famous Wahlberg brothers. “The bar has always been an important part of what we do,” Wahlberg says. “We’re continuously working on building our bar program with featured drinks and new signature cocktails. Having a full-service bar sets us apart from other burger-focused concepts.”
Building A Brand
Paul Wahlberg wasn’t new to the restaurant industry when he launched Wahlburgers. The chef started his career working for a catering company and cooked in several kitchens in and around Boston before branching out for his first personal restaurant project, Alma Nove, located on the waterfront in Hingham, Massachusetts. That concept, named for his mother, opened in 2010 and is still going strong. Wahlberg unveiled Wahlburgers in Hingham a year later and it’s since grown immensely. Wahlburgers now boasts 77 locations in 22 states, including Pennsylvania, California, Texas, Florida, and Illinois. In 2018, Wahlburgers entered a franchise agreement with Midwest grocer and Market Watch Leader Hy-Vee Inc. to open restaurants in markets where the retail store has a presence and that partnership has created more than 20 units. The company has recently added international locations and has more planned.
“We’re definitely a destination restaurant because of the celebrity nature of our brand, but we’re driven by quality of service, experience, and a chef-driven menu,” Wahlberg says. “‘Burgers’ is in our name, but we’re bigger than the burger. We have core menu items in all the restaurants and each location has a few unique items to accommodate local favorites and flavors.”
Wahlburgers vice president of operations, Bill Melillo, agrees that the Wahlberg name attracts some guests, but he says the quality of food and drinks keeps them coming back. “Guests gravitate to us based on the famous family that inspired the concept, but we deliver an elevated experience for a burger restaurant,” he adds. “We aren’t stuffy. You can get a great beer, cocktail, or even glass of wine to pair with your meal. Our brand is built upon three pillars—food, family, and fun, and the bar is an extension of the fun.”
The bar has grown to become an integral part of the Wahlburgers experience, both for guest satisfaction and financial profitability. The company adds new cocktails quarterly and has its own proprietary beer—Wahlbrewski—that gets a lot of attention. The signature brew is a pale ale made in partnership with Harpoon Brewery in Boston and is the chain’s top-selling beverage item. “A beer and a burger are a perfect combination and our signature Wahl- brewski is No. 1,” Wahlberg says. “Our specialty cocktails and adult milkshakes follow.”
The beer list at Wahlburgers includes the brand’s signature beer on draft alongside local crafts and well-known labels like Bud Light, Blue Moon, Modelo Especial, Lagunitas, and Sam Adams seasonal brews. These are joined by locally made bottled and canned beers and bigger names like Miller Lite and Coors Light, Guinness, Corona, and Heineken (beers are $5-$6 a 12-ounce draft pour; $7-$8 a 16-ounce draft pour; and $4-$5 a bottle or can at the restaurant in Grand Rapids, Michigan). The restaurants offer a handful of wines too, from Coppola Bianco Pinot Grigio and Rodney Strong Chardonnay to Red Diamond Merlot and Louis M. Martini Cabernet Sauvignon ($7-$10 a 6-ounce glass; $10-$13 a 9-ounce glass).
“We focus on local beers and craft brews along with classics,” Melillo explains. “We try to support local brewers and feature seasonal beers as well. For wine, we offer mainly American wines that tend to be fruit-forward and robust.” He adds that IPAs are currently the top-performing beer cate- gory at Wahlburgers, and biodynamic and low-alcohol wines are doing well. Old World wines have been moving fast recently he notes, as customers seek out value labels from Portugal, Spain, and Bordeaux.
The cocktail menu at Wahlburgers is approachable and fun. The venue lists adult milkshakes like the Birthday Cake, made with Smirnoff Vanilla vodka, Hiram Walker Crème de Cacao dark liqueur, ice cream, and sprinkles, alongside Sangrias that are garnished with popsicles. These are joined by updated takes on the Paloma, Margarita, Bloody Mary, and Cosmopolitan, and by signatures like the Step by Step, comprising Tito’s Handmade vodka, lemonade, lemon juice, and hibiscus flower extract, and The Southie, made with Jack Daniel’s Old No. 7 whiskey, St-Germain liqueur, lemonade, and ginger ale (cocktails are $9-$11 in Grand Rapids, Michigan).
“Our guests are looking for new and unusual ingredients, but they still like classic cocktails,” Melillo says. “We’ve added new ingredients to the classics, like peppered bacon in our Bloody Mary and cotton candy in our Cosmo, or fresh muddled jalapeño in our Margarita and popsicles in our sangrias. We’re taking classic cocktails to the next level. It expands our potential customer base to offer unique cocktails.”
Melillo adds that gin and mezcal are popular right now and that the limited-time seasonal cocktail offerings at Wahlburgers have been well-received. Last summer the restaurants added a tropical rum punch served in a tiki glass and for fall they replaced it with a blood orange Margarita that was shaken and poured tableside. “It adds extra flair and excitement,” Melillo says. “Our staff has fun with it and our guests love it.”
Beyond The Burger
While Wahlburgers started as primarily a quick-service hamburger concept, the restaurant has matured a lot. Today the menu includes a signature burger and variations like the Double Decker made with two patties, the Fiesta mixed with Southwestern spices and topped with pepper jack cheese, and the Super Melt, served on thick-cut toast with bacon and caramelized onions. The menu also lists a crispy chicken ranch sandwich, salmon and street corn salad, and appetizers like truffle fries, buffalo chicken bites, and fried spinach and parmesan bites (starters are $6-$14; burgers, sandwiches, and salads are $8-$17 in Grand Rapids, Michigan).
Wahlberg aims to make his restaurants comfortable and upbeat. The chef says his venues feature movie posters and Wahlberg family photos in a well-lit interior with a vibrant bar. While most of the 70-plus locations feature a core interior design, they also incorporate local elements and artifacts to resonate with that market and its customers. Melillo adds that the venues show sports programming and reels of Donnie and Mark Wahlbergs’ movie and television performances, as well as clips from the family “Wahlburgers” television show, which ran for ten seasons on A&E.
“Our reality show gave people a glimpse into who we are and what we do, but at the end of the day our goal is to focus on the customer experience and continuing to improve on that,” Wahlberg says. “We strive to make every guest who walks through the door feel like they’re part of our family.”
For Melillo, the bar adds another important dimension to each restaurant. “We want guests with varying tastes to find their favorite items on our menu or try something new,” Melillo explains. “We want to have menu selections that excite guests and pair well with our food. We serve hearty food with bold flavors, and we need a beverage program that complements that. The bar gives the restaurant its energy.”
That energy helped propel Wahlburgers to persevere over the last two years during the Covid-19 pandemic. Business is certainly rebounding as guests choose to dine out again, though Wahlberg says his restaurants are struggling with supply chain, staffing, and product availability issues just like everyone else. Doubling down on the bar is boosting the restaurants’ recovery. Melillo says the company’s bar staff are working on new cocktails for 2022 and Wahlberg adds that innovation, bar training, and bar development remain para- mount. Continued expansion is also important. Along with new units in Australia and New Zealand, the company has plans to debut additional restaurants in Wisconsin, California, Ohio, and Hawaii this year.
“The plan has always been to grow the concept, but my focus will always be on the next burger coming out of the kitchen,” Wahlberg says. “We’re excited to continue to grow our brand and bring the Wahlburgers experience to more communities. And we’re focusing on improving our bar program and building our bar business across the brand this year.”