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How Mark Wahlberg is now serving burgers ‘in a big way’

Melody Hahm
Senior Writer

Mark Wahlberg may be a household name for his Hollywood career, but he’s broadening his legacy through his entrepreneurial endeavors.

He and hip-hop mogul Sean ‘Diddy’ Combs are behind the electrolyte bottled water brand Aquahydrate, he cofounded the sports nutrition company Performance Inspired, and he’s the lead investor in Wahlburgers, a high-end burger chain that he started with his brothers Donnie and Paul, the latter of whom is the chef who developed the menu.

The franchise now has 16 locations across 8 states and Toronto, Canada. And the company has plans to open over 100 more restaurants over the next few years, including Asia and Europe. Wahlburgers operates under a franchise model, though the family still owns the original Hingham, Mass., location.

“It really comes down to having the right partners in the right locations in these different territories and we want to make sure that we’re completely prepared that every individual experience is perfect,” Wahlberg told Yahoo Finance at the grand opening of the first Manhattan location on the Upper East Side.

The “Wahlburgers” name

Originally, Wahlberg was completely against using the name “Wahlburgers.

“I’ve worked too hard to build my brand as an actor and as a producer so I didn’t want to make it seem like it was a cash grab,” he said. “But knowing how talented my brother Paul is, how committed we are to building a business, we were going to do it and do it all the way.“

“[My businesses] are a part of who i am. I don’t get involved with things that I can’t really stand for and sell to you, to your kids and everybody else across the board. I don’t do things necessarily for money — they have to be a part of who I am and the message that i want to put out there and the products that I want to sell to people,” he said. 

In the same way that he had to make a compromise on the branding, he had to convince Paul that they needed to scale the restaurant.

“He would [have been] content with one restaurant,” he added. “But if we were going to do it, we were going to build a business that we could share for generations. And we were going to do it in a big way.”

Wahlberg: the small business owner

Wahlburgers employs around 1,600 people across all their locations. Wahlberg expressed the importance and value of building the right team as he continues to scale.

He told Yahoo Finance that he has been guilty of keeping his friends close and prioritizing loyalty over efficiency, talent and capability. (Note: Wahlberg was an executive producer of the hit HBO show Entourage, which was loosely based on his life).

But he said as he’s been building Wahlburgers he’s been more strategic about choosing who belongs in the Wahlburgers family.

“You have to make sure that if you sit anybody who works for Wahlburgers down at any capacity, that they all have the same ability to explain the culture of the business and what we stand for.”

Wahlburgers & wages

Wahlburgers CEO Rick Vanzura said that they pay “well above minimum wage” across the board.

Last month, Senate Democrats introduced a bill that would raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2024. Though Wahlberg did not say he would support it, he said he is making sure that he’s making Wahlburgers a competitive place to work — for the long-term.

“I always want to make sure that people can make as much money as possible,” said Wahlberg. “We [have] people working really hard so I want this to be a business where people can come in at ground level and grow to management, ownership, etc. This is something that we want to build. And our family is pretty broad – and we want to offer that opportunity to everyone that comes to work with us.”

Vanzura said he thinks a blanket wage increase would either end up hurting the consumer or lead to job losses.

“Something has to give … either charge the consumer more, which is never desirable, or you’re going to have to restructure your labor model if somebody’s going to require you to increase wages in a dramatic rate. We are all for paying fair wages.”

“A 15 dollar minimum wage everywhere would force a lot of restauranteurs to close across several states,” he added.

The competitive burger landscape

Burger chains are ubiquitous across the country; not just legacy brands like McDonald’s (MCD) and Wendy’s (WEN), but players like Shake Shack (SHAK), Bare Burger and Smashburger.

It’s indisputable that the burger market is a saturated one, with the average American passing 17 different burger joints on a 10 minute drive, but Vanzura said he’s confident that Wahlburgers is offering a differentiated experience.

“All of this competition has put a real spotlight at being really good at that balance if we’re going to survive. Our focus is a high-end meat blend, a proprietary artisan bun, making our own pickles and making our own Wahl sauce. We’re trying to deliver an elevated differentiated food experience, emphasizing the family connection, making it a happy and inviting place.”

“Thankfully, the Wahlberg name continues to drive our success,” Vanzura added.

Melody Hahm is a writer at Yahoo Finance, covering entrepreneurship, technology and real estate. Follow her on Twitter @melodyhahm.

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