Mark Wahlberg is bullish on burgers. So much so that his namesake burger chain, Wahlburgers, has plans to open 111 new restaurants over the next few years.
Marketed as a better burger chain, emphasizing hospitality and ground fresh patties as its hallmarks, Wahlburgers finds itself in an increasingly saturated space. Fast casual heavyweight Chipotle (CMG) just filed a trademark application for ‘Better Burger’ earlier this month and Shake Shack (SHAK) is expanding into California. Then, of course, there are privately held burger chains like celebrity chef Bobby Flay’s Bobby Burger Palace, with 19 locations across the U.S.
You may be familiar with the reality show “Wahlburgers,” which is a behind-the-scenes look at the boisterous, lovable Wahlberg family operating the restaurant. The A&E show first aired in January 2014 and the company has since seen increased traffic and growth.
Since debuting in Hingham, Mass., in 2011, Wahlburgers has branched out beyond the Boston area and now has seven locations in Florida, New York and Canada. Three more are slated to open this year in Boston’s Logan Airport, Las Vegas and Philadelphia. This month, the “better burger restaurant” announced that they have partnered with five new franchise groups to open up a total of 118 restaurants within the next few years.
Mark Wahlberg’s older brother Paul is a chef and the culinary mind behind the restaurant chain. Mark told Yahoo Finance via phone, “It was Paul’s dream to open up and have his own burger place, so I told him to go for it. I told him I’ll finance that for you.” Of the nine Wahlberg children, Mark, Paul and Donnie are involved in the burger chain.
Deciding on a name was a bit more contentious. Paul first proposed the name Wahlburgers but Mark was against it -- he said initially it seemed too gimmicky, and wasn’t the kind of thing he’d want attached to the Wahlberg name. “I’ve spent 25 years building my brand; there’s no way I could do that. But then I started to think about the possibility and potential.”
The menu mostly consists of burgers but Mark likened it more to a high-end diner, where there’s “something for everyone.” Items include a crispy haddock sandwich or macaroni salad. Wahlburgers also offers full liquor service.
Rick Vanzura, who was previously co-chief operating officer at Panera Bread (PNRA), joined Wahlburgers in 2012 as CEO. He said the brand is unique because of the Wahlbergs’ strong family bond. “We’re first and foremost the only restaurant in this space that has the celebrity-reality TV show draw with the same name,” he says. “We do get a crowd that’s attracted by the reality show. But they can see we’re not a tourist trap, we’re not themed. We’re meant to be a restaurant that’s built to last.” Vanzura says the original Hingham location generates $5 million a year in revenue.
Though the Wahlbergs welcome those who seek the restaurant out after watching their show, Vanzura says that they ultimately can’t depend on TV for its success. “Even if the show goes away, it will always be about the quality of the food,” he says.
Vanzura notes that it’s a common misconception that the Wahlburgers restaurant is merely a namesake restaurant and a pet project for the brothers.
“I was pleasantly surprised to see how involved Mark is. I knew the brothers were all owners and had some level of involvement, but I actually talk to him several times a week -- we work together to establish contacts,” he says. “Mark views this as a family legacy that will survive beyond his movie career. He’s this hybrid movie and businessman. He’s very active on the business side.”
Mark’s enthusiasm was palpable over the phone: “Eventually we’ll be doing breakfast as well. We eventually expect and hope to be the most valuable burger.”