How did you get into the Foodservice industry?
I was born in Dorchester, MA one of nine siblings; I spent lots of time in the family kitchen with my mother Alma. At the age of 11 or 12, I fell in love with food over a simple Eggplant Parmesan sandwich at a friends’ house. My cooking was influenced by the Sunday suppers at home with family and friends. I always loved cooking and began working as a caterer while I was in school. From there, I worked my way up at various restaurants, cooking in Massachusetts and Washington, D.C. I had the opportunity to serve as a chef at such establishments as The Charles Hotel, The Four Seasons, and Bridgeman’s. After nine years as the Executive Chef at Bridgeman’s, I opened my own restaurant, Alma Nove, in Hingham, Massachusetts named after my Mother. From this point, Wahlburgers was born and opened just across the street. Then came the TV show and the rest is history.
What makes Wahlburgers different from your competition?
Wahlburgers differentiators are:
- Founded by only family I know that includes celebrity draw (Mark and Donnie) coupled with a very serious chef and concept person (Paul)
- Incorporates family-specific cues to share their story and celebrate good times — die-cuts with movie and TV show names, story wall with family background, menu items based on family stories, etc.
- Split service concept — offers full and quick serve
- Full bar
- Proprietary artisan potato bun and high-end Angus beef blend from Pat La Frieda butcher, always fresh
- Proprietary recipes and sauces, particularly Paul’s wahl sauce
- Extensive offering beyond basic burgers and sides — chicken, vegetarian, salad, etc.
- Unique, upscale, contemporary yet casual and approachable feel — see wahlburgersrestaurant.com for pictures of the concept
- Very high involvement of both Mark and Donnie — they don’t just contribute name, but considerable time, money and insight as well
Can you give us a quick overview of the history of Wahlburgers?
In short first Wahlberg restaurant was Alma Nove, Mediterranean fine dining concept named after mother and nine children, opened June 2010 (Many awards for restaurant and illustrates my competence as concept person, chef and operator), Wahlburgers first location opens 10/11 (same time I joined). Reality show debuts 1/14. Toronto opens in Fall of 2014. Lynnfield opens mid 2015.
How is doing business in New York different from the rest of the country?
New York is a very competitive market with great food and savvy, demanding customers. Anyone trying to compete just on a name will die very quickly. Puts a high premium on putting out a very high quality product and giving customers a distinct reason to come back. Also, it is where Donnie spends much of his time both living and shooting Blue Bloods and Mark is a frequent visitor, so very important they are both represented well in the city. Finally, New York is made up of many distinctive places with distinctive personalities, and the brand needs to be very respectful of that. Coney Island is not midtown Manhattan.
What is the company’s approach to building and nurturing successful managers?
Our brand is based on a strong culture of humility, service, respect, commitment to quality and fun. We have long and extensive training programs intended to not only provide technical skills but give staff an appreciation of the brand’s culture and values. People need to appreciate and live my adage that “happy people make and serve happy food, and happy food tastes better.” After the training, it is really a matter of reinforcing the culture and attention to detail on a daily basis as well as making people aware of the many opportunities to grow with us if they demonstrate their own growth.
What attracted the Wahlberg family to the foodservice industry?
I have been working in restaurants since I was a teenager. It was an instant and now lifelong attraction as it appealed to my desire to create things and make people happy.
What are your goals for the customer experience at Wahlburgers?
People often travel many hours to come to the original restaurant in Hingham and wait hours in line. We have a very high bar to make people with that large an investment happy. So, our goal is to make all customers happy in Hingham given that bar, and to have the hiring practices, processes, systems and culture that allow us to extend that experience everywhere. We never want someone going to a Wahlburgers and saying, “that wasn’t as good as Wahlburgers X.” In short, we want to put a smile on everyone’s face and serve not just food, but memories.
How will the Wahlburgers experience differ from a visit to Five Guys or Shake Shack?
While we respect Shake Shack and Five Guys tremendously, we are significantly different than either, starting with brand identity, full service option, more extensive menu, higher level interior finishes and full bar. They are both great at what they do and serve a particular niche.
What is the profile of the Wahlburgers target franchisee?
Minimum requirement is $5 million net worth with demonstrated success operating a multi-unit restaurant concept. We also make sure they share our values around quality and commitment to an exceptional customer experience as well as affinity for the brand that is not just driven by celebrity.
What’s your approach to the menu? Most companies have turned to Pat LaFrieda to create a signature pattie? What did you guys do?
La Frieda is the source of our beef, but as stated above, other proprietary components are key differentiators.
What went into the design of the stores? What were the marching orders you gave your architect and design team?
The architect, Stephen Sousa, has done a great job reflecting the intention to deliver a colorful, upscale, distinctive, contemporary, approachable, open look and feel that showcases the food through open kitchen and the signature Wahlberg brand elements in a way that doesn’t turn the restaurant into a theme restaurant leading to customer fatigue.
What was the plan for the design of the kitchens?
To be open and capable of handling high volume in a made-to-order fashion using equipment that I believe is capable of delivering the right quality.
The Wahlberg family has produced highly successful movie and TV properties. How does building a team at the restaurants mirror the approach to making a successful movie?
As opposed to comparing to a successful movie, I’d compare to Mark’s and Donnie’s ability to build enduring brands that have stood the test of time. It is about selecting good material you believe in and partners that share your vision who can make the material come to life. It is also about not just chasing the latest fad but sticking to the core of what makes you successful.
What attracted you to expand into Metro New York City?
As Frank Sinatra said, if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere. Metro NY offers great population density, great economic opportunity, great influence and great demands. If you succeed in NY, that can pay great dividends everywhere you go. If you can’t succeed in NY, it’s a cue you need to fix your concept before pushing farther.
What was the attraction to Coney Island?
The location speaks for itself.
Crystal ball … IPO like Shake Shack?
We are primarily a franchise model so we have no need for an IPO to raise funds. Having said that, hard not to notice the Shake Shack IPO. Of course, it is a double-edged sword. A high valuation brings high scrutiny and high expectations, plus being a public company has its own set of demands and costs. Lots of trade-offs.