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The Franchise World’s Favorite Wahlberg Brother

Although burger franchise Wahlburgers was started by a family of celebrities, chef and co-founder Paul Wahlberg says the true stars of the brand are the franchisees.

Growing up in a family of nine siblings, Paul Wahlberg says he learned early on that not everyone has the same skill sets. He may not have been able to sing or act like his brothers Mark and Donnie, for example, but there was one thing he always knew he could do: cook. 

“I’ve been cooking for what seems like forever — at least over 35 years,” said Wahlberg. “I started working in hotels and small restaurants around Boston, and I am trained in classical French cuisine.”

After cutting his teeth at several high-end Massachusetts restaurants like The Charles Hotel, The Four Seasons and Bridgeman's (where he served as executive chef for nine years), Wahlberg decided it was time to open a restaurant of his own. He just needed to come up with the right concept.

The Rise of the Wahlburgers Brand

Around 2011, Wahlberg says he and his brothers were brainstorming restaurant ideas when they came up with a plan. “My brothers and I were discussing my love for hamburgers,” he said. “Since I’m usually driving around picking up food, my car is my eating space, and burgers are often what I’m eating. We talked about the burger market and all of the burger restaurants that were really starting to shine.” 

Of course, Wahlberg says the punny brand name was also too good to pass up. “Obviously, when we were little, ‘Wahlburger’ was a common nickname we would hear all the time,” he said.

The first Wahlburgers location opened in Massachusetts in 2011. Almost immediately, the restaurant was a huge hit in the area, and Wahlberg says franchising quickly came up as a potential path towards growth.

“When we started talking about expanding the business, franchising was an attractive option because we had so many people coming to us inquiring about owning their own location,” said Wahlberg. “Mark and Donnie’s popularity really helped drive the business originally, but when we decided on franchising, we knew we would have to build out the infrastructure and repeatable business model for that first location if we wanted to succeed.” 

Lights, Camera, Action

Franchising wasn't the only plan the Wahlbergs had for spreading the Wahlburgers brand name across the country. Fueled by the success of the first restaurant, a reality television series titled Wahlburgers was launched in early 2014 on A&E and received an Emmy nomination that same year for Outstanding Unstructured Reality Program. 

“The reality show was an amazing experience on multiple levels — getting to spend time with my brothers and seeing their life while also giving them an idea of what my life is like on a daily basis,” said Wahlberg. “They are unbelievable partners and supportive of what we do, but they don’t work in restaurants, so showing them what we do has been amazing. The exposure has also been amazing, especially with the relationships people have with my brothers as performers. The first thing customers do when they come into the restaurant is look at my shoes — my brother Mark gave me a hard time about the shoes I wear on the show because I never know when I’ll end up in the kitchen. People are really expecting to see our personalities and have that experience.”

While the original Wahlburgers location was doing well prior to the A&E show, Wahlberg says after a few weeks of it airing, the popularity reached a whole new level. 

“One Sunday morning, a couple was standing at the door. I let them in, and they said they were from Nova Scotia,” Wahlberg said. “I couldn’t believe it. They had come just to visit Wahlburgers and were heading home straight afterward. I told them you can’t put that kind of pressure on me! That is crazy for me to think of someone traveling that far for our restaurant. We gave them a quick tour, gave them a hat and they even got to meet my mom. It was very satisfying for me to know that they were happy with their experience. You never know what is going to happen next.” 

It wasn’t just customers who were learning more about the Wahlburgers brand and following the show; franchisee inquiries also started to come in faster than before thanks to the kind of TV-powered brand exposure franchisors dream about. During the five years the show aired, Wahlburgers grew exponentially and today has a footprint of 50 locations throughout the U.S., Canada and Germany. 

The Lessons Learned Along the Way

Although the reality show may have brought customers through the door, Wahlberg says he learned quickly that it was up to the individual franchisee to earn the second trip. 

“Anyone in the franchising industry will tell you that — getting that repeat business and becoming a part of the community is hugely important,” Wahlberg said. “It is a relationship business at the end of the day, and our job is to make people happy. It is important that franchisees love what they do because it shows in the final product. If you don’t put in the effort, it will fail. They are marrying that business — someone is going to give them the business model, but at the end of the day, they are the ones who will be there 24/7. That is why both the franchisees and the franchisors really have to do their homework to make sure it is the right fit.”

Last year, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Wahlberg says many of those lessons proved to be extremely valuable. 

“It has obviously been a challenging year for the restaurant industry as a whole,” said Wahlberg. “Now, it is more important than ever to make sure you earn every trip from the customer. For example, with the supply chain, you never know what it is that brings someone to the restaurant, so you want to make sure you have those products at all times. I mean, our name is Wahlburgers, so we can’t run out of hamburgers. That is why it is really important for all of us to plan ahead. As a franchisee, you want to make it worth the trip every time, and every team member needs to buy into it.”

But Wahlberg says he is confident that the restaurant industry will make it through to the other side, and instead of worrying about the big picture, he prefers to focus on the quality of the next burger. 

“In the restaurant business and in general, it is important for all of us to keep plugging along and trying to deliver the best experience for everyone who walks in the door,” Wahlberg said. “The franchisee and the franchisor need to work together towards that same goal. The first ingredient any customer should taste is love, because that means the owner is really passionate and into what they are doing. If they are just doing it to do it, you can taste it and feel it. Wahlburgers has been an amazing journey for me, which is why I never take anything for granted.”