Most restaurants have to buy advertising to appear on television, but Wahlburgers, the seven-unit fast-casual and full-service concept by celebrities Mark and Donnie Wahlberg and their chef brother Paul, has a show of its own.
The reality TV series about it, also called Wahlburgers, debuted in 2014, three years after the first location opened in Hingham, Mass. The exposure has helped attract customers to the restaurant.
“But it’s my job to get the to come back,” said Paul Wahlberg, who also runs the fine-dining Italian restaurant Alma Nove in Hingham. He recently discussed his role at Wahlburgers with Nation’s Restaurant News.
Really, I’m making the food I love to eat. I’m a burger guy.
So how did you get into the fine-dining end?
I just gravitated toward that. I went to culinary school at Newbury College [in Brookline, Mass.,] until I ran out of money, and then started working in a hotel, and I just ended up more on that end.
What are some of the most popular items at Wahlburgers?
The Our Burger is the No. 1 seller, which is “government cheese,” Wahl sauce, lettuce tomatoes, housemade pickles and onions.
Sounds like a traditional burger build. Is that really government cheese?
It’s like the government cheese. It’s just orange American cheese, but we use it as a reminder of where we came from.
Did you grow up on American cheese?
Oh yes. We would get the three-pound blocks, and it was never sliced evenly.
Was it pre-sliced at all?
No, they were just like, “Here’s your block of cheese and enjoy yourself.”
What else sells well?
We have a bacon burger which sells very well, and we also have Mark’s Burger, which is a turkey burger with cranberry sauce, stuffing, mayonnaise and roasted butternut squash.
So Mark’s a Thanksgiving fan.
Oh yes, and the reason it came about is I worked for him on a couple of films and every week and a half or so he was like, “Make me a turkey dinner.”
Did you tell him, “You realize I have to roast a turkey for that?”
The best part is when I’d have an hour’s notice and I’d be running around Rittenhouse Square looking for a turkey and stuffing.
So no matter what he asks for, you’re not going to say no. You’re going to make it happen.
I’m there to make what people want. That’s what I do.
You assemble burgers in an unusual way, with the toppings on the bottom. Why do you do that?
We think about everything that we do; it’s not just random. So we stack all of our ingredients down below the burger, so when you bite into it, the first thing you want to taste are those components, and then the rich protein and fattiness of the burger comes after.
What’s it like doing the TV show? You seem more like a back-of-the-house guy than an on-screen one.
It’s very interesting. My thing is just to keep moving all the time.
Does that help you ignore the camera?
Well, there’s always a fire to put out somewhere. And talking about it on TV is just not something that I’m used to.
Do you get media coaching from your brothers?
No. They just leave me alone.
I suppose it’s hard to get advice from brothers no matter what the circumstances.
I’m just trying to do my job.
Wahlburgers has been open for five years. Have you noticed any changing tastes from your customers?
For the most part, they like what they like, but we have gluten-free options. We know that burgers are an indulgence; it’s not something they’re going to eat every single day. But at the same time you have to give them options.
We introduced Mac 'n Cheese [with bacon,] and that’s been selling well. We brought a Sloppy Joe on the menu, and it’s really tasty, and people are enjoying that.
You recently added chopped salad bowls to the menu too, which have the burgers chopped into them.
Yeah, it’s just another option for people who are counting calories and being particular about what they eat. But it really comes out good and we’ve gotten a really good response.
Then on the other hand you have The Beast, which is two 5-ounce burgers topped with pulled pork.
We did that for the winter, but the popularity was such that we just kept it on.
What are your plans for Wahlburgers?
To me the most important thing is the next burger that leaves the restaurant — always improving service, always improving the experience, always improving the quality. That’s the mission for me. The rest of the stuff I let other people deal with.