Paul Wahlberg Can’t Believe It’s Been Five Years of Wahlburgers
Exactly five years ago—it was also a Monday—Paul Wahlberg and his famous family debuted their first, eponymous burger joint at the Hingham Shipyard. The chef had opened a waterfront, wood-burning Mediterranean restaurant called Alma Nove across the street in the new development just a year before. Now, in addition to Alma Nove, Paul Wahlberg oversees 11 Wahlburgers franchises with his younger brothers, Mark and Donnie Wahlberg, and the chef is also a player in the Emmy-nominated A&E Network show, Wahburgers, the seventh season of which premieres November 16.
The burger company is poised for up to a 150-store expansion over the next five years, with locations on the way to the Wahlbergs’ hometown of Dorchester, as well as Times Square, Dubai, and beyond.
But for Paul Wahlberg, his eyes are on the next burger coming out of the kitchen. The chef took a break from his busy schedule in the midst of filming Walburgers to chat with Boston magazine on Wahlburgers’ fifth anniversary.
Do you remember the first ticket that came through five years ago?
Oh, no, no, no. Just a lot of running around, and trying to keep focused.
How present are you at each restaurant, as Wahlburgers continues to grow?
I spend a lot more time in my car going from place to place. I’m not as [present], obviously, just because my time is much more divided. There’s a lot more traveling, especially with the show. I have a charity dinner coming up [this week], and I’m working on a new menu for Alma Nove. [My schedule] changes from day to day. You put out the fires where the fires happen.
How are things going in Dorchester?
They’re still doing site preparation and demolition. I think it’s sometime in 2018 we’ll be opening. So, it’s still a ways away, but we just wanted to secure the site because the opportunity to go back home is huge.
How has the show impacted business at Wahlburgers?
It’s been great for business. You’ll get people who watch the show, when they’re in Boston, they’ll either come to Hingham, or go to Fenway, or even go to Lynnfield. They’re hoping to see Donnie, Mark, and my mom. Then they get kind of disappointed, like, if I have to take a picture with you, I guess that’s all I got.
So, you take a lot of pictures?
I take a lot more pictures than I used to, that’s for sure.
Does it happen at Alma Nove at all?
Yeah. A lot of times, in Hingham, people will have burgers and stuff at Wahlburgers, and then they’ll come across the street and have dessert. We’ve had [fans of the show] come in [to Alma Nove], they were from Long Island, they came up on their anniversary and had dinner. They liked it so much, they came up the following year for their anniversary.
Five years in, you have 11 Wahlburgers locations, plus a food truck in Philadelphia, plus a handful more in the works. You’ve always planned to scale the brand.
Yes, Myrtle Beach will be opening, I think, by the end of the week. Everybody thinks what they’re doing is going to be, like, that thing. For me, the most important thing to me is the next burger that goes out of the kitchen. It’s one of those things where you think about it, you kind of want to go in that direction [of growing the brand], but if it was one [location only], I’d be happy. I just want to serve people food and make them happy.
What have been the challenges in scaling it up?
Really figuring out the demands, especially on my time, and the traveling part of it. Really being able to supply everything. It’s the consistency. The last thing you want to hear is, ‘I ate at location X and it wasn’t as good location Y.’ To me, that’s the hardest part.
Talking about your goals as a chef, do you have other concepts in mind?
Right now, I’m just trying to keep up with what we’re trying to accomplish now.
Mediterranean flavors, seafood, and pastas, those menu items are everywhere these days. Alma Nove has had that concept for more than five years. How do you keep it fresh?
The hard part with having had that restaurant open for a while is you develop the sacred cows. That’s why we have a lot of opportunity with the specials. Some people come to a restaurant because they want to have something new all the time. [People say,] ‘I’ve eaten through the whole menu, and I get the specials.’ Then there are other people that say, ‘When I come to your restaurant, I only get one dish.’ To me, that’s the highest praise to pay, because it means there’s something to come back for. Again, it comes down to the consistency.
One of the things I am surprised and happy that it was [popular] is our grilled octopus. People absolutely love it. Swordfish is still one of our No. 1 sellers. It varies, depending on the season. We’re going to do a braised lamb shank, which is always popular. For us, it’s trying to keep it interesting, but at the same time, not straying too far from home.
Have you seen competition for diners grow?
Absolutely, but that just means that you have to work that much harder at what you do. When the economy is good lots of restaurants open, and when the economy tightens, not as many open. For us, it’s focusing on what we do. We compete with ourselves, more than anything, trying to make sure we can do the best possible job we can.
Are people willing to travel further to try something new?
They’re definitely going to try places. But you have your list of places that are your standbys. I believe it’s good for business. The more people see and the more they get interested in things, the more they go back to the places they do like and respect. They make sure they’re getting back there.
So on the fifth year anniversary, how are you feeling today?
It’s a bit nerve-wracking. Like, holy moly, this has been going on for five years. Where does the time go? As we get older, it goes faster. I’m just happy people are supporting the restaurant. That’s been the big thing. The staff, everybody. It’s been amazing.
Wahlburgers Season Six premieres on A&E on Wednesday, November 16, with two new episodes back-to-back beginning at 10 p.m.
Wahlburgers, 19 Shipyard Drive, Hingham, 781-749-2110, 132 Brookline Ave, Boston, 617-927-6810, and other locations, wahlburgersrestaurant.com.