The Untold Truth Of Wahlburgers

With a pair of celebrity owners and an eponymous reality show under its belt, it's hard to imagine that many people don't know about Wahlburgers. But if in fact you're unfamiliar with the burger restaurant, that won't be the case for long as the Massachusetts-based chain is likely coming to a location near you. Since opening its first store in 2011, Wahlburgers has slowly but surely taken over America. It now boasts more than 50 locations across the country — and the globe! But it's not stopping there. The chain's new CEO told the Boston Globe  that he hopes to expand to 300 locations by 2025. Sounds like we're all going to need to get a little more familiar with the chain.

So what's the secret sauce to Wahlburgers success? And has it all been smooth sailing for the growing burger empire? From a battle over the Wahlburgers name and several internal lawsuits to its meatless burgers and growing grocery store product line, here is the untold truth of Wahlburgers.

Wahlbugers is owned by three of the nine Wahlberg siblings

It's no secret that Wahlburgers is owned by the Wahlberg family, but what you may not know is just how big the family is. In total, there are nine Wahlberg siblings, but only three own a stake of the restaurant chain: brothers Mark, Donnie, and Paul.

Mark and Donnie Wahlberg are both the youngest and most famous members of the family. The former is one of the most successful actors in Hollywood who has starred in more than 70 movies, including hits like "Boogie Nights," "The Departed," and "The Fighter." Donnie Wahlberg, meanwhile, rose to fame as a member of the uber-popular boy band New Kids on the Block before transitioning to film and television acting later in life.

Although lesser known than his kid brothers, Paul is the leader of the Wahlburgers franchise. The fifth of the nine Wahlberg children, Paul started working in professional kitchens when he was still in high school before working his way up to becoming an executive chef at several restaurants (via A&E). Mark and Donnie may get customers through the Wahlburgers doors, but it's Paul's creations that keep them coming back.

The restaurant had to pay for the right to use the Wahlburgers name

If your last name ends in "berg" and you're opening a burg-er restaurant, you're almost required to give the place a portmanteau title, right? At least that was the thinking when the Wahlbergs took their surname, changed the "e" to a "u," and slapped on an extra syllable to come up with their burger joint's moniker. "It just works," Ed St. Croix, one of the restaurant's business partners, told the Boston Herald. "It's a good-sounding brand we could put out the product with, a great name people could relate to."

There was just one problem with that plan: The Wahlburgers name was already taken. According to the New York Post, a western New York burger chain called Tom Wahl's owned a federal trademark on the Wahlburger name, which it used for one of its signature burgers. The Wahlberg brothers, however, were undeterred. In 2011, just before opening their first location, they came to a licensing agreement with Tom Wahl's that allowed them to use the Wahlburgers name for their restaurant.

Mark Wahlberg initially rejected the name Wahlburgers

Having to pay for the right to use "Wahlburgers" was just one of the hurdles the founders had to overcome when it came to naming the restaurant chain. The other? Convincing brother Mark it was a good idea. It turns out, the A-list actor was not a fan. "We had already done Alma Nove (named for their mother, Alma), which was a big success, and I was grateful I was I able to help [my brother] Paul see that dream come to reality," Mark told Ad Week. "But once he mentioned the idea of Wahlburgers, I said, 'Are you out of your mind?' I spent 20-some-odd years building my brand and going from the music world to being taken really seriously as an actor and a producer. I said, 'There's no way. Call it Paul's Place, whatever you want. I'll fund it for you, but this is not going to happen.'"

When Mark started considering the restaurant's potential, however, his concerns over the name faded to the background. "I thought, wait a second here. If we could really build a business, a real business, then that's something that I'm interested in. But we're going to do it in a big way. I want to be around to enjoy it. And so things kind of happened." Finally, the Wahlburgers name was a go.

Paul Wahlberg began working in kitchens as a teenager

Mark and Donnie Wahlberg may be the famous faces of Wahlburgers, but it's their older brother Paul who serves as the brains of the operation. He is the chef of the family after all. While his younger brothers would ultimately spend their formidable years rising to fame as musicians, Paul spent his in the kitchen. According to New England Living, his culinary interests began as a child when he would watch cooking shows like "The Galloping Gourmet." Before he was even a teenager, the elder Wahlberg had already fallen in love with cooking and could often be found helping his mother Alma prepare Sunday dinners.

Paul began his culinary career while he was still in high school, first washing dishes then working his way up to become a caterer. By the time he turned 17, he knew he wanted to become a chef. "There's a kind of energy working in a kitchen that is very, very different from working in an office," he told New England Living. "It's not like any other job. It's crazy and you're always putting out [figurative] fires." The one person he had to convince, surprisingly, was his mother, who was concerned her accident-prone son would injure himself in the hazardous environments of a professional kitchen. Paul proceeded on the career path, nonetheless. After graduating high school, he worked at several Boston restaurants including Bridgeman's, where he held the executive chef role for nearly a decade.

The Wahlberg family also owns a Mediterranean restaurant

Wahlburgers may be the Wahlberg clan's most famous culinary venture — but it's not their only one. In 2010, a year before their first burger joint came into existence, Mark, Donnie, and Paul Wahlberg opened the Mediterranean restaurant Alma Nove (via New England Living). "I'm taking a big risk in this economy," Paul Wahlberg told the Patriot Ledger at the time. "[But] I couldn't ask for a better location ... When the opportunity arose, I definitely had to secure it."

Located just south of Boston in the seaside town of Hingham, Massachusetts, the waterfront eatery's atmosphere is a far cry from the casual vibe you'll find at any Wahlburgers, with walls of glass windows, dramatic lighting, and a statement rotunda. The menu is much different as well, of course. At Alma Nove, guests won't find burgers but they can choose from Italian staples such as antipasti, specialty pastas, and fresh seafood dishes.

The restaurant is named after the Wahlberg boys' mother Alma, along with a nod to her nine children ("nove" is Italian for "nine"). Prior to her passing in 2021 (via NBC News), it was not uncommon to see the family matriarch at the restaurant. According to New England Living, Alma worked as a hostess at her namesake eatery and would make frequent appearances even when she wasn't on the clock. "I like to sit with the customers and talk with them," she told the outlet. "I usually eat their french fries. They're the best."

Wahlburgers was the subject of a reality show

If the Kardashians have taught us anything — and there's reason to question if they have — it's that nothing is more effective in promoting the family business than a reality show. The Wahlbergs got the message loud and clear. In 2013, Mark and Donnie signed a deal with A&E to produce and appear in a new unscripted series called, "Wahlburgers" (via Entertainment Weekly). The reality show would offer viewers a behind-the-scenes look at the family's burger restaurant. (At the time of the show's premiere in 2014, there was only one Wahlburgers location, according to Newsday.)

In addition to Mark and Donnie, the series also starred their brother Paul, the restaurant's executive chef, Wahlberg matriarch Alma, and longtime family friends such as Johnny "Drama" Alves, who served as the inspiration for the character of the same name in the hit show "Entourage."

Just a few weeks after its premiere, the show was picked up for 18 more episodes, according to The Hollywood Reporter. "Viewers are responding to the heartwarming dynamics of Boston's first family as they balance living in the Hollywood spotlight and growing a business," said A&E Executive Vice President David McKillop. "We look forward to seeing what the Wahlbergs cook up next." Ultimately, "Wahlburgers" would air 95 episodes over 10 seasons before the reality show came to an end in 2019 (via IMDb).

Wahlburgers is partners with Hy-Vee

Wahlburgers scored a major coup for its expansion plans in 2017 when it partnered with Hy-Vee, one of the nation's largest grocery store chains. The deal initially had two components, according to the Iowa Gazette. First off, Hy-Vee agreed to build, own, and operate 26 Wahlburgers restaurants throughout seven Midwestern states. At the time, there were fewer than 20 Wahlburgers locations in the country, meaning the agreement would more than double the burger chain's footprint. The first Hy-Vee Wahlburgers opened in 2018 in the Mall of America, according to Star Tribune.

In addition to operating its restaurants, the grocery store agreed to begin selling Wahlburgers food at its Hy-Vee Market Grilles, full-service restaurants attached to many of its stores (via Eater). Those plans changed just a few years later, however. Hy-Vee announced that instead of the eateries selling Wahlburgers, they would become Wahlburgers. In 2020, the grocery chain unveiled plans to convert all of its Market Grille locations into Wahlburgers restaurants (via Supermarket News). "Our customers are wanting more fresh and convenient meal options," Christina Gayman, public relations director at Hy-Vee, said in a statement in March of that year. "Our 21 Hy-Vee Market Grille full-service restaurants will transition to casual, counter-service Wahlburgers restaurants by early summer." The agreement bumped the number of planned Hy-Vee restaurants up to 27.

Wahlburgers is international

Wahlburgers is quickly expanding across the U.S., with locations now open in more than 20 states. But it hasn't stopped at the border — the chain is fully international. When the company was ready to expand in 2014, it went north of the border to do so, opening its second Wahlburgers restaurant in Toronto's SoHo Metropolitan Hotel. "My brothers and I are thrilled to open our first franchise and first Canadian location" chef Paul Wahlberg said in a statement at the time (via Fast Casual). Since then, a second Toronto Wahlburgers has opened, this one at Pearson International Airport.

In 2020, Wahlburgers hopped across the pond to debut a location at the Ramstein Air Base in Germany (via the Exchange Post). "This restaurant means so much to service members and families — a slice of America has come to Ramstein just for them," Col. Scott McFarland, Exchange Europe/Southwest Asia commander said. It was a sentiment echoed by Mark Wahlberg when he visited the base just prior to the restaurant's launch. "Bringing a taste of home to these men and women is incredible," the actor said.

Wahlburgers most recently set its eyes on taking over the South Pacific. It opened a location in Sydney in February 2022 with plans to unveil 20 more outposts across Australia, according to the Brag. A Wahlburgers location is also slated to open in New Zealand (via The Zealand Herald). 

A New York City Wahlburgers location was closed for health violations

Wahlburgers may be in the midst of a worldwide expansion, but that doesn't mean it's been all smooth sailing. In 2018, the company suffered a setback when it was forced to close one of its locations due to health code violations. According to Eater New York, the chain's outpost on Manhattan's Upper East Side was shut down for good after getting written up by the Department of Health.

Eater reported in October 2018 that the restaurant failed its health inspection due to four main problems: unsanitary food prep surfaces, evidence of mice, cooked and refrigerated items being served without being reheated, and a food supervisor who was not certified in food protection. The failed inspection forced the location, which had just opened the year before, to temporarily close its doors. Just a few weeks later, however, Wahlburgers announced that the restaurant would not be reopening.

It was the second New York City Wahlburgers to close in as many years. The chain's Coney Island location was shuttered in 2017 after not paying rent. When an outpost on Long Island closed in 2020, it ended Wahlburgers' presence in New York (via Patch). The chain still does not have any restaurants in the Empire State.

You can get an Impossible Burger at Wahlburgers

In case you've been living under a rock the past few years (and we wouldn't blame you if you have), meatless meat has become a pretty big deal in the food world. According to Statista, sales of plant-based meat in the United States surpassed $6.6 billion in 2020. Wanting to carve out their own slice of the giant meatless pie, more and more chain restaurants have begun offering plant-based meat options, including the popular Impossible Burger.

One of these chains is Wahlburgers, which hopped on the Impossible Burger train early. In early 2018, the restaurant unveiled the Wahlburger Impossible Burger at locations nationwide. The burger consists of a 4-ounce, 100% meatless patty, smoked cheddar, lettuce, caramelized onions, and chili-spiced tomatoes. It's topped with chef Paul Wahlberg's signature, house-made Wahlsauce. "Our customers have been asking for a delicious, meatless option and we are always looking for new ways to boost the Wahlburgers experience for our guests," said Wahlberg, who made the decision to add the Impossible Burger to the menu after visiting the company's production facility. It has proven to be an ingenious move. In an interview with Progressive Grocer, chef Paul said the Impossible Burger is now one of the restaurant's top 10 menu items.

Wahlburgers has been sued by people inside the company

Wahlburgers' rise hasn't been without its share of speed bumps, including those of the legal variety. In 2016, a class action lawsuit was filed against the burger chain by employees of its Coney Island location, according to The Hollywood Reporter. The complaint claimed management stole employee wages by paying them for fewer hours than they actually worked as well as holding on to tips left for the staff. "The plaintiffs first went to local management, and they didn't do anything," the plaintiffs' lawyer Mitchell Schley told the outlet. "Then they complained to Paul in Boston, but they were so frustrated after months and months of hearing nothing."

The very next year, Wahlburgers was again getting sued, again by those inside the business. The Wahlberg brothers' business partners Billy Leonard and Edward St. Croix filed a lawsuit against the siblings in February 2017. According to Eater, the pair claimed they were unfairly forced out of their management roles and consequently excluded from the chain's massive expansion deals. The suit also claimed the Wahlberg brothers have a "dysfunctional" relationship and that Mark Wahlberg once physically threatened Leonard. For its part, Wahlburgers denied all allegations, releasing a statement that said, "It's obvious that this lawsuit, with its unbridled litany of false and misleading claims, was concocted to further the plaintiffs' own personal agendas at the expense of the truth, the Wahlberg family and other investors."

You can buy Wahlburgers products at the grocery store

From Taco Bell and Chick-fil-A sauces to frozen White Castle burgers and Boston Market dinners, more and more restaurant products are making their way to the grocery store. In 2018, Wahlburgers became the latest chain to get in on the trend when it introduced a line of retail beef products (via Perishable News). Dubbed "Wahlburgers at Home," the product line consisted of the restaurant's proprietary brisket, short rib, and chuck meat blend in four forms: ground beef, pre-formed patties, pre-formed sliders, and a brick pack. "In all our restaurants and now in our new retail product, we offer a custom blend of angus brisket, chuck, and short rib for great texture and flavor," executive chef Paul Wahlberg said. "We wanted to provide the best cuts of angus beef that's always fresh, never frozen to ensure that every bite is tender, juicy, and packed full of rich flavor."

In 2021, Wahlburgers expanded its product line, teaming up with Coleman Natural Foods for new hot dog and bacon products. The Wahlburgers at Home portfolio also now includes pickles and sauces, as well as new beef blends, such as American Style Kobe and a beef and plant-based blend. "Our goal has always been to continuously expand our retail product line beyond burgers and bring our fans delicious offerings that they can enjoy with their families at home," Wahlberg said. All Wahlburgers at Home products are available at grocery stores nationwide and through the company's website.

Wahlburgers' new CEO was on Undercover Boss twice

In 2020, Wahlburgers made a significant leadership change when it brought in longtime restaurant industry executive John Fuller as its new president and CEO (via Restaurant Business Online). "As our company continues to expand here in the U.S. and across the globe, John's experience and insight into the restaurant business on an international scale will be extremely valuable in ensuring that we set ourselves up for long-term success," the chain's co-owner Mark Wahlberg said in a statement.

If his name doesn't ring a bell, you may recognize Fuller once you see him. After all, he's been on national television not once, but twice. In 2010, when he was working as the president and CEO of Johnny Rockets, Fuller appeared on an episode of "Undercover Boss." It was apparently a worthwhile experience because a few years later, after he had joined The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, Fuller went "Undercover" again, starring in a Season 8 episode of the popular show.

We know the Wahlburgers chain isn't shy when it comes to reality shows. So, since he's now at another new company, will Fuller try to pull off a third "Undercover" performance? Only time will tell.

Wahlburgers has a 'wild' new location

Wahlburgers has expanded to more than 50 locations around the world, but its most recent restaurant stands apart from the rest. In September 2021, the burger chained opened a location inside the Bass Pro Shops Pyramid in Memphis, Tennessee (via FSR Magazine). If you're unfamiliar, the Pyramid is a colossal retail and entertainment center that includes a hotel, heritage center, aquarium, archery and pistol range, and a glass-floored observation deck.

We can now add Wahlburgers to that list. "I think it's a great opportunity for us and it's going to help introduce more people to the Wahlburgers brand," chef Paul Wahlberg said. "And being a chef at heart, I'll get to experiment with a lot of different foods and things like that. It's going to be a lot of fun and we're really excited about it."

Not only is the venue unique, the menu at this location is one-of-a-kind. To go along with the hunting and fishing theme of the Bass Pro Shops, the restaurant referred to as "Wahlburgers Wild" has some unique offerings you won't find at the chain's other spots. These include venison chili, venison bratwurst, gator bites, and a bison burger. "I'm not a hunter, but I sure do like to cook with different things," Wahlberg added. "We're trying to do some different things, but still stay true to our core ... We're trying to make it interesting and fun all at the same time."