Ask A Chef: Wahlburgers Dishes on Menu Trends, Retail Partnerships
The Wahlburgers casual-dining restaurant and bar has quietly grown to 37 units in 18 states and two foreign countries. Well known for burgers made from a proprietary beef blend, and the involvement of Chef Paul Wahlberg’s celebrity brothers and co-founders Mark and Donnie — note how the name of the restaurant is a play on the family surname that incorporates the chief item on the menu — Wahlburgers recently named fast-casual veteran John Fuller CEO and struck a deal with Hy-Vee to convert the West Des Moines, Iowa-based grocer’s Market Grille locations to Wahlburgers. Progressive Grocer spoke recently with Chef Paul.
Progressive Grocer: What’s the best thing you’ve had to eat in the past week?
Paul Wahlberg: I made dinner for my daughter and I at home. We had seared salmon with vegetables with Indian spices, and then finished it with a roasted-carrot yogurt.
PG: Where do you find inspiration for new menu items?
MEET PAUL WAHLBERG
PW: I find it everywhere. You never know what you are going to run into or what kind of conversations you are going to have. When you talk about food from your past, something always pops up, and then trying to turn that into something contemporary really helps out. You may run into a vegetable and think, “This would be good with X,” or you may run into a method of preparation and think, “Oh my God, this would be amazing with Y.” You never know where it is going to come from. I think about food all the time.
PG: What’s the hottest trend you see in the food world right now, whether in restaurants or retail?
PW: There was a re-emergence of comfort foods as people hunkered down, and plant-based items are huge. Comfort food is a core thing for people that puts people at ease, in a state of mind. From-scratch cooking is huge now, too.
PG: Food trends can be all over the place, so do you have to avoid getting too crazy or you risk alienating customers?
PW: At the end of the day, we are a burger joint, so we have to stay true to the core of what we do. That, to me, is the most important thing.
PG: Do you ever feel constrained?
PW: Absolutely. We are more constrained by the equipment piece of it. We don’t have a lot of equipment that you would see if [we were] more of a full-service restaurant. We don’t have any ovens on the line, so I can’t make anything that requires an oven. You want to get a little more creative or experimental, but it is hard.
PG: Have you tasted any of the plant-based burgers?
PW: We did a tasting a few years back on the plant-based burgers, and we made the decision to offer the Impossible Burger in our restaurants. It is now one of the top 10 items on our menu, and in the past, I would have never thought we would see that. They did a really good job with it. They have the texture and flavor down.
PG: Would you consider creating a proprietary plant-based blend like you did with the Wahlburgers beef blend?
PW: I don’t know if I’m going to go that far. Way smarter people than I are working on plant-based products now, and they are coming up with some amazing things.
PG: How did Wahlburgers adjust when COVID-19 hit?
PW: Some of our locations closed down, and some were able to provide takeout. We had a good following early on, but as we got more involved with some of the digital platforms, things really escalated. How each location responded was different, based on local regulations.
PG: Talk about the Hy-Vee relationship and plans to convert the company’s 21 Market Grille concepts to Wahlburgers. Where are things at with that?
PW: We opened a few of the locations earlier this summer, and they have been doing fantastic. They put a ton of work into it, and they are such great partners. They really get it and are all about customer service. We are so happy with everything they have been doing and where things are going.
PG: You recently named a new CEO, John Fuller, with a strong background at some well-known fast-casual concepts. How do you expect him to help the business?
PW: He’s a fantastic, solid guy and super-talented. He knows the ins and outs of international [business] and understands the complexities of the industry and compliance challenges. He’s really going to help us expand our base.
PG: What is your aspiration when it comes to expansion?
PW: I’m just worried about the next burger going out. That is my No. 1 concern. Whatever the restaurant becomes, I will be happy with that. If we get to a certain number, and that is as many as we have, then that is what we have. We have to make sure every location executes at a high level. We want to be best in class with the best customer service, the best-quality food and the best customer experience. That is the only thing that I want to focus on, because that is what’s going to drive the business.
PG: How much help do you get from your brothers Mark and Donnie?
PW: They are both unbelievable and have really good insight. They don’t want to work on the day-to-day stuff, but if you ask big-picture questions, they really get it, because of their backgrounds in the entertainment industry. They are always extremely helpful.