Former Panera exec named Wahlburgers chief executive

By

Wahlburgers, the better burger brainchild of entertainers Donnie and Mark Wahlberg and their chef brother Paul, has hired a former Panera Bread official as chief executive, with the mission of refining and expanding the concept.

Rick Vanzura was Panera’s executive vice president and co-chief operating officer until he left the company last December. Shortly thereafter he began consulting with the Wahlbergs, who then hired him to head up their concept: a flex-casual burger restaurant in which guests on one side of a V-shaped counter order their food takeout style and on the other side get a full bar and table service.

“It’s an interesting model,” Vanzura said. “It has been good for customers in that it really satisfies whatever option they’re in the mood for. It makes the model more complicated to manage, but for customers I think it’s a good thing.”

Located near the shipyard of Hingham, Mass., in the seasonal vacation area of Massachusetts Bay’s South Shore, Wahlburgers is a 4,500-square-foot restaurant, with 60 seats inside and 40 on the patio, that specializes in hamburgers made from a proprietary blend of natural ground beef augmented with such culinary touches as house-made pickles and tomato salsa.

Chef Paul Wahlberg has 25 years cooking experience and is also the chef of the family’s fine dining waterfront restaurant, Alma Nove, which opened in June 2010, also in Hingham, and was recently named best restaurant in the southern Boston metropolitan area by Boston Magazine.

The restaurant doesn’t shy away from promoting its more famous owners, nor their humble origins in the working-class South Boston neighborhood of Dorchester.

The menu’s three specialty burgers are each tagged as being the choice of one of the three brothers. Chef Paul’s choice is the $6.25 signature burger topped with lettuce, tomato, onion, sweet pickles, "Wahl sauce" and "government cheese," which is what the menu calls American cheese.

Mark’s choice is the $7.50 Thanksgiving Burger — a turkey burger with stuffing, roasted butternut squash, orange cranberry sauce and mayonnaise. And Donnie’s choice is a $7.95 BBQ bacon burger with avocado, jalapeños and white Cheddar cheese.

The restaurant also offers hot dogs, and the kids' menu includes chicken fingers and grilled cheese sandwiches.

Beer and wine sales have been robust since the restaurant opened in October, Vanzura said, with hard liquor and mixed drinks being “the spice on top.” Vanzura said the most popular beer is the custom-made Wahlbrewski, an unfiltered pale ale.

Although Boston Magazine called Wahlburgers’ alcohol-spiked frappes the best milkshakes in Boston, Vanzura is considering eliminating hard alcohol from the concept to make it easier to expand without the expense and red tape of full liquor licenses.

Vanzura said he’ll concentrate on refining the concept over the course of the summer and then expanding in the Boston area.

“We’re much more concerned with getting it right than getting a lot of units open quickly,” he said, adding that he'll open a second unit, if all goes well, in the first half of next year.

“Eventually franchising is an interesting option, but for now our main focus is on having good brand control, initially in Boston,” Vanzura said, noting that chains run into trouble if they haven’t nailed down their brand identity before trying to expand.

“For the next few years the primary focus is going to be on company-owned [restaurants] in the Boston area,” he said. “But very interesting opportunities come up with the Wahlbergs, so never say never.”

Contact Bret Thorn at bret.thorn@penton.com.
Follow him on Twitter: @foodwriterdiary