Talking Wahlburgers with Donnie Wahlberg

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On the corner of Flamingo and Las Vegas Boulevard, across from the Bellagio, sits a maze of kiosks and counters known as the Grand Bazaar Shops, a spectacle of eateries and boutiques that form the entryway to Bally’s. At the back of that maze, like a shining light at the end of a long tunnel, is Wahlburgers, the renowned burger spot founded by Donnie and Mark Wahlberg in conjunction with their brother Paul, a long-time chef in the Massachusetts area. While I knew the famous family had thrown its hat into the restaurant game via the eponymous A&E reality show, I had never seen an actual Wahlburgers until I noticed the Vegas strip location earlier this year while out for a morning walk. It caught my attention because I had just spent the evening with Donnie and his wife Jenny McCarthy in Hollywood, as part of a Blondie’s tasting event I had organized.

To be transparent, I’ve done some booze consulting for Jenny over the last year as she’s made her way into the pre-mixed cocktail game, and her professionalism coupled with her willingness to learn have impressed me to no end. But my esteem for both Jenny and Donnie went through the roof after watching them interact with their fans at the event we put on together. I spent the better part of three hours standing next to Donnie, helping him take photos and sign autographs, carefully watching his demeanor with the audience. The guy is a serious pro. He’s so easy to like and his conversations with people were genuine and truly caring. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen anyone do customer service on that level with such ease, which is what got me thinking: “Does Donnie’s same aptitude for outstanding service carry over to the Wahlburgers experience as well?”

I needed to find out, so I went back to the Vegas location with my wife and had my first ever Wahlburger. Then I called Donnie up to talk about it with him and share my thoughts. Our conversation is below.

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David: Let me start by saying that I went into the Las Vegas Wahlburgers purposely avoiding the show, so that I would have no expectations for my initial experience. I went out of my way to see nothing and read nothing about Wahlburgers, to remain without bias. I have to tell you: your restaurant is no gimmick. I was imagining it to be more like Shake Shack or In-N-Out, but it’s much more of a legit sit-down dining experience, with a huge menu and a full bar as well!

Donnie: I think what a lot of people don’t realize is that our brother Paul is a real chef. It’s not like he just taught himself to cook being Mark’s chef on a movie set or something; he went to school, he came up through some of the best restaurants in Massachusetts, and ultimately he found his way to his own restaurant. 

David: You’re talking about Alma Nove?

Donnie: Yes, and it’s a true fine dining experience. That’s Paul’s background. 

David: So how did the jump to burgers happen?

Donnie: Mark and I had invested in Alma Nove and it was really successful, so the developer in the area wanted Paul to do a second restaurant. Paul wanted to do a burger spot because there wasn’t one in his town, and he made the unfortunate choice of putting the name Wahlburgers on the sign. That’s when Mark and I said: if you’re going to call it that, and we’re putting up all the money (laughs), we should look at this in a different light because it’s probably not going to be a one-off. The rest is history. 

David: I didn’t realize going in that Paul was such a serious chef. I only found that out later when I started looking more deeply into the company.

Donnie: Yeah, and that speaks to the menu. He’s super creative and he likes to try different things. He didn’t want to make it as simple or predictable as other burger joints that are out there right now.

David: What’s funny, is that the sign of a really great burger joint for me and my wife is actually no longer the burger itself, but rather the quality of the veggie burger, simply because there seems to be so much variation out there. A veggie burger can easily devolve into a mushy mess if it’s not taken seriously, and there are some truly terrible ones out there. What I can tell you in all seriousness is that my wife thought the Wahlburger’s “Impossible” veggie burger was one of the best she’s ever had, anywhere, which is high praise because she’s incredibly picky about her veggie burger.

Donnie: That’s great to hear. I got very involved in the food process with Paul early on. Because he’s a chef with a fine dining background, his burgers tended be a little on the bland side because he wasn’t necessarily thinking like a burger joint. When you go to a nice restaurant you don’t always want salty food, but when you go to a burger joint and you’re eating French fries, you want that salt and that extra seasoning. I pushed Paul to dumb it down just a little bit, and I told him early on: we need a veggie burger. I lived in Hollywood for a long time, I’ve traveled all around the country, so I know that there are a lot of people who want that meatless option.

The “Impossible” veggie burger at Wahlburgers in Las Vegas

The “Impossible” veggie burger at Wahlburgers in Las Vegas

David: So my wife has you to thank for this?

Donnie: Well, initially Paul didn’t want to do it. But it wasn’t because he didn’t want to take care of the people who wanted a veggie burger, it was because he didn’t think there was good enough option out there. He kept coming up with other veggie alternatives, like the Portobello mushroom burger, which was pretty much our only veggie option for a year and a half. That’s all we had. I kept telling him he needed to make a real veggie burger, but he would say: no, there’s nothing good enough. He didn’t want to put a bad veggie burger on the menu just to have one, it had to be the right one. That’s how the impossible burger came to be. 

David: So in a way his stubbornness gave birth to something great. 

Donnie: Yes, I will say this is one of the times that his stubbornness paid off. And it’s an A+ burger. He nailed it. Mark and I, however, were the ones dealing with the complaints, which is why we put pressure on him to deliver it. We were the ones out traveling, talking to people, listening to them say: why isn’t there a veggie burger at Wahlburgers? I would hear that at least five times a week, and now I don’t hear it anymore. Now I hear from you that it’s fantastic, and that’s great news. 

David: It truly is a home run, as are the tater tots. I very much appreciated having those as an option—and not the mushy, Ore-Ida tater tots I remember from the school cafeteria as a kid, but rather crispy, flavorful, mouthwatering tater tots. I will definitely be going back soon just to eat more of those.

Donnie: Paul gets credit for the tater tots, but Mark and I get the credit for the sweet potato tater tots. 

David: What’s your favorite thing to eat when you go?

Donnie: Oh, there’s no deviation for me, ever. I get the barbeque jalapeño bacon burger, which is basically the Donnie burger. That is my recipe. That was my thing from day one. It was influenced from my time living on the west coast. When I moved to California years ago and discovered avocados, that was it. I don’t really eat anything without avocados anymore, so I wanted that on the burger, but I also wanted spice; hence, the jalapeños. So I get that with onion rings and a black and white shake, which is vanilla ice cream and chocolate syrup.

David: Knowing that we were going to talk today, I went back and watched a few older episodes of Wahlburgers. The best episode by far is the one where you have to take over the restaurant for a day after criticizing Paul’s work ethic. The first thing you do is change the milkshake recipe from two scoops of ice cream to four. Did that hold up, or did Paul change it back afterward?

Donnie: It’s not four full scoops today, but he did add more ice cream to the recipe after that. The thing about Paul is that he listens. Believe it or not, he actually trusts me when it comes to food. I’ve experienced a lot of food culture in my life. I’ve eaten at some pretty good restaurants, and I think he sees me—and I see myself—as our target customer. For example, I had a fight with him about bacon. I didn’t think the Wahlburgers bacon was crispy enough on the burger.

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David: My wife is going to love that tidbit! She’s always complaining that the bacon is never crispy enough wherever we go.

Donnie: Exactly, and I told him: Paul, nobody wants to bite into a bacon burger where the bacon is chewy or stretchy. It needs to be crispy, crackling, and full of that great bacon flavor. He really resisted me on that because he probably spent a year perfecting how he thought the bacon should be cooked, and then trained hundreds of people to do it that way. Then I come in as his kooky brother, saying the bacon ain’t crispy enough. He initially thought it was just one particular time, but it was across the board on all the burgers. He kinda gave me a look like he wanted to kill me, then he argued with me, I argued with him, then we asked other people to chime in.

David: What was the feedback?

Donnie: They tended to agree with me, but Paul still said: no, this is how it’s done. But then I came in a week later and Paul said to me: hey, I did something for you and I want you to try it. He presented me with a new bacon burger and it was totally changed. He had taken my advice, gone off to the laboratory, adjusted the bacon, and implemented it. 

David: It sounds like you argue, but in the end he truly reflects on your feedback and takes it to heart.

Donnie: I totally respect Paul. He’s the chef and I don’t bombard him with opinions. But I eat the food from Wahlburgers. I’m there as a customer and someone who loves burgers. Because I pick my spots, and he knows I honestly care, he does adjust. He adjusted the bacon, the milkshakes, and he also adjusted the fries. 

David: The fries, too?

Donnie: I never liked the fries. The onion rings are the greatest onion rings I’ve ever had in my life, and that’s all Paul. Even if I’m on a diet for work, I’m still eating them. Paul nails pretty much everything he does, but I didn’t like the fries originally.

David: So you told Paul and he adjusted them?

Donnie: I don’t know if you know of Daym Drops, but he’s an online food reviewer and he’s hilarious. You should check him out if you have time. He and I became friends and he did a review of Wahlburgers where he said he didn’t like the fries. He gave the burger five stars, but not the fries. So I called him and said: I don’t like the fries either, would you come help me convince my brother to change them? So I brought Daym in and we got Paul to change the fries. As stubborn as he can be, Paul will listen and collaborate on ideas. But only after he’s found the right solution, like with the veggie burger. He doesn’t compromise on quality.

David: It can be very difficult taking feedback, especially from family members where other sensitivities come up, so it’s likely a big part of your success—that as brothers you’re able to work collaboratively and constructively. 

Donnie: For sure.

David and Donnie muggin’ for a selfie

David and Donnie muggin’ for a selfie

David: Real quick, tell me how the new NKOTB tour came together. How did you get all of these idols on one ticket? You’ve got Naughty by Nature, Salt N’ Pepa, Debbie Gibson, and Tiffany. Whose idea was that? Because it’s pretty much my childhood dream come true to see Debbie and Tiffany together.

Donnie: It was born of two things. My band does an annual gig called the Mixtape Festival with a lot of pop groups and rap groups, new and old, and we’ve had artists like LL Cool J, Kelly Clarkson, the Jonas Brothers, to the Backstreet Boys perform with us. But we also do mix-ups during our own concerts where we take a song like “Step By Step” and we add a touch of “Push It” by Salt N’ Pepa to it. I’ve always had this dream of integrating these other acts into our show, so that when we’re singing “Step by Step” it turns into “Push It” and suddenly there they are alongside us. 

David: That sounds like pure magic.

Donnie: When we were going over different concepts for the tour, I thought why not try to do the mixtape show on the road? What if we could even make it a different mixtape every night? I wanted to mash the show up and make the experience feel like a 1980s mixtape—and look like it, too. The stage itself is designed after a boombox and a cassette and the secondary stage is a CD that spins out in the audience. The concept is to create that feeling from when we were kids. 

David: How are people reacting to the announcement?

Donnie: Emotionally, people are reacting the way I would have hoped. What people don’t know, however, is that I’m adding a surprise guest to every city. I’m already reaching out to artists in different places to add an element of surprise every night. Now we just have to execute, which means a lot of long nights in the studio after shooting Blue Bloods, with musicians that we typically work with to build the show. We have great artists though, and I think they’ll have a lot of input to help make this a really special thing.

David: I’m definitely going to the Vegas show at the end of May. I need to make that a scheduling priority.

-David Driscoll