Some business owners in downtown Raleigh have a beef with Wahlburgers.
The burger chain, owned by the family of actors Mark and Donnie Wahlberg, said this month it would open its first North Carolina location in early 2017 in The Hudson on Fayetteville Street.
The news sparked excitement from people eager to eat at the restaurant, which is the basis of a reality show by the same name on A&E. But some local business owners say they worry chain restaurants will move in and capitalize on the work they’ve done to make downtown a more lively place.
“Small business is what created this unique downtown that we have, and we owe a lot to our small business culture downtown,” said Zack Medford, president of Isaac Hunter’s Hospitality, which includes Paddy O’Beers, Coglin’s Raleigh and Isaac Hunter’s Tavern. “I think bringing in national chains is a threat to what we have built here and what makes Raleigh so great.”
Van Alston, who has owned Slim’s since the bar opened on Wilmington Street in 1999, said downtown entrepreneurs have worked hard to create a place where home-grown concepts thrive. He is also a partner in several local businesses, including the Ruby Deluxe bar on Fayetteville Street and MoJoe’s Burger Joint in the Glenwood South neighborhood.
“I think it sort of sucks the soul out of downtown,” Alston said of chain businesses and franchises. “I prefer quirky and unique.”
The Downtown Raleigh Alliance, a nonprofit that focuses on downtown revitalization, was approached by a broker about the space for Wahlburgers, said Bill King, senior director of planning and development for the group.
The alliance celebrated the news in a tweet: “#MarkyMark is feeling those #goodvibrations in #downtownRaleigh! We showed Wahlburgers the space where the Oxford used to be, and they’ll be opening next year!”
Locally owned businesses downtown outnumber chains and franchises, King said. Eighteen restaurants have opened downtown this year, and only two were non-local.
The alliance continues working to attract new locally owned retail stores. In the past year, King said, the group has given grants to small retailers to help them get started.
“What makes downtown interesting are the local businesses,” he said.
But successful business districts include a mix of national and local businesses, King said, adding that continued downtown growth would help local entrepreneurs. If people come downtown to eat, they might stick around to shop or grab a drink.
Pam Blondin, owner of the gift shop DECO Raleigh, said she was ambivalent about Wahlburgers. She said, though, that she would rather see a franchise than an empty storefront. The Oxford space has been shuttered for about eight months.
“I prefer to celebrate new opportunities to figure out what works,” Blondin wrote in an email. “When it comes down to it, a retail or restaurant will succeed if it gives the customers what they want.”
Jason Smith, who owns 18 Seaboard with his wife on the northern end of downtown, said his restaurant saw an uptick in business when Bad Daddy’s Burger Bar, a chain, opened nearby in 2012.
Smith said people used to regularly ask him why he decided to open a restaurant in the area.
“Now nobody says that,” he said.
‘The next level’
Wahlburgers opened its first restaurant in a Boston suburb in 2011. Last year it announced that it hoped to open 100 new locations over the next five years. So far, the chain – mostly owned by franchisees – has restaurants in New York, Florida and Pennsylvania. The Raleigh location also will be owned by a franchisee.
Kelvin Dumas of Colliers International, who brokered the Raleigh deal, said Wahlburgers will be good for downtown, and he thinks people from as far away as 100 miles will come to get an “Our Burger” with secret “Wahl” sauce.
“I think that the exposure that Wahlburgers will bring to that location will take it to the next level,” he said.
Still, some people aren’t so sure.
Brent Woodcox, a Raleigh attorney and staffer at the state General Assembly, wrote on Twitter: “We need to be supporting homegrown entrepreneurs right here in Raleigh that are hungry for an opportunity. They’re out there and ready.”
Chris Cioffi: 919-829-4802, @ReporterCioffi