If you want to be among the first to try the new Raleigh Wahlburgers, run, don't walk to Fayetteville Street.
The celebrity burger franchise started its soft opening Wednesday afternoon and is now open for regular business. The brown paper is off the windows.
The celebrity-owned burger joint from Mark, Donnie and Paul Wahlberg opened seven years ago outside of Boston. It’s now the focus of an A&E reality show, “Wahlburgers,” and has locations in a dozen states from coast to coast.
The Raleigh Wahlburgers has been the cause of glee, consternation and confusion since it was announced a year and a half ago. Interest in the project was huge from the get-go, but there were also detractors critical of a new chain moving into downtown Raleigh, and those who saw nothing but brown paper on the windows questioning whether it would ever open at all.
Last month, we got a peek inside and talked to Drew Doss, regional director of operations for the Carolina Burger Company, which owns the franchise rights to Wahlburgers in the Southeast.
Here’s what we learned.
So, this is really happening?
It is. Wahlburgers first announced downtown Raleigh had caught its eye in September 2016, with plans to open by early 2017. Renovating the former Oxford gastropub space at 319 Fayetteville St. turned into a rebuild, and that deadline evaporated. Construction was off and on, with most of it taking place over the last six months. But the Raleigh Wahlburgers is finally here.
You're saying it's open?
Last month, the dining room and kitchen were complete, and some staff members trained at the Myrtle Beach, S.C., location. Doss said last month the restaurant expects to begin with a soft opening by starting service unannounced one day. That day appears to have arrived.
What about the Wahlbergs? Are Mark, Donnie or Paul going to visit the Raleigh burger joint?
Doss said last month they’d love nothing more than the celebrity namesakes of their Wahlburgers to make the trip to Raleigh, as the famous brothers have with other locations. But a franchise doesn’t necessarily buy a Wahlberg appearance.
In other words, Doss said, there’s no guarantee and nothing in the works. The most famous Wahlbergs have not yet visited the sister location in Myrtle Beach, S.C., which opened a year and a half ago, but brother Bob and nephew Brandon stopped by over the summer.
“You never know, that’s always the answer,” Doss said.
OK, well what’s on the menu?
First and foremost, this is a burger joint, aiming for upscale fast-casual. There are single, double and triple patty classic burgers, each featuring “Wahl sauce,” which is a blend of ketchup, mayo, pureed caramelized onions, pickles and other spices. A classic burger and fries will start at $11.50.
Heartier burgers include a patty melt, an open-faced sloppy Joe, and Donnie’s favorite, a barbecue bacon burger with fresh jalapenos, bacon, barbecue sauce and avocado spread. Mark Wahlberg endorses the Thanksgiving Day Sandwich, a turkey burger topped with stuffing, orange-cranberry sauce and roasted butternut squash.
There’s a roster of milkshakes, a few salads, mac and cheese for the burger averse and onion rings, tots and sweet potato tots beyond the fries. The beers are mostly from big national breweries, but there are a couple taps reserved for regional beers. There’s also a proprietary collaboration with Boston brewery Harpoon called the “Wahlbrewski,” a lager.
The restaurant itself is kind of split in two, with half offering full service and half for diners ordering from a counter and alerted via pager when their order is up.
Is everyone thrilled Wahlburgers is here?
Not exactly. There’s a ton of buzz around the Raleigh Wahlburgers, with a couple thousand people following the restaurant’s progress on Facebook, and many urging owners to hurry the project along, eager to try the burgers. Following the announcement in 2016, some residents spoke out against the chain moving into downtown Raleigh, perceived to take advantage of a bustling food scene built largely by independent restaurants.
Doss said he’s heard the criticism, and even has been yelled at on the street while wearing a Wahlburgers hoodie. But he said his group isn’t out to take business.
“The more successful businesses there are on Fayetteville Street, the better it is for all of us,” Doss said. “This spot is ideal. It’s the heartbeat of downtown Raleigh.”
Who are these Wahlberg brothers anyway?
Even if you’ve never been to Boston or seen the movies “Ted,” “The Departed” or “Boogie Nights” or the show “Blue Bloods,” chances are you’re still generally aware of actors Mark and Donnie Wahlberg. Before Donnie Wahlberg became an actor, he was one of the members of New Kids on the Block, one of the biggest boy bands in history. Mark was known as Marky Mark, leader of the Funky Bunch, and was a Calvin Klein model. Younger brother Paul Wahlberg worked as a chef and restauranteur before the show and burger chain.
Who’s running the Wahlburgers here?
The Raleigh franchise is owned by Greg Pranzo, operating under the company name Carolina Burger Company. Pranzo owns the Myrtle Beach location and has plans to open Wahlburgers in the Ballentine area of Charlotte, as well as Memphis, Nashville and San Diego.