Bloomin’ Brands Struggles in Quarter, as Chain Restaurants Face New Chef-Inspired Concepts

November 9, 2015

Justine Griffin
© 2015 Tampa Bay Times

While the “anti-chain” movement across the U.S. isn’t new, it is slowing down sales at some of the best known restaurant brands, including Outback Steakhouse and Carrabba’s Italian Grill. Bloomin’ Brands, the Tampa parent of Outback and Carrabba’s, is the most muscular restaurant company in Tampa Bay with $4.4 billion in revenue last year and 1,500 restaurants worldwide. But it’s anything but local to consumers here.

The company on Tuesday reported disappointing sales for the third quarter for most of its brands. CEO Liz Smith said casual dining as a segment in the hospitality industry was down from July to September, not just at their in-house brands.
“We knew the trends would be challenged,” Smith said. “And our marketing didn’t break through as expected.”

Bonefish Grill, which was intended to be the engine powering new growth for Bloomin’ Brands’ restaurant portfolio this year, saw the steepest declines, with sales down 6.1 percent for the quarter and traffic down 8.5 percent. It’s the second quarter of decline for Bonefish, which is in a competitive class of “polished casual” chain restaurants, and tends to be more pricey than dining experiences like a TGI Fridays or Olive Garden. The menu quality is more on par with restaurants like Seasons 52 or Carmel Cafe.

Carrabba’s Italian Grill reported a decline in the quarter of 2 percent sales and Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar saw a 0.6 percent drop.

Outback Steakhouse, which performed well in new international markets like Brazil, was the only brand to report modest growth, at 0.1 percent, this quarter.

Chain restaurants are struggling to meet the changing trends fueled by younger demographics in the U.S., said Darren Tristano, executive vice president with Technomic, a restaurant research firm in Chicago.

“These are the same issues that most casual dining restaurants face today,” Tristano said. “Bloomin’ is no different than Darden” — the Orlando parent of Olive Garden and several other chains — “and most others in this regard.”

Another blow landed this summer when Bloomin’ Brands lost a bid to open an Outback Steakhouse and a Bonefish Grill in Tampa International Airport after $953 million in terminal renovations. The aviation authority board sought to make the airport’s restaurants feel more local, and one board member noted the company’s widely located chains made it feel less so. The Carrabba’s in the main terminal, which opened in 2008, is slated to close next spring.

Millennials and generation X-ers look for value but tend to try locally owned or chef-inspired restaurants rather than a chain, so it’s difficult for the casual dining chain restaurant to stand out in what’s become a very competitive market, Tristano said.

“It’s hard for chains to add more regional flavors to a menu, like local craft beer or local food options that the independent restaurants can do so easily,” he said. “They need to be more innovative and focus on the strengths that they do have, which usually is price, to get the attention of this next generation customer.”

Outback Steakhouse will roll out a new mobile phone app next year, which the restaurant chain has been testing in Tampa Bay. Through the app, customers can add their names to the wait list before they arrive at a restaurant, place take out orders and use to pay at the table.

“We will continue to invest in this kind of innovative tech platforms,” Smith said during Tuesday’s earnings call.

Carrabba’s Italian Grill will debut a simpler menu next year. Fewer items will be available, but the chain will add a new small plates category for tapas-style sharing at the table. Bloomin’ also changed the menu at Bonefish Grill earlier this year, with the same “less is more” theme.

“Too much on the menu overwhelms the customer,” Tristano said.

It also keeps food costs down, said Brian Connors, with Connors Davis Hospitality, a restaurant consulting firm in South Florida.

“Chains are the safe choice. Customers know what they’re going to get there and the restaurants know what they’re good at,” Connors said.

Bloomin’ Brands plans to continue to expand aggressively in new international markets like Korea and China. Much of the company’s growth has come from international openings this year.

“They don’t have to reinvent the wheel this way,” Connors said. But in this country, he suggested, they’ll need to come up with something new to keep attracting diners.

“We’ve entered this new age of adventure eating. Food recipes is one of the highest pinned categories on Pinterest,” Connors said. “People are willing and wanting to try something new.”

Bloomin’s brands: Tough quarter for sales
U.S. sales in the last four quarters
BrandQ3Q2Q1Q4 (2014)
Outback Steakhouse0.1 %4%5%6.4%
Carrabba’s Italian Grill- 2%2%1.9%0.3%
Bonefish Grill- 6.1%-4.6%0.9%0.7%
Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar- 0.6%3.2%3.0%3.4%
Source: Bloomin’ Brands

Wendy’s to Look Into Dropping Antibiotics

July 31, 2015

wendys-chickenJD Malone
(c) 2015 Columbus Dispatch. All Rights Reserved.

Instead of a spicy rub or a slice of artisanal cheese, Wendy’s latest chicken sandwich is getting attention for what it won’t have.

The Dublin-based chain is poised to begin testing antibiotic-free chicken in several cities as it tests both consumer response and its supply chain.

Wendy’s plans to test a new chicken sandwich in mid-August in seven markets, and antibiotic-free chicken in four of those seven — Orlando, Fla., Gainesville, Fla., Kansas City, Mo., and Austin, Texas.

Central Ohio won’t see the new chicken unless it goes nationwide. That move is pretty likely as long as there is enough antibiotic-free chicken available, analysts say.

Further details on Wendy’s plans were not forthcoming.

Still, analysts think it’s the right move to swim with other chains doing similar things. McDonalds, Chipotle and Chick-fil-A have all pledged to remove antibiotics from their chicken. Big producers including Tyson and Perdue also have announced a pivot away from using antibiotics unless medically necessary.

“On the list of bad words, antibiotic had definitely moved up,” said Darren Tristano, vice president at Technomic, a Chicago-based food-service analysis and consulting firm. “The overall trend is taking things (thought to be) harmful out of the supply chain. Consumers want this.”

“The time is ripe,” said Tim Powell, principal of Think Marketing, a Dublin-based food-service consultant. “Today’s consumer is far better-educated on where their food is coming from, and they have shown they will pay more for it.”

The new chicken will also be used in salads and other menu items featuring grilled chicken.

Wendy’s has been looking to tweak its menu lately.

Earlier this year, the chain tested a black bean veggie burger in Columbus and received a lot of attention for trying a nonmeat sandwich. There’s no word on whether that sandwich will join the chain’s menu permanently, but it’s part of a bigger strategy among quick-service chains to keep up with fast-casual restaurants such as Chipotle.

They have to speak the same language to lure similar customers.

“You have to do things like this,” Tristano said. “You don’t want to be one of the last. You want to be one of the first.”

Campbell Soup to Invest $20M Into Ferndale Operation

July 2, 2015

Sherri Welch;
(c) 2015 Crain Communications, Inc. All rights reserved.

Campbell Soup Co. plans to invest $20 million in the Garden Fresh Gourmet Ferndale facilities as part of its commitment to keep the company’s operations in Michigan, said Garden Fresh Founder and CEO Jack Aronson.

Camden, N.J.-based Campbell (NYSE: CPB) plans to add production space through expansions of the current Garden Fresh manufacturing facilities in Ferndale, which include a 25,000-square-foot salsa plant and a 28,000-square-foot site that produces hummus under the Garden Fresh and other brands.

Also on tap for the plants: new product lines and other modernization of the facilities, Aronson said.

Campbell confirmed it plans to invest in the business but declined to discuss specifics, saying it is still developing plans.

Though companies including T. Marzetti Co., PepsiCo Inc. and Nestle USAhad approached Garden Fresh about acquiring the company previously, none of them felt right, Aronson said. “We weren’t for sale.”

But the Bolthouse plant in Bakersfield, Calif., was “the first culture we ever found that mirrored ours.”

“You know if you go through a plant if people are happy (by) the way they talk to management,” he said. “If we were going to sell, it was going to be to these guys.”

What sealed the deal, Aronson said, was the fact that Campbell said it was going to keep the company’s operations in Michigan, retain the current workforce of over 450 people and make investments.

“It was a great opportunity for our team, the city of Ferndale and our state,” he said.

It also helped lay to rest the couple’s biggest fear: that they would have to lay off employees. Given the debt the company had taken on to accommodate its growth, “if there would have been a catastrophe of any kind, we would have had to lay people off because we didn’t have a pot of cash,” Aronson said.

Aronson will remain an adviser to Bolthouse/Garden Fresh, helping to work on new recipes for existing product lines which include salsa, chips, hummus and dips and developing them for new products.

As for the recipes he developed to this point: Campbell’s President and CEO Denise Morrison, “said they’d never change a (Garden Fresh) recipe without our approval,” Aronson said.

Big business

Though Garden Fresh has the leading U.S. market share among fresh salsas, it’s only sold in about 25 percent of the grocery and big box (like Costco) stores across the country, Aronson said.

Overall, the industry of making salsa is considered a mature market worth more than $900 million in the U.S., according to a February report by Australian research firm IBISWorld Inc.

But revenue growth potential has driven the large players to expansion, including manufacturing efficiencies, increased domestic production and acquisitions. Discretional spending is also increasing abroad, improving export conditions for U.S. salsa makers.

As for the Garden Fresh brand under new ownership, it will have access to a much larger distribution network as a part of the Campbell Fresh division, Bolthouse Farms and a team of 26 or more national sales people selling it vs. three, Aronson said.

“With the clout that Campbell’s and its international partners bring, Garden Fresh will get the attention of markets and new consumers never imagined in the past, said Ken Nisch, chairman of the Southfield-based retail consulting firm JGA Inc., in an email.

With Michigan’s agricultural capacity, hopefully, there will be opportunities to not only keep but also expand food manufacturing and processing in Michigan as Campbell’s increases distribution and develops other products under the Garden Fresh brand, he said.

The Garden Fresh brand is about fresh and from the garden, said Darren Tristano, executive vice president of Chicago-based food research and consulting firm Technomic Inc. “It has a health halo around it (and) is a really strong place to start if you’re Campbell,” trying to break further into the fresh market.

“If they want to leverage this brand…they really need to build the story behind it, communicate to the customer what it is, what it’s representing,” he said.

Analysts: Tia ‘Blew It’ Passing Up Outback

June 30, 2015

0411750336_15422277_8colJustine Griffin
Copyright 2015 Times Publishing Company. All Rights Reserved.

With ubiquitous chains like Outback Steakhouse, Bonefish Grill, Carrabba’s Italian Grill and Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse, Tampa-based Bloomin’ Brands is the most muscular restaurant company in Tampa Bay.

It employs nearly 95,000 people in its 1,500 restaurants worldwide. It had $4.4 billion in revenue last year. It sponsors the Outback Bowl, one of Tampa Bay’s signature sporting events.

Earlier this year, Bloomin’ put in a bid to be a concessionaire at Tampa International Airport as part of a $953 million renovation there. Bloomin’ has had a Carrabba’s at the airport since 2008.

But airport staff rejected Bloomin’s bid, as did the Hillsborough Aviation Authority on June 4 when it voted to accept Guy Harvey RumFish Grill, the Cafe by Mise en Place and Four Green Fields instead, as it sought to make the airport’s restaurants feel more local. One board member, Hillsborough County Commissioner Victor Crist, said Bloomin’s success worked against it – “Sometimes when you get too big, you lose your local identity,” he said.

But industry experts scoff at that notion and say the airport botched an opportunity to not only highlight a restaurant chain that has represented the Tampa Bay area as well as anyone, but to give travelers a familiar local restaurant brand to patronize.

“Frankly, if anyone is local to Tampa, it’s Outback,” said Malcolm Knapp, a restaurant economist in New York. “I think the airport authority just blew it. This decision is not the best for the traveling public.”

Officials with Bloomin’ Brands declined to comment for this story.

Tampa Bay has long had a reputation for being the home of chain restaurants. Hooter’s, Beef ‘O’ Brady’s and Checkers all have headquarters here. Bloomin’ was among the first. It opened in Tampa in 1988 with just one Australian-themed steakhouse.

“It’s a disadvantage to the airport, and disrespectful not to consider a brand whose roots come from that very community,” said Darren Tristano, executive vice president with Technomic, a restaurant research firm in Chicago. “Bloomin’ Brands helps drive the local economy and provides local employment. The airport’s decision seems shortsighted.”

The Carrabba’s in the airport’s main terminal will be replaced by a P.F. Chang’s, an Asian-themed international restaurant chain with no ties to Tampa Bay other than a few locations here. It is one of several national chains included in the mix of new airport restaurants including Wendy’s, Hard Rock Cafe and Chick-fil-A.

“We had a committee in place to evaluate the bid proposals and choose which ones would be best,” said airport spokeswoman Janet Zink. “There were lots of great concepts proposed that didn’t get picked.”

Bloomin’ had hoped to add an Outback Steakhouse and a Bonefish Grillat the airport.

“The average restaurant-goer doesn’t know that Bloomin’ Brands is from Tampa, or even what Bloomin’ Brands is,” said Brian Connors of Connors DavisHospitality, a global food and beverage consulting firm in Fort Lauderdale. “But they know what Outback is or what Carrabba’s is. No one is winning on either side here. There will be local restaurants and there will be other chain restaurants. Why the airport didn’t choose the chain that is from there, I don’t know.”

That brand recognition that Bloomin’ has makes it a natural fit for an airport, Knapp said.

More than 40 percent of shoppers prefer to dine at national chains in airports, according to a 2013 survey by the Airports Council International, whereas 36 percent of travelers will try restaurants unique to that region.

“People who are traveling are going to gravitate toward brands they’re comfortable with and what they know,” Knapp said. “They don’t want to take any chances when they know they’re in a rush. That’s why too many local options doesn’t serve the total population of the airport well.”

New TIA Restaurant Lineup Represents Wave of the Future

June 18, 2015

screen-shot-2015-06-08-at-12602-pm-750xx1143-643-0-0Eric Snider
© 2015 American City Business Journals, Inc. All rights reserved.

“We’re building an airport for tomorrow, not yesterday,” says Maryann Ferenc, who is part of a team that landed a food-and-beverage concessions contract at Tampa International Airport.

The TIA board recently finalized its sweeping Concessions Redevelopment Program, part of a $940 million facility expansion.

The airport of tomorrow relies heavily on homegrown restaurants and bars. That’s particularly true for TIA, whose exhaustive bid and selection process forged a brand mix that will be roughly half local and half national/international when it’s fully rolled out in 2017.

The days of major airports housing predominantly familiar chain restaurants are waning, say experts in the field.

“The consumer has become more interested in supporting independent restaurants, and younger consumers particularly align with smaller brands,” says Darren Tristano, executive vice president of Technomic, a Chicago-based food industry research firm. “In Chicago, when they got rid of chains and put a [local institution] Billy Goat Tavern in O’Hare, we heard nothing but positive response.”

Today’s travelers are increasingly interested in their destination’s sense of place, and that includes airports, which can serve as introductions to the larger community experience.

But some factions are concerned that too much emphasis on local brands might alienate hurried and harried travelers. Does a young family of four heading to the Midwest want to grab a nosh at Chili’s or take a chance on Tampa-founded Ducky’s Sports Lounge?

If revenue is the key objective, the naysayers contend, familiar offerings make more sense.

Bloomin’ Brands joined major airport concessionaire HMS Host in a bid to put an Outback Steakhouse and a Bonefish Grill at TIA. After ranking second to TPA Hospitality — led locally by Ferenc, who owns Mise en Place — HMS Host/Bloomin’ Brands filed an official protest to the airport.

As part of its argument, Bloomin’ told TBBJ of an anonymous, third-party survey it conducted. The results, said spokeswoman Elizabeth Watts, showed that travelers were 2.6 times more likely to visit Outback, Bonefish and Edison Food + Drink Lab (the third brand in the package, based in Tampa) than the roster posed by TPA Hospitality.

The TIA board rejected the protest, and the airport will get TPA’s all-local Rumfish Grill, Four Green Fields and The Café by Mise en Place.

The chain-vs.-local argument will play out most vividly in TIA’s Airside C. Exclusive to Southwest Airlines, it accounts for the highest passenger traffic of any airside: 35.3 percent of visitors, 6.1 million of them in fiscal year 2014. Currently, the Chili’s there — which will be phased out when the existing concessions contract ends this year — is the top-grossing restaurant at the airport.

When the new program is fully operational, Airside C will feature an almost exclusively local lineup:

Casual restaurants Cigar City Brewing, Rumfish Grill, PDQ, and Burger 21. A market concept that includes Bavaro’s, Louis Pappas Fresh Greek, Goody Goody burgers, Café Con Leche, Ulele Bar and Fitlife Foods. The only international brand is Starbucks Coffee.

Will that collection generate proportionately weaker sales than that of the main terminal, with its national/global brands Hard Rock Café, P.F. Chang’s, Qdoba Mexican Grill, Chick-Fil-A and Wendy’s?

We should have a fairly clear answer by 2020.

Big-picture thinkers contend that the TIA concessions program of the future should not solely be focused on the bottom line.

“The airport will be key in establishing Tampa Bay’s brand with visitors,” says Ferenc, who is a member of the federal Travel and Tourism Advisory Board. “When you think about where it puts us in drawing our share of the market that’s coming to Florida, it bolsters Tampa as an authentic place to go. Tourism-wise, our airport will be able to tell our story better than Orlando and Miami, and further define what Tampa is among Florida cities.”

App May Offer Doughnuts on Demand ; Dunkin’ is Exploring a Delivery Service

June 17, 2015

8849e1f883b10fbaf86357823c2ecf69Taryn Luna
© 2015 The Boston Globe. Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning. All Rights Reserved.

At a time when a consumer can use an app on a smartphone to have a bottle of whiskey or an iPad Air delivered to the door in an hour, an instant order of munchkins and a Box O’ Joe might not be far behind.

Dunkin’ Donuts is the latest quick-service restaurant chain to wade into the so-called on-demand economy, acknowledging Monday that it is evaluating delivery services in conjunction with new mobile ordering technology the coffee-and-doughnuts chain is developing.

Dunkin’ is following in the footsteps of two rivals, Starbucks Corp. and McDonald’s Corp., both of which are testing deliveries to homes and offices this year.

Nigel Travis, chief executive of Dunkin’ Brands Group, the parent company, called delivery a “big opportunity” in an interview with CNBC.

The company said delivery might be built into an application currently in development. The app, which Dunkin’ began testing last year, would allow customers to order and purchase coffee and food on a smartphone and pick it up at a store.

Dunkin’ declined to provide details about how a delivery service would work and said it has not begun to test the system.

Dunkin’ Donuts and other fast-food chains face a particular challenge in delivering products: keeping their hot food and drinks at the right temperatures, said Darren Tristano, an executive vice president at Technomic Inc., a Chicago food industry research firm. While things like pizza and Chinese food retain heat during transport, Tristano said, some fast-food products don’t survive as well.

“It might reflect negatively on the brand,” Tristano said. “There’s great risk along with the opportunities.”

Food chains are quickly trying to catch up with the explosive popularity of on-demand delivery services such as Postmates and GrubHub, which can provide nearly anything consumers want, whenever they want it. The chains also hope deliveries will increase sales in a relatively stagnant quick-service industry.

Dunkin’ Donuts’ same-store sales in the United States increased 1.6 percent in fiscal 2014, compared with 3.4 percent the year before. Meanwhile, McDonald’s comparable sales declined 2.1 percent in 2014. Starbucks, the leading coffee and bakery chain in the country, reported a 6 percent jump during the same period.

Earlier this year, Starbucks and McDonald’s said they both planned to work with Postmates, the San Francisco-based 24-hour service, to deliver in select markets. Customers place orders on the Postmates app or website and local couriers pick up the goods from restaurants and stores. An order of a Big Mac and medium fries from McDonald’s, which includes a $5 delivery fee, costs about $11.

Although many consumers already can order a Big Mac or a Frappuccino through the Postmates system, the partnerships allow companies to integrate the ordering process into the food chains’ own mobile applications, control the transaction, and track consumer interests, Tristano said.

Starbucks said it will launch a “Green Apron” program with actual baristas delivering coffee in New York later this year.

Dunkin’s delivery and mobile ordering initiatives are being led by Scott Hudler, global vice president of consumer engagement.

The company said he was not available for an interview.

Tristano said Dunkin’s delivery service would probably increase sales modestly as existing customers shift to delivery. He said the service would appeal to consumers who are physically unable to visit a store, don’t have a car, don’t want to deal with parking, or “are just lazy and don’t want to get up and go.”

Wahlburgers Goes for Burger Gold

June 12, 2015

pictureBy Joel Stein

Paul Wahlberg wanted to open a small restaurant in his hometown. Then his two famous brothers got involved

Paul Wahlberg can’t concentrate. He keeps looking around, fixating on a sticker stuck on a light and then a tiny carpet stain. Finally he can’t take it anymore and bolts up to correct the way an employee is changing a bulb. This isn’t a guy who should be starting a nationwide fast-food franchise. This is a man who should be placed gently back in his very small kitchen, with a limited number of things to stress about, as he has for decades as a cook at Boston restaurants including Alma Nove, an Italian restaurant he named after his sweet mother, Alma. After he comes back to the table, his eyes keep darting back and forth. “I got to touch up some paint,” he says. “I’m not telling you where.”

Paul’s two younger brothers are Mark (The Fighter, Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch) and Donnie (CBS’s Blue Bloods, New Kids on the Block), both charismatic, fast-moving celebrities with agents, managers, and—as seen on HBO—entourages. They’re also Paul’s business partners in Wahlburgers, which until earlier this year was one little mall burger joint in Hingham, a suburb 30 minutes from Boston. In 2015, Wahlburgers plans to open dozens of locations in Florida, Las Vegas, New York, the Middle East, and several airports. They marketed it through a cartoonish reality show on A&E called Wahlburgers that’s even less suited for serious, shy Paul, 50, with his gray sweater zipped up to the very top. It’s a show about a neurotic chef who is mocked and terrorized by his cooler, easygoing famous brothers.

“In a perfect world, Paul would have the one restaurant and in eight years possibly open a second restaurant,” says Mark, 43, calling from a golf course in Los Angeles. But once Paul invoked the family name, Mark decided to plan a full chain and pitch the reality show. “I said, ‘Paul, if you want to build a one-off, call it Paul’s Burger.’ I wanted to grow a real business that was passed on to future generations.” (Among them, the three brothers have eight kids.)

Donnie, 45, had to find a way to get Paul and Mark to compromise, slowing Mark down to assure quality and speeding Paul up to begin expansion. In 2014, Donnie took a train to Hingham every time he had a break from taping Blue Bloods in New York. Sometimes he’d write menu descriptions, but more often he’d try to convince Paul that Wahlburgers had to grow more quickly. “Paul’s so intense that everything gets heated. If one tomato is sliced wrong, he’d be on the verge of a nervous breakdown,” he says. There are nine siblings, and while Donnie and Mark share the fame thing, Donnie’s always been closest to Paul, so it fell on him to determine how to scale his older brother’s burgers. They cost $7.15 to $9.50 and are high-enough quality to satisfy fans who traveled for a special experience but not so expensive that they’re untrue to lower-class, Southie roots, the essence of the Wahlberg brand.

“What people generally think about Mark and Donnie Wahlberg is that they are hardworking people who are hustling and humble,” says Cory Isaacson, a partner at the marketing agency Walton Isaacson, which promoted Bethenny Frankel’s Skinnygirl brand when she was on The Real Housewives of New York. “If Katy Perry opened a burger joint, no one would think she’s actually affiliated with it.”

Mark said, “‘Paul, if you want to build a one-off, call it Paul’s Burger.’ I wanted to grow a real business.”

Based on that logic, the Wahlbergs believe they can win the ongoing burger war in the U.S. The battle kicked off a few years ago, when McDonald’s started teetering; earlier this year it fired its chief executive officer after its worst sales slump since 2001. In the meantime, the so-called better-burger category has stolen market share, with Five Guys growing from five stores in 2001 to 1,270, and Shake Shack doubling its market valuation during its first day of stock trading in January. It’s now worth more than $2.8 billion, with just 69 stores, or more than $41 million per stand. The category is saturated with its own fat: Smashburger (320 locations), Elevation Burger (52), the Counter (40), and Umami Burger (24) are growing at a fast clip nationally.

Wahlburgers is trying to differentiate itself by being both a restaurant like Umami and the Counter and a fast-food joint like Shake Shack and Smashburger. A third of each franchise is devoted to counter service, but there are also servers and a full bar. Paul was insistent about this concept, even as his brothers, outside investors, and their CEO—Rick Vanzura, former chief operating officer of Panera Bread, who first reached out on Facebook—pushed for the lower labor costs of self-service. “That’s not what I wanted to bring into the world,” Paul says. He wanted a place where older people are comfortable and bartenders sometimes dance to pop music, some of which is sung by his brothers.

One thing Vanzura brought with him from Panera was the belief that he could control quality by—unlike McDonald’s—having a large number of stores owned by a small number of franchisees, all of whom must have at least $5 million in net worth to be considered as partners. “People will say what we’re doing is unprecedented as far as growth from a single unit,” Vanzura brags as he eats a sweet potato tater tot. To get his job, he went to meet Donnie on the set of Blue Bloods, where NKOTB fans often lurk. (“I’m used to having a job interview in a job setting. A handler was walking me to his trailer, and I saw a sea of middle-aged women waiting there,” he says.) He met Mark at a Nobu, in New York, where they kept being interrupted by the waiter with special dishes the chef sent out. Mark in particular has been a good co-owner, Vanzura says: “When he calls franchisees and says, ‘I’m behind this and will make sure it gets a lot of exposure,’ that carries a lot of weight.”

None of this would’ve taken off without Mark’s TV idea. The original Wahlburgers had some pretty weak nights until the show began airing in 2014. Afterward, Paul had to start opening an hour earlier, at 11, once he saw people lined up outside. They did more than 400,000 checks in the tiny restaurant last year. The company is private, so Paul won’t reveal its annual revenue.

Despite seeming like more of a pun than a TV show, Wahlburgers is airing its third season. It averages 2 million viewers, according to Nielsen, and was nominated for an Emmy. Its success gives the chain a chance in a burger field that’s already pretty mature. “They’re expanding in Vegas, Miami,” says Sam Oches, the editor of QSR (quick-service restaurant) magazine. “This is what celebrity chefs do: move to very tourist-friendly places.”

But Darren Tristano, who covers food service for the market research company Technomic, thinks a split-service restaurant limits growth. “If you’re in a neighborhood looking for a place to sit down to eat, it’s going to work,” he says. “But when you look at the U.S. in terms of gross opportunities, there aren’t as many of those markets around.”

Hingham, a tony Boston suburb where New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick lives, certainly qualifies. It’s 11:30 a.m., and Wahlburgers is full of people essentially eating ground meat for breakfast. Alma walks around chatting with customers. She’s on the show, too, and has become a bona fide reality star, coming in on Saturdays to flit between the tables. After raising famous kids, she’s loving her own fame: “My friends said, ‘Doesn’t it drive you crazy?’ Are you kidding? People want to talk to me!” Paul nods sideways in disagreement. Sitting down for lunch, he looks flummoxed when a waitress brings him a hat to autograph for some customers. “It had always been, ‘Yo yo yo. You’re Mark and Donnie’s brother,’ ” he says. Paul liked it much better that way.


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