We chat with restaurant executive veteran and Wahlburgers' CEO Rick Vanzura regarding his approach to managing the rapid growth of their better burger chain and how to pivot from currently hot to the well-managed crave-worthy customer experience.
Wahlburgers is rapidly becoming known for its gourmet burgers, what's your assessment of the current burger restaurant landscape?
The better burger segment is very crowded, and I think there will almost certainly be a shakeout. Being good is already not good enough, and it will be even less competitive in the future. Anyone who wants to thrive has to be distinctive. I’ve seen throughout my career it is easy to kid yourself that you are better than you are and keep building when there is no point of distinction. Anyone in this segment – like most retail or restaurant businesses these days – has to be relentless self-critical and focused on finding ways to improve the experience or accept they are likely to die.
What’s the Wahlburgers mission and your approach to delivering on the brand's promise?
Our mantra is “Real Family Flavor.” Several thoughts go into the mantra. First and foremost, we are a family brand built around family – the Wahlbergs. As such, everything we do needs to reflect the Wahlberg family values – loyalty, care, a genuine interest in doing things right, having each others’ backs, etc.. It also reflects our desire to be inclusive and invite everyone in each community to be part of our extended family.
The flavor part comes down to fantastic food based on Paul Wahlberg’s proprietary recipes prepared using great ingredients and interesting combinations. It also comes from adding flavor to the experience through a fun, vibrant atmosphere with upbeat, happy servers committed to providing an exceptional customer experience.
The “Real” part comes down to be honest, genuine and acting with integrity. Everything we do needs to show respect for the guest and each other. People are providing us a tremendous gift by given us their time and money. We owe them an amazing experience in return.
Do you see continued growth in the segment short term?
The segment will continue to grow, but I assume burger units will grow faster than the segment overall, putting pressure on competitors operating at anything less than an exceptional standard. Having said that, the segment is large enough that standouts will always find room to grow.
The Wahlburgers show on A&E must pay big dividends introducing the viewer to the brand while creating a more intimate connection to the Wahlberg family. As CEO your role is to create a crave-worthy product and experience. With so many choices in the marketplace, what keeps customers coming back?
The A&E show and the fanbase of the Wahlbergs are both tremendous gifts we are grateful for every day. They drive enormous trial. However, that means nothing in the long-run without being able to get guests to come back in and developing a loyal following. As a restaurant, the most important thing for us will always be the food. Customers come back due to a combination of great food along using proprietary ingredients and recipes along with a broader menu than most others in the category. We offer a range of items beyond burgers, including other sandwiches, salads, bowls, appetizers and other items that eliminate the veto factor.
Beyond food, we also offer a combination of full serve and quick serve options that allow the customer to choose how he/she wants to be served. Every restaurant also has a high level of finishes and Wahlberg cues that are unique to us but don’t cross the line into theme restaurant territory. It’s an environment that is welcoming and keeps people coming back. Of course, people are a huge part of the difference, and happy, knowledgeable, fun servers are a crucial part of the experience.
Finally, we have a full bar with signature alcoholic frappes that have won a number of “Best of” awards. So, the combination of great food, a broad menu, multiple service options, distinctive interior and great, happy service is what sets us apart – along with a fascinating family at the core!
There's a lot of discussion around the "meatless burger' known as the Impossible Burger and tastes like an actual burger. Has this meatless veggie option proved to be a popular choice?
The Impossible Burger has been a huge hit. Paul looked for a suitable veggie burger for a long time, and we were blown away with the Impossible Burger. Customers have proven to be just as blown away, and Impossible Foods has been a great partner.
Considering the company's current momentum, what are your plans for technology, store design updates, or other innovation opportunities? And your unit footprint expansion?
We have started delivery and will be adding online ordering soon. We are also leveraging our scheduling technology more as well as increasingly sophisticated food cost systems. We have other innovation in technology and store design underway but aren’t prepared to discuss. Regarding store growth, we nearly doubled in size last year, and we expect to grow another 50%+ this year. We have franchise agreements in place to build into the hundreds, and that is our objective, if not more. Of course, that is all dependent on continuing to provide excellent customer experiences, one customer at a time. While we are planning for tomorrow, relentlessly focused on the fact that the road to tomorrow runs through today.