Mark Wahlberg's career has taken some unexpected twists over the past three decades, but even the movie star acknowledges that his most recent turn is the most unusual yet.
If someone had told him five years ago he would soon be starring in a reality TV series, "I would say that you were out of your mind, because the last thing I want to do is be on television," he says.
Yet there he is, front and center on A&E's Wahlburgers—the reality series that returned for its fifth season last Wednesday and is focused on the gourmet burger chain, also called Wahlburgers, owned by Wahlberg; his brother Donnie (the New Kid on the Block member and star of CBS' Blue Bloods); and their brother Paul, who has worked as a chef for three decades.
But their reality show isn't the usual, semi-desperate attempt at a celebrity comeback—in fact, Mark Wahlberg's power in Hollywood has never been greater.
"It hasn't hurt anything I've done or the brand I've built over the last 27 years, because we own it and we live it," Wahlberg says of the series. "It's an amazing marketing tool, and it's all about promoting the business and building the business."
And the burger business has been very, very good for Wahlberg and his family.
The first Wahlburgers restaurant opened in 2011 outside Boston in Hingham, Mass., across the street from the family's first restaurant, Alma Nove, named for mom Alma and her nine kids. The popularity of the show (it's been nominated twice for the Emmy Award in the Outstanding Unstructured Reality Program category, and its first season in 2014 attracted 3.7 million viewers in live-plus-seven ratings) has put the Wahlberg restaurant business on an impressive trajectory.
The family's seventh spot, in Orlando, Fla., opened last month, joining others in Toronto, Coney Island, Boston's Fenway Park and elsewhere. Ten more stores are planned this year in cities including Philadelphia and Las Vegas. Earlier this month, the company announced agreements with five groups to open 30 new franchises, making for a total of 118 stores internationally (including five in Canada and 20 in the Middle East) over the next few years.
The New Reality of Building Brands
The Wahlburgers series is the highest-profile example yet of a reality series focused on a single brand that becomes a TV hit while simultaneously propelling the brand itself to new heights. Among others are Cake Boss (which was based on the original Carlo's Bake Shop in Hoboken, N.J., now a national chain) and Say Yes to the Dress (New York's Kleinfeld Bridal), both on TLC; Duck Dynasty (the Louisiana-based Duck Commander brand) on A&E; and Pawn Stars (World Famous Gold & Silver Pawn Shop in Las Vegas) on History.
"For the right type of brand, being on a television program can help spike your business, if in particular what you're seeking is awareness," says Chris Raih, co-founder and CEO of creative agency Zambezi. "A brand like Wahlburgers makes a lot of sense in terms of being a little bit everyman, a little bit broad. It's a product that plays well in an unscripted format."
As Wahlburgers barrels into a restaurant category dominated by Shake Shack and Five Guys, its TV/restaurant one-two punch "has been a strong success," says Darren Tristano, president of restaurant consulting firm Technomic. "With a brand like this, you have to do more than just promote it; you have to have good quality and a good service. And they appear to have that."
Famous, But Still a Family
As with any reality programming, the big question is: Does it come off as real? The two famous Wahlberg brothers—along with their siblings and mom Alma—have opened up enough of themselves on the show to win over audiences.
"To know that they're just part of a regular family dynamic of 'Who's Mama's favorite?,' that's relatable to so many people in America, and I think that's really the appeal," says Elaine Frontain Bryant, evp and head of programming at A&E. "It just feels real and authentic. You believe that their hearts are in that business, and you believe in that heart in their family."
That's what Rasha Drachkovitch, the show's executive producer and president of 44 Blue Productions, was hoping to achieve when he first met with Mark Wahlberg—even before the first Wahlburgers store was built—and pitched the series as "a great American story: nine kids, dirt poor, the tough streets of Dorchester, against all odds," says Drachkovitch.
The show started driving audiences to the restaurant "pretty much right away," says Wahlberg. "That was the plan. You can't even really put a number value on the marketing and promotion that we have for the business." (Wahlburgers CEO Rick Vanzura says the original location generates $5 million a year in revenue.)
That's because fans of these series can't resist the opportunity to see where the show is filmed—and maybe end up on TV themselves, of course.
"You might get to see an actor or celebrity, or you might get filmed, and that will drive people to be more spontaneous and go to these restaurants. They definitely feed off of each other, and it can be successful that way," says Tristano.
In addition to promoting traffic, the show also sells the brand to potential partners. "Franchisees who see the show can see the brand and see the benefits of getting involved in something that is so visible," says Drachkovitch.
How Hit TV Translates Into Growth
While Wahlburgers is just taking off, other brands have enjoyed the financial benefits of being featured on a reality show for years.
When Buddy Valastro, owner of Carlo's Bake Shop in Hoboken, began filming his series Cake Boss for TLC, "best case scenario is that I'd see a few more cakes," he recalls. But as lines rapidly grew outside the store following the show's premiere in 2009, "something clicked, and I knew this could be something really effective in exposing Carlo's Bakery to so many people, which is all any business owner wants."
Thanks to the exposure afforded by Cake Boss, which is going into its eighth season later this year, "we've been able to expand in ways we've never imagined," says Valastro, set to open the 13th Carlo's Bakery in Dallas (the brand's goodies are also available on Norwegian Cruise Line ships). In addition, he has started a catering company called Buddy V's Events, an Italian restaurant in Las Vegas (Buddy V's), four books and a production company (Cakehouse Media). "Isn't that crazy?" says the baker turned reality star turned business mogul.
The reality TV brand boost isn't restricted to just food. Kleinfeld Bridal had always enjoyed a degree of media exposure, co-owner Ronnie Rothstein points out. But Say Yes to the Dress, which recently wrapped filming Season 14, helped turn his store from a local New York business to a global one, with new customers flocking to his bridal-gown mecca from around the country and the world.
While "every appointment has always been booked prior to the time the show came on the air, the research shows that everybody who comes to Kleinfeld has seen the show," explains Rothstein. "It's hard to imagine a kid getting married in North America who has not seen this show." (A Toronto outpost opened in 2014, but the majority of business is still centered in New York.)
A Rare Win: Getting Your Name in the Title
Wahlburgers is different from other reality programs in that the name of the show is also the name of the business. Those involved think that is an important distinction, and one that has contributed to the success of the series and the restaurant chain alike.
"This could have been called 'Wahlberg Family' or something, and to have the name of the brand in the title, it's like calling the show 'Starbucks,'" notes Drachkovitch. Adds CEO Vanzura: "Clearly, having a show titled [the same as] your brand is promotional value that's hard to replicate any other way."
Few other shows have been that lucky. Rothstein says he spent months trying to convince TLC to make the Kleinfeld name part of the title of his show. "It was a major issue," he remembers. Instead, the network was inspired by a line he uttered in the pilot about a bride's difficulty in "saying yes to the dress." At the time, says Rothstein, "we hated the title, but the network owned the show and that's what happened."
While early seasons of Wahlburgers were predominantly focused on the original restaurant, the scope of the show has expanded right along with the brand.
"We can't just be about burgers and fries and tater tots in every episode," Drachkovitch is quick to point out. "In the last act, we always have that human, family moment that brings it back to [the show's theme], 'This is who we are, this is where we're from.' And it resonates really well so that the business part, while it's always there, doesn't always have to be front and center."
Wahlberg, meanwhile, has only grown his presence on the show—even as his day job has kept him busier than ever. This past year, he appeared in four features, including Ted 2, the Entourage movie and Daddy's Home with Will Ferrell. And there's more to come, including a fifth Transformers movie. On top of that, he also has emerged as one of Hollywood's top producers, in films and television. (To read our Q&A with Wahlberg, click here.)
The new season will include an episode that follows the star to New Orleans, where he directs a music video for the Wahlburgers jingle featuring his friend Johnny Drama, the inspiration for the character of the same name on Entourage, which was based on Wahlberg's life and which he produced.
Other episodes are set in Los Angeles, where P. Diddy offers input on the music video; Paris, where Wahlberg scouts locations for the restaurant during a press junket; and Philadelphia, where he checks in on the progress of a new store before hosting an event called Festival of Families, attended by Pope Francis. "How many unscripted shows get the Pope as a cameo in the show?" says Drachkovitch, adding, "Mark's overdelivered in terms of his ability to contribute on camera."
Not Every Show Creates a Success
It may seem as though any enterprise would benefit from a reality show. But that's not always the case.
"Something a little more upmarket, like a super-high-end spirits brand or any type of a luxury brand, could end up being a struggle for you in the long run," cautions Zambezi's Raih.
And copycat shows don't tend to fare well. Last year's Wahlburgers-esque series Lachey's Bar, set in a Cincinnati pub owned by brothers Nick and Drew Lachey of the '90s boy band 98 Degrees, lasted just one season on A&E, while Duck Dynasty ripoff Country Bucks, about the family behind the hunting-gear business Wildgame Innovations, was canceled after two seasons.
Wahlburgers—the show and the restaurant—has thrived because there's a lot more to the brand than just a celebrity.
"I was very aware before I joined the company of the not-great history of celebrity brands, restaurant brands," explains Vanzura. Shows that feature big names don't always make it in the end, he believes, because "they never backed it up with quality." Paul Wahlberg's culinary bonafides have been a major asset, he says.
Adds Tristano: "I think a restaurant has to stand on its own two feet, which means that the consumer has to have a good experience, which will include good quality service, good quality food, taste and flavor, and good value. Ultimately, it has to be a good restaurant to be successful."
What Happens When the Show's Over?
The expansion of the Wahlburgers chain has been documented in season after season of the show, bolstering both businesses. But what happens to the core enterprise when a show goes off the air and its loses its principal marketing tool?
"I don't know that it's a long-term play," Raih says of the reality-TV-as-promotional-vehicle strategy. "If you're somebody who wants to own your business and make money for 20 years, you can expect your customers to fall off a cliff once you're no longer on the air."
That could be problematic for Wahlburgers, seeing that the show's ratings have declined since its first season (last season averaged 1.8 million viewers in live-plus-7, according to Nielsen). However, A&E has made a long-term commitment to the series, already picking it up for Seasons 6 and 7. "We believe in it, and it's an important part of our DNA for the network," says Bryant.
Show or no show, Wahlberg continues to have big dreams for the chain.
"Our goal is to have at least 300 in the U.S. and then maybe 50 to 100 internationally," says the actor, who would like to see the show stay on the air for "another four or five years, to give [the restaurants] that maximum visibility." He predicts Wahlburgers the chain will continue to thrive even after Wahlburgers the series wraps.
"The show helps to get them in the door, and my name and Donnie's name helps to get them in the door," he explains. "But it's the experience that Paul provides that keeps people coming back."
This story first appeared in the March 14 issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.