The new CEO of the Wahlburgers restaurant chain isn’t letting the pandemic get in the way of ambitious expansion plans.
As John Fuller researched the company before interviewing for the CEO job at the Hingham-based group, he was surprised to learn it only had 37 locations, given its widespread name recognition.
There’s a good reason for that brand awareness: Wahlburgers is owned by the celebrity Wahlberg brothers Mark and Donnie, alongside their brother, Paul, a chef who became a celebrity in his own right, thanks in part to the A&E TV series about the company. The show ended after 10 seasons last year, but Fuller still hopes to capitalize on all the related publicity.
Fuller, who became the Wahlburgers president and CEO earlier this month, said he envisions growing the business to 300 locations within five years, including as many as 30 corporate-managed restaurants. The split today is 31 franchise restaurants and six corporate ones. It has been a slow but steady rise since the brothers launched the concept in 2011, starting with the Hingham spot; one particularly large franchising deal to expand in Asia, announced in 2017, has since fallen through.
As Fuller expands the business, he wants to try out a fast-casual concept: full-service would be available at the bar, but customers could order food at the register and sit down at tables without service. Only one Wahlburgers eatery, in Germany, is fast-casual today.
Because of COVID-19, all of the restaurants are in takeout mode right now. But Fuller said he hopes to reopen them soon to customers, including the four in Massachusetts. (The Dorchester restaurant’s fate, however, could hinge on lease negotiations with its landlord.) The temporary closures have been bad for business, but they’ve also given him more time to work on strategy.
“I would rather be up and running, full steam ahead,” Fuller said. “But I’m taking advantage of it being a little slow to do a deeper dive than I would have otherwise.”
Fuller, 57, has a long career in the restaurant business, including seven years as a top executive at the Johnny Rockets chain, where he was CEO from 2010 to 2015. He most recently ran the Los Angeles-based Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf chain of coffeehouses, which has nearly 1,200 locations worldwide, before leaving that job in March.
Fuller oversees about 300 employees at Wahlburgers’ corporate restaurants and roughly 20 people at the headquarters. He replaces Rick Vanzura in the CEO job; Vanzura now runs Freight Farms, a Boston-based hydroponic farming business. Chief financial officer Patrick Renna became president of the company as well in 2019, and now focuses solely on his CFO job.
Initially, Fuller said, he heard from a franchise lawyer who does work for Wahlburgers that the group was looking for a new CEO. He eventually met with Mark Wahlberg in person, at a distance, in the parking lot of his studio in Burbank, Calif., to discuss the job. At the end of April, Fuller said he flew on Wahlberg’s private jet to Boston to meet with Paul and the rest of the company’s management team.
“John’s experience and insight into the restaurant business on an international scale will be extremely valuable in ensuring that we set ourselves up for long-term success,” Mark Wahlberg said in a prepared statement.
All three brothers remain active in the restaurant business, although it’s really only a full-time job for Paul. Still, Mark and Donnie are often game to appear at a restaurant opening, to help generate some local media attention. And having the brothers on board helps with introductions.
“They have incredible brand recognition,” Fuller said. “They can pick up the phone and get a meeting with anyone."