Business

Wahlbergs embroiled in food fight

HINGHAM, MA - NOVEMBER 13: Exterior Views Of Wahlburgers Family Restaurant on November 13, 2013 in Hingham, Massachusetts. It was just announced that owners Mark Wahlberg and Donnie Wahlberg will produce and star in an upcoming A&E reality show based around the restaurant that they own. (Photo by Paul Marotta/Getty Images)
Paul Marotta/Getty Images
The Wahlburgers Family Restaurant in Hingham, MA.

Boston’s famous Wahlberg brothers, who founded their own burger chain to much acclaim, are being sued by their business partners and longtime family friends, who say they were shut out of plans to expand the Wahlburgers restaurant chain.

William “Billy” Leonard and Edward St. Croix allege in a lawsuit, filed Tuesday in Plymouth County Superior Court, that Mark, Donnie, and Paul Wahlberg left them out of plans to develop Wahlburgers into a franchise operation even though they were central players in the creation of its Hingham flagship.

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The lawsuit seeks unspecified damages.

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The 33-page complaint offers all the drama — and possibly more — than an episode of the reality TV show “Wahlburgers,” which is now in its seventh season of chronicling the family’s business escapades.

“Ultimately, the three Wahlberg brothers — whose interpersonal relationships are dysfunctional — wound up as the sole managers” of the enterprise, the lawsuit states. “They then stole the most valuable franchise opportunities for themselves.”

A spokeswoman for Wahlburgers Corporate Headquarters issued a statement Wednesday calling the complaint “frivolous and unsubstantiated.”

“It’s obvious that this lawsuit, with its unbridled litany of false and misleading claims, was concocted to further the plaintiffs’ own personal agendas at the expense of the truth, the Wahlberg family and other investors,” the statement read. “Family, fairness, and integrity are at the core of the Wahlburgers brand, and we are prepared to protect the values for which we stand.”

Leonard, one of the plaintiffs, grew up in Dorchester with Mark Wahlberg, who made a splash early in his career as the rapper “Marky Mark” and now works as a successful Hollywood actor and producer.

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Leonard’s ties to the family ran deep. He was a minority owner in Wahlburgers initial location and became a regular “character” on the Wahlburgers’ TV show. The relationship has since soured, according to the lawsuit.

St. Croix, a South Shore restaurant entrepreneur and a family friend of the Wahlbergs, also had an ownership stake with the brothers in two restaurants in Hingham, including the first Wahlburgers that opened in 2011. Paul Wahlberg worked there as executive chef.

In the lawsuit, St. Croix said that the idea for Wahlburgers was his and that he created the “vision and strategy” for the restaurant, designing the interior, the menu, and even coming up with the idea to create a reality TV show.

Andy Kropa/Invision/AP/File
From left: Donnie Wahlberg, Paul Wahlberg, and Mark Wahlberg.

“Years ago, Mr. St. Croix discussed the idea with Paul Wahlberg, and they then piqued Mark Wahlberg’s interest, and later, that of Donnie,” it said.

According to the lawsuit, both St. Croix and Leonard asserted they had to negotiate around the brothers’ “extreme dysfunction” to get the Wahlburgers restaurant idea off the ground.

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But by the end of 2012, the lawsuit alleged: “the Wahlbergs had successfully removed Mr. St. Croix as manager, installed themselves as sole managers ... and united on a common mission: cut out Mr. St. Croix and Mr. Leonard and [hoard] the bulk of the store-generated profits for themselves.”

The lawsuit does not say why St. Croix was removed but alleges that changes to the company were then made without a vote by either man.

By 2014, the lawsuit alleges, the company had reorganized, leaving St. Croix with a “reduced 7.87percent voting interest” in Wahlburgers and Leonard with a 3.37percent stake.

The relationships devolved from there. The men claimed they did not learn about moves to expand to a franchise operation until last year when they became aware that Wahlburgers was involved in development agreements for restaurants in numerous cities including Philadelphia, New York, and Las Vegas.

The lawsuit also says that Leonard and Mark Wahlberg argued on the set of the “Wahlburgers” TV show while filming in New Orleans in 2015. Wahlberg, the suit said, pulled him aside, screamed obscenities, and threatened him physically.

“His relationship with Mark has not been repaired and his relationship with Paul has been strained since that time,” the lawsuit said.

May 27, 2016 | Lynnfield, MA Keith Parson (right) and Mary Ferguson have a drink at the bar at Wahlburgers Market Street Mall in Lynnfield, MA
Kieran Kesner for the boston globe
Wahlburgers in Lynnfield, MA.

Megan Woolhouse can be reached at megan.woolhouse@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @megwoolhouse.