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Fans vie for a spot on the Wahlburgers menu

(The Boston Globe)

Chef Paul Wahlberg sat at the head of the table in the café side of Wahlburgers, pristine white apron matching the sheet of paper covered in scribblings in front of him.

There was the recipe for "Stuffed Chili Dog Burger," with hot dog, chili, and cheese nestled between two hamburger buns before being topped with sauerkraut, mustard, Sriracha sauce, and onion. Then there was "The Heart Stopper" — two beef patties, government cheese, bacon, onion rings, and the restaurant's secret Wahl sauce.

Those were two of the 10 options the staff had picked out, culled from over 150 entries from as far away as Arizona and as close as Hingham for Wahlburgers' first burger contest. The winner gets his or her burger on the menu for a month, some signed Wahlburgers goods, and — perhaps most important — bragging rights for eternity.

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The strong response to the contest was a testament to the popularity of the restaurant, which has been a hit at its Hingham Shipyard location and in the realm of social media since opening last October. It also has become a perfect way to get to know customers better and stay relevant in their eyes, restaurant consultants say.

The Wahlburgers competition "is a prime example of knowing your customer and engaging your customer," said KC O'Hara, a member of RealFood Consulting, with offices in Boston, New York, and San Francisco. "It's not [necessarily about] developing something. It's connecting . . . and that's one of the most critical things that any good operator can do."

Last week, judges selected by Wahlberg sat around him at the table, staring at the menu list. Their challenge was to first slim the list down to five recipes that the restaurant would actually cook. From there, the judges would taste-test for the winner.

Just from reading the semifinalists' recipes, the panel already had favorites.

"The one I was looking at is the spicy burger. I'm going to lean a little more towards spice," Wahlberg said, with his eye on a pepper jack and poblano blend.

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Jim Caputo, chef of Wahlburgers' sister restaurant Alma Nove, agreed it was a top choice, and also pointed out the South Shore burger for its originality. Meanwhile, Walburgers' new chief executive officer, Rick Vanzura, leaned more toward the chicken option.

"I would do [this one]. It sounds good and we talked if chicken deserves a place on the menu. I think this is a chance to try it for a month and see what people think," Vanzura said.

Paul's mother, Alma Wahlberg, had different ideas.

"The 'NKOTBurger,' " she said, named in honor of New Kids on the Block, the band that featured one of her nine children, Donnie. According to the description, the burger has ingredients that represent every color on the New Kids' microphones.

Alma Wahlberg also liked the Italian Burger and the Heart Stopper. "The ingredients they have in them I actually really like," she said.

Meanwhile, food writer Joan Wilder was up for trying anything.

"It's just deliciousness [that I look for]," she said with a shrug. "I don't know. I'll tell you when I taste it."

The panel picked four burgers with ease, but struggled on the last. After some debate, the judges decided to choose six burgers — a top five and a wild card, Paul Wahlberg joked.

As difficult as narrowing down the top six was, Wahlberg said narrowing down the top 10 proved more difficult than he expected.

"There was nothing that was totally out of the realm. No chocolate-covered veal patties or anything like that. People really put thought into it. There were no gag ones . . . people really put a lot of time and effort into what they were [submitting]," he said.

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Two crucial factors were affordability and ease of preparation. Burgers calling for numerous steps were tossed out, or recipes calling for tricky ingredients, such as fish, wouldn't be feasible due to the cost and difficulty in preserving freshness.

Wahlberg noted that one entry called for ground pork that needed to be marinated for two days before being ground. "It was just too many steps. Some things were inedible in terms of their size," Wahlberg said. "What we were looking for was something with taste, something we can produce on a regular basis throughout the month, and something with pizzazz."

Even though several entries just couldn't be done in a restaurant atmosphere, Wahlburgers officials were impressed by the thought and time that went into creating the recipes.

"There were a few that really deserve an honorable mention because you can see how much love and passion went into it," Vanzura said.

Not to mention the family aspect of many of the recipes, Caputo added.

"That was a big theme, too: 'This is my family favorite.' These people weren't just coming up with things to get their name on the burger of the month. They were looking to spread an old family recipe," Caputo said.

For that reason, recipes that won't work on the cooking line may still be shared on the restaurant's Facebook page. Applicants who came close to the final round will even be encouraged to resubmit, perhaps with minor tweaks.

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Even as the burgers started coming off the grill — spicy, followed by chicken, with the Italian burger not too far behind — Wahlberg started tweaking things out loud. Maybe more sauce next time, a different pepper, perhaps putting all the toppings on the bottom of the burger so it hits your taste buds first.

The eventual goal is to do the contest monthly, he said.

The next round of the competition has already begun, and entries will again be narrowed down to a top few.

According to restaurant consultants, it's a smart trend to start.

O'Hara noted that the social media presence of Wahlburgers, whose website is based on Facebook, helps connect the audience with the restaurant.

David Shinney, owner and chief executive officer of Boston-based DCS Associates LLC, Restaurant Consultants, agreed that incorporating the customer's feedback is important, to a point.

"I think a restaurant like Wahlburgers has to listen to its customers, has to take whatever the customer has to say under advisement, but make the decision within the concept of the restaurant," he said.

"Any restaurant that tries to do everything and please all customers is not going to make it. It's too diverse an approach to the market. It has to have conceptual integrity. But anyone who doesn't listen to customers is a fool."

Along those lines, customer feedback will be crucial going forward, deciding if the first winner will make a return appearance on the menu, or possibly become a permanent item.

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And despite all the difficulty in narrowing down the finalists, the winner was clear: The chicken sandwich by Jenn Tracy of Stoughton just couldn't be beat.

The chicken "is my favorite," Alma Wahlberg said. "I really do think it's delicious."

For the first time that afternoon, everyone agreed.


Jessica Bartlett can be reached at jessica.may.bartlett@gmail.com