The much anticipated first location of the Wahlburgers franchise opened with a street-closing party that featured Paul Wahlberg, the chef who started the burgery who is the star of a reality show about the restaurant on A&E. He brought along his brother Mark.
The franchise owners, including renown restaurateur Manny Garcia and his daughter and son-in-law, Gina and Mike Buell, wanted to throw the street party for the locals they knew would show up for the gala.
Inside the restaurant, which is in the SunTrust Building at the corner of Church Street and Orange Avenue, invited VIPs mingled and sipped drinks from the half-open bar (free drinks included a Harvey Wahlburger). Sighted in the crowd were former N’Syncer Joey Fatone (I think I’ve been mispronouncing his name); attorney and billboard giant Mark NeJame; UCF provost Dale Whittaker and several university VPs; philanthopists (and franchise investors) Tony and Sonja Nicholson; and Orlando city officials (but no Mayor Dyer). Donny, the other famous Wahlberger, did not attend.
Food was being passed around, too, but being part of the VIP insiders didn’t necessarily mean you were well fed. A lot of the platters of mini burgers as well as totted sweet potatoes and onion shreds were whisked from the window of the kitchen past the reaching hands of the well-heeled to be served to the folks gathered outside on the viewing line. As much as I wanted one of the burgers for myself, I thought this was a very nice gesture. (I finally tackled a server and got one of the burgers, but I’ll save my review for another, less crazed visit.)
Although media had been alerted that the Wahlbergs might walk the red carpet anytime beginning at 6:30 p.m. but more likely 7 or 7:15, it was well past 8 o’clock before they entered the restaurant and slowly made their way through the crowd.
A makeshift putt-putt course using items from the restaurant had been set up for the two brothers to have a putt off (apparently this is a thing on the tv show). I was standing next to Mark in a rare moment when no one was tugging at him or talking to him and none of his handlers were guarding him. I asked him if he was having fun yet and he gave me a side glance and said, “You know, it would be great to just hang out and have some food.” I said it was good of him to put up with all of this. He snapped back into character and said, “It’s really great to be here.”
Interesting observations: Mark signs autographs with his left hand but putts right-handed; Paul putts left-handed. I did not see him sign any autographs.
Garcia told me how impressed he is with Paul Wahlberg as a restaurateur. He said that he had observed Wahlberg earlier in the week going over a delivery from a local supplier (I can’t tell you the name of the supplier, but it rhymes with Frysco). Wahlberg found the quality of the items to be substandard and told the delivery person to get the stuff out of there and bring him what he had ordered. But he didn’t say stuff.
By the way, when you want Mark Wahlberg to attend your opening, you don’t just send him a plane ticket, not even if it’s first class and you promise a direct flight. No, you fly him in a private jet. And not one of those little ones, either.
The staff of Wahlburgers held up nicely and I think more than a few of them were a little stunned by the masses and the hoopla. As I was leaving, I heard someone who may have been a manager say that if the restaurant is crowded like this all the time they’ll be a success.
I think it’s going to do just fine. But if they want to be sure, they’d better buy a big jet.