How COVID-19 Prioritized Digital Innovation at Wahlburgers

By Alex Slawsby |  April 28, 2020

Wahlburgers is a small franchised restaurant chain with an outsized reputation. It was founded in Hingham, Mass. in 2011 by the actors Mark and Donnie Wahlberg and their brother, chef Paul Wahlberg. And for ten seasons, the brothers and their mom, Alma, had a reality TV show on the television network A&E. 

Dan Wheeler

Wahlburgers locations offer sit-down service, a bar, and take-out; the company also owns a fleet of food trucks, which they’ve been using to deliver free meals to healthcare workers and first responders. As of April 2020, only about half of the company’s brick-and-mortar locations were open for take-out and delivery, but Dan Wheeler, the company’s Senior Vice President of Marketing & Innovation, said that several more were preparing to re-open, pending permission from city and state governments.

The chain’s efforts to respond to the impact of the coronavirus pandemic started in early March, says Wheeler, a former Vice President of Strategic Initiatives at Dunkin’ Brands. As the pandemic spread around the world, it required careful thought about keeping employees and customers safe, but it also “accelerated a lot of things that were on [the] innovation agenda.” Wheeler explained how that played out, and shared his thoughts on how the pandemic will affect the restaurant industry as a whole.

InnoLead: What’s Wahlburgers like as a company?

Dan Wheeler: A lot of folks know Wahlburgers pretty well because the family’s TV show was on for ten seasons, so we have a lot of top-of-mind awareness and social media followers — much more than any other 35-restaurant chain. We’re known like a large chain, but operate very much like a startup, because there’s a small group of us that can make decisions and put new initiatives in place almost immediately. [Moments like this] really highlight how a scrappy, nimble organization can not only protect, but gain share. We’ve always been focused on not sitting back and letting things happen, but rolling up our sleeves and going into battle for market share, particularly in these times. 

InnoLead: What did you and the leadership team do to get ahead — and stay ahead — of the crisis?

Wheeler: We have a coronavirus task force that has been meeting daily since the beginning of March. We saw some of the early warning signs and tried to act early. When something comes up — whether through the news, or government regulations, or restaurant industry trends — we focus on what it means for us and what we should do. I’m proud to say that we’ve been in front of most of the mitigation efforts. We started with social distancing — taping out places for customers to stand in line — before grocery stores did. We had masks on our employees and emphasized contactless transactions before either were recommended. We’ve worked very closely with our franchisees to make all of this happen. We tell them everything we know. We over-communicate. The end result is that even though some of the restaurants have temporarily closed, we’re building stronger relationships that we know will help us all succeed when we get back to some sense of normal.

“We’re building stronger relationships that we know will help us all succeed when we get back to some sense of normal.”

InnoLead:  How did necessity push Walhburgers to innovate quickly?

Wheeler:  Consider curbside pickup. Only a handful of chains had curbside pickup until the last few weeks. Pickup and third-party delivery were only a small percentage of business for many. But then they became the only way to order and receive a meal, so restaurants had to pivot. 

In part because we launched our mobile app and WahlClub loyalty program in October, it took us only about 48 hours to roll out our curbside experience. Over those two nights, my counterpart on the operations side worked with his team to develop all the operational procedures, and I worked on it with my marketing team to make sure we got the user experience right…and that we were messaging it properly with the right content online and with the right signage at our stores. If we had a large leadership team, there’s no way we could have rolled it out that quickly or successfully.

We had to work very swiftly with the outside firm that built the app, because curbside pickup hadn’t been an option in the app originally. Now, you put the make, model, and color of your car. When the order is ready, you get an in-app notice that says, “Just pull up and give us a call and we’ll bring it out.” The phone call is more redundant, in case we happen to not see your car. Curbside pickup is now live at all locations that are open.

And in late April, we’re testing the ability to also do delivery through the app. That took moving some mountains. We’re using third-party delivery partners like Postmates and GrubHub. If you choose delivery [in the app], it goes out to a bidding process, and the third-party partners bid on it to get the delivery.

“One of the most valuable lessons from this crisis is that you can accomplish a lot, quickly, if you don’t sit around overthinking things.”

InnoLead: How do you see the restaurant industry coming back?

Wheeler: I think different segments of the restaurant industry are going to come back stronger and more quickly than others. Quick service or fast food restaurants that have digitized the experience through online mobile apps and curbside, or drive-through pickup, or delivery are already thriving. This is because they’ve been way ahead of the game from a digital transformation standpoint. 

Next will probably be the fast casual restaurants that have some social interaction, but mainly for ordering, food preparation interaction, and takeout. Many of them have good digital solutions in place as well, and they’ll also create social distancing floor plans and put up plastic dividers to get them back in business. Those most challenged will be full-service restaurants, and bars, and other entertainment-focused venues, where close customer interaction has always been core to the experience. They’re going to have to not only figure out how to ensure that people are safe, but that they feel safe as well.

InnoLead:  What are you learning from the experience of leading innovation through this crisis?

Wheeler: One of the most valuable lessons from this crisis is that you can accomplish a lot, quickly, if you don’t sit around overthinking things. We could have agreed that we should get into curbside pickup eventually and then sat around discussing it for a while. We might have tested it and then set it aside for other priorities. And then maybe we would revive it down the line. But we did it in 48 hours because it was important. I think this is key: Innovation programs may now be forced to operate more quickly, with less opportunity to get “paralyzed by analysis.” Those programs that get good at this — to being open to taking on the right kind of risk to quickly respond to their customers — will emerge as leaders. The next time a “curbside opportunity” comes along, we’ll think back to what we accomplished in 48 hours, and we’ll use that example to make sure we move forward quickly.