GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Before Cory Knight became general manager of Grand Rapids’ first Wahlburgers, he was watching the restaurant take shape from the nearby bar where he worked.
“It was extremely fun, watching it all happen. With the secretive covers on all the windows and everything, it just had a lot of anticipation behind it. With the hotel being built, it really brought a lot of excitement to the city,” he said.
Knight isn’t surprised the company chose Beer City, USA.
“Speaking as someone who’s lived in Grand Rapids their whole life, it’s kind of a no-brainer,” he said. “It’s a growing city, it’s a great place with a lot of culture, and it’s jam-packed with amazing restaurants and a great beer selection. So who wouldn’t want to be a part of that?”
Grand Rapids’ new Wahlburgers seats about 100 people inside and will seat another 40 to 50 people outside when the patio opens in the spring. Knight says it’s the second Walhburgers restaurant in the country with a more upscale design that includes leather seats and artwork.
“It kind of elevates us from fast casual to more of a casual dining experience aimed towards making people feel like they’re just coming to their family’s home and just dining and enjoying their time here,” he said.
The artwork includes photos and posters of New Kids on the Block singer Donnie Wahlberg and actor Mark Wahlberg, who are both brothers of Wahlburgers’ founder, chef Paul Wahlberg.
Tributes to Grand Rapids’ history also hang above the kitchen, bar and along the main wall, like a nameplate with the date Grand Rapids became a city and an image of the Wahlberg brothers in front of a historic map of Grand Rapids. Knight says his favorite piece is the Beer City sign above the bar that’s dated 1836 — the year Grand Rapids was first documented brewing beer.
“So that’s really kind of when it became Beer City,” he said.
WHAT’S ON THE MENU
Knight says he carefully curated the restaurant’s beer menu to reflect Grand Rapids’ Beer City standing. The offerings include Mitten Brewing’s Triple Crown Brown, Bell’s Two Hearted, Founders All Day IPA, “and then a handful of other fun selections.”
Grand Rapids’ Wahlburgers will serve up the same menu as the other locations. The American fare dreamed up by the famous chef Paul Wahlberg includes spinach and Parmesan bites, buffalo bites, alcoholic and nonalcoholic shakes, tater tots Knight says are the best he’s ever had, and of course, hamburgers.
“A lot of thought and careful consideration goes into the menu, down to the way that the burgers are assembled, putting the condiments and lettuce, tomato, onion underneath the burger patty so it hits your tongue first and you… get a wide flavor palette when you’re eating the burgers,” he said.
Wahlburgers also serves up the vegetarian Impossible Burger, which Knight says is actor Mark Wahlberg’s favorite on the menu.
Knight says despite the global supply chain issues affecting many restaurant offerings, Wahlburgers’ menu remains intact, with “very standard Grand Rapids prices.”
“So for a burger and sides, you’re looking right at about the 13-dollar mark,” he said.
Once Wahlburgers is running smoothly, the Grand Rapids restaurant plans to roll out city-specific menu specials.
BUILDING COMMUNITY AFTER COVID-19
While “nobody is immune” to the worker shortages, Wahlburgers will open slightly overstaffed because of its star power, “food, family, fun” culture and competitive wages, according to Knight.
“If (you) are raising their wages and paying what the residents of Grand Rapids feel is fair, you’re not struggling with the issues of finding enough staff for your restaurant,” Knight explained.
One of Wahlburgers’ first partnerships within the city is with the Mental Health Foundation of West Michigan. Knight says the organization will be on site during the Nov. 1 grand opening.
“I’m very excited about this partnership with the rough 18 months that this country has gone through. And the rises in mental health issues, I’m very excited to partner with them and take any opportunity we can to help with that outreach,” he said.
Knight has another expectation for opening day: “Long lines.”
“I expect there to be a lot of people,” he said. “But we’re training, getting ready, and we’re going to be able to serve the city.”
When will the new restaurant draw the Wahlberg family to West Michigan?
“Well, I don’t want to spoil anything, but I think Grand Rapids could expect to see somebody here on Nov. 3,” he said.
Wahlburgers will be open to walk-in dining only “for the foreseeable future,” Knight says. The restaurant will operate Sunday through Thursday, from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. and 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. on Friday and Saturday.
*Correction: A previous version of this article included an incorrect first name for Donnie Wahlberg. We regret the error, which has been fixed.