The famous actor has made close friends and business partners with Metro Detroiters. He shares why he’s making a commitment to invest in — and give back to — the city.
By Andy Reid
Photography by Erin Kirkland
Detroit-area restaurateur Nino Cutraro saw the commotion in his upscale Italian eatery Bella Piatti in Birmingham during the summer of 2013. The place was buzzing with excitement — and every eye followed a particular group of patrons through the dining area as they were led to a table. Cutraro asked someone on his staff why everyone was in a tizzy.
“It’s Mark Wahlberg!” the server said.
“I don’t watch movies. I had no idea who he was,” Cutraro says. “Someone said he was a famous actor, so I started to talk to him.”
Wahlberg was in town to shoot “Transformers: Age of Extinction” and was having dinner with friends and members of the cast and crew. Cutraro walked up to Wahlberg’s table and started chatting him up. The internationally famous actor asked him to have a seat.
The two talked about family, food, work and, most importantly, Detroit. Wahlberg’s wife, Rhea Durham, and their four children were planning to visit during Wahlberg’s stay in the city, so Cutraro invited the family out to his lake house.
“A couple days later, they came over,” Cutraro says. “He brought the kids. I live on the lake, so we went fishing and the kids went swimming. I have a pizza oven. We made pizza — it was great.”
Over the next few months, the two hung out on several occasions. They saw each other in Los Angeles, where Wahlberg resides, when Cutraro visited his son who lives there. The Italian businessman had casually made friends with one of the biggest movie stars on the planet.
And that friendship was struck at the perfect time. Wahlberg’s experience in Detroit during the “Transformers 4” shoot inspired him to find new opportunities in the city.
“I fell in love with the city,” Wahlberg said during a recent visit to Metro Detroit to celebrate the opening of the new Wahlburgers location in Royal Oak. “I had been here a few times in the ’80s and ’90s, but I had never really spent time here. When I was here for work it was like I got to hang around and visit different places.
“I was here working, and I fell in love with the people, the food, the golf courses. I mean, everything about it. The history, the automotive industry. It was only right that I found a couple of friends that I could start hanging out with, staying at their houses — and eventually create opportunities and jobs in the community. And to be a part of the community — that’s what we love about it more than anything.”
Wahlberg and Cutraro went into business together, opening their first Michigan-based franchise of Wahlburgers — the family-run burger joint that spawned the hit A&E reality show — in Greektown in 2016. Since then, they have added Wahlburgers locations in Flint, Taylor, Ford Field and, most recently, Royal Oak. They even have a Detroit-based food truck. The family recently invested in the Taylor Sportsplex, home to local high school hockey teams and figure skating clubs. One of the rinks was renamed Wahlburgers Arena.
“Graffiti outside the skating rink is about as close as we were going to get to naming rights, when we were kids,” said Paul Wahlberg, head chef at Wahlburgers and Mark’s older brother. “I am just a restaurant guy for my whole life. To find a home in Detroit is crazy. It is something I never imagined. The people are so nice. Absolutely amazing.”
The feeling is mutual among locals.
“From day one, when we met Mark, Paul and (brother) Donnie, they have been committed to being part of the community and giving back,” Taylor Mayor Rick Sollars says. “They’re in the restaurants and shaking hands and taking pictures. They’re making sure people get that experience, and it has been wonderful.”
Wahlberg has found business and charity opportunities in the city. He has even participated in the annual Woodward Dream Cruise. And he is hoping to bring more artistic investment soon.
“We had a lot of plans to make more movies and television here in Detroit, but obviously, with different people coming in and out of office, the tax credits change,” Wahlberg said. “The film industry was literally moving here as a whole — and then whatever happened. We’re encouraging people to continue to come here and work, because there are so many great and creative people right here.”
The Wahlbergs came to Detroit in August to open the Royal Oak Wahlburgers and give back to the community. At the new location, the brothers held a fundraiser at to raise money for Beaumont Children’s Hospital, where they visited patients earlier in the day.
Wahlberg made a special visit to one particular patient, Hudson Brown, who was cured of a large brain tumor last year by the proton therapy team at Beaumont. During treatment, Hudson would point out every yellow car on the way to and from the hospital — “There’s Bumblebee!” he’d shout, referring to a popular robot from the “Transformers” movies.
Bumblebee became a talisman for the Brown family through Hudson’s treatment. When Wahlberg found out, he sent Hudson an encouraging video. In the spring of 2018, when Hudson went for his final round of treatment, the Motor City Camaro Club sent a 24-car convoy of Bumblebee-yellow Camaros to escort him to the hospital.
On this trip, Wahlberg finally met Hudson face to face and spent some time with him and his sisters, Emmy and Cecelia.
“It was so generous. We couldn’t believe it,” says Hudson’s father, Pat Brown. “He doesn’t have to do this, and he really just wants to make an effort. It is so awesome to see.”
Wahlberg brought a giant Bumblebee toy and other gifts for the kids. When Cecelia wanted to show him what she learned in dance class, Wahlberg let her teach him how to do an arabesque. Hudson asked Wahlberg how tall his favorite robot was — and then got a little more serious.
“Are the Transformers green screen?” Hudson asked.
“Woah,” Wahlberg responded. “If we’re shooting in downtown Detroit, we can’t have Bumblebee and Optimus Prime stepping on everybody. So sometimes, we have to shoot their scenes somewhere else and then we put up a big giant picture of them, so I know where they’re going to be.”
Hudson was pleased.
After the hospital, the Wahlbergs visited their new restaurant for a Children’s Miracle Network benefit, and Mark and Paul mingled with Michiganders and passed out free Wahlburgers sliders. Detroit Lions legend Herman Moore arrived to thank the brothers and present them with Lions merchandise.
“It means a lot that they’re here,” Moore said. “The commitment that any person from outside of our state makes to come here and bring a business, it is an honor for us to come and support them.”
The brothers were born and raised in Boston and are diehard New England Patriots fans. Mark graciously accepted the Lions gear — Paul was a little more reluctant.
“We have to go get that Lions jersey. Or a Red Wings jersey,” Mark chided Paul.
“No, no, that isn’t happening.”
“We will,” Mark said. “Detroit has the best head coach (former Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia). There’s a Super Bowl coming here soon. We even have a Wahlburgers in Ford Field now! We don’t have one in Gillette Stadium.”
“Maybe you should talk to (Patriots owner Robert Kraft)?” Paul asked.
“Why? We’re already in Ford Field,” Mark said. “We’re here.”