In most bars and restaurants, "two-for-one's" are always a great thing. But at several Hamburger Mary's Bar & Grille locations recently, diners and staff got more than they bargained for when identical twins Ashley and Brandon Wright secretly showed up and filmed an episode of "Undercover Boss," which airs this Sunday at 9 p.m. Eastern.
These Wright Brothers, 43, are co-owners of Hamburger Mary's International, the 13-restaurant chain of LGBT-friendly family restaurants known as much for their flamboyance as their food. In nearly 100 episodes of CBS's hit reality show Undercover Boss, viewers have watched corporate execs individually disguise themselves to work alongside their rank-and-file employees to investigate how their companies truly operate. But Sunday's Hamburger Mary's ep will be the first time the series has featured co-owners, let alone twins.
In an Advocate exclusive, Ashley and Brandon Wright share their rise to the top of America's gayest restaurant chain, and just what they -- and millions of viewers at home -- can expect to see this weekend when they went on the DL.
The Advocate: How did you become the heads of a national casual restaurant company catering to the LGBT community?
Brandon: We grew up just outside Atlanta and went to school at Auburn University. After college, we both went our separate ways. I got a job based in Chicago, and Ashley putzed around Europe for a couple years.
Ashley: We opened the Chicago Hamburger Mary's as a franchise in 2006. It was actually a friend's idea, who had heard of Mary's from a recent trip to California. I was living in Washington, D.C., at the time, and there was a Hamburger Mary's there. So we just jumped at the idea of bringing the concept to Chicago.
Brandon: Unfortunately around the same time, a lot of other locations' franchise agreements were expiring and one by one they left the Mary's Family. So in 2007 we partnered with the owner of the West Hollywood Mary's, and we bought the name. There were just four locations at the time, but we knew there was still something special in the name and the concept. So we dug in our heels, and got to work rebuilding the brand to where it is today.
The Advocate: How did appearing on "Undercover Boss" come about?
Ashley: We were approached by the producers and asked if we'd be interested in filming an episode in our restaurants. Since we have seen the show, we were quick to jump on board.
Brandon: It seemed like a fun way to get to know what's going on at some of our locations. We try to visit each location at least once or twice a year, but going "undercover" would give us new insight.
Ashley: And the fact that Brandon and I got to do it together is something new and different for the show.
Brandon (middle) and Ashley Wright (right)
The Advocate: There are over a dozen locations across the country. Which ones will we see, and why?
Ashley: The producers selected the employees and the locations, which were Jacksonville, Fla., Kansas City, Mo., and Long Beach, Calif. One of the servers we followed, however, now works at the Clearwater, Fla., location. I know they interviewed people at several Hamburger Mary's. We don't really know the selection criteria, but I'm guessing they had to find people with interesting stories to tell.
Brandon: And people who wouldn't recognize us! I think they did a pretty good job on that. But there were a couple close calls while we were filming. None of the people we worked with recognized us, but there were a couple co-workers who had to be let in on it before they spilled the beans.
Ashley: We haven't seen the episode yet, so we'll be watching along with everyone else.
Brandon: They filmed for over a week last November, so no telling what all they caught on camera! There were definitely some funny moments, and some tear-jerkers. I am sure there will be some cringe-worthy moments as well. But knowing the format of the show, we aren't too concerned with the final edits. At the end of the day, the boss usually comes out the hero. But we also know they have to make it entertaining.
The Advocate: So what jobs did you work? From the preview it appears one of you goes undercover in drag.
Brandon: We worked with servers, a bartender and one drag performer. We took turns with who worked with who.
Ashley: But we both knew from the start that I would be working with the drag queen, since I have actually done drag before. My character, Apple Brown Betty, is a far cry from a showgirl performer! So learning dance steps and trying to be "glamorous" was something different.
Brandon: We even tag-teamed one of the employees! One worked with her for a little while, then the other would, but she did not have any idea. We were nervous because she was someone we actually knew ahead of time. We thought our cover would have been blown for sure!
Ashley: I wasn't nervous about working any of the jobs. I've been a bartender and worked other positions before, and we often have to jump in and help out at our Mary's locations. But it's a little different to be put on the spot, in new surroundings, and with cameras following you!
Brandon: Yeah, there were definitely some moments that were't very graceful. For example, not every location has the same point of sale system! We also had to "play dumb" a little. We were in disguise as someone who doesn't know anything about working in a restaurant. So we couldn't all of a sudden know how to do everything.
The Advocate: What are you hoping comes from the episode?
Ashley: First and foremost, we are hoping that Hamburger Mary's is received positively by the TV audience. We certainly didn't do this just for the publicity. But it is a factor, and we know that this will be viewed in places where they have never heard of Hamburger Mary's, much less entertained the idea of going to a dinner drag show.
Brandon: We're also hoping this episode can be seen as something positive for the LGBT community. There are some very moving stories with some of our employees. People getting shunned by their families because of who they are, but they end up finding a new family at Hamburger Mary's. We're hoping that this episode will open some eyes to what people still have to go through. It's sad that this stuff is still happening.
Ashley: And from a business perspective we also discovered some things we can do to make Hamburger Mary's a better place to work. We're hoping that we can make some positive changes, based on what we learned going undercover.
KIRK HARTLAGE is an Orlando-based freelance journalist. You can follow him on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/kirk.hartlage