Robert J. Barry, Jr., President and CEO, The Greene Turtle
I moved to Baltimore from South Carolina in 1996 on the eve of NCAA Basketball’s “March Madness” tournament. In an unfamiliar city that I had only visited twice prior to my move, I luckily found a great, intimate bar in which to watch basketball while enjoying a cold beer and hopefully meet some new friends – The Greene Turtle in Fell’s Point. A lot has changed since then, that’s for sure.
What began as a beach bar in Ocean City in 1976 has transformed into a regional franchise with 40 restaurants dotting the East Coast from New York to Virginia. However, it’s not just the expanse of The Greene Turtle that has changed – what was once simply a place to grab a beer is now a family-friendly restaurant serving up local cuisine, burgers and sandwiches, as well as steaks and seafood. So, for those who were in their early 20s at the flagship Ocean City location, chances are you are now heading to “the Turtle” with your children, or even grandchildren, for lunch or dinner.
“Over the past 40 years, The Greene Turtle has changed a lot. When it first started out it was simply a watering hole – a place with canned beer and shelled peanuts where people went to hang out with friends, play darts and watch sports,” says Robert J. Barry, Jr., president and CEO of The Greene Turtle Franchising Corporation. Barry joined The Greene Turtle as Chief Operating Officer in 2007, by which time he had already enjoyed a lengthy and successful career in the food service and hospitality field with such companies as Marriott Corp., W.R. Grace & Co., and The Great Cookie. He says that beginning with his arrival in 2007, the company looked to change course and focus more on quality food and a family-friendly atmosphere in order to be able to sell franchises.
“We needed to change the perception and get the word out that ‘the Turtle is changing.’ We needed to expand the brand in order to succeed in the franchise model, as it’s difficult to sell franchises for what is basically a bar. When I started, The Greene Turtle restaurants’ revenue was 50 percent food and 50 percent alcohol. Now we are 65 percent food and 35 percent alcohol,” Barry says. Even with this increased focus on food, The Greene Turtle still does above average in its business category as far as the percentage of high-margin beverages that make up its total sales – a fact that it is very appealing to potential franchisees.
Also attractive to potential franchise owners is the diversity of the patrons The Greene Turtle attracts, Barry says. “What’s unique about the Turtle is our demographics for a sports bar – 51 percent of our audience is female. If you walk into one of our restaurants at any time of day, you are going to see office workers, families and friends hanging out,” he says, adding that in its Baltimore metro area locations The Greene Turtle capitalizes on the passionate Ravens fan base by hosting “Purple Nights” that are solely for female Ravens fans.
And while providing an exceptional dining experience has increasingly become a focus for the company, The Greene Turtle has also stayed true to its roots as a prime place to watch sports. The Greene Turtle sponsors a host of sports teams – high schools; local colleges (it recently expanded west to open a location in Morgantown, W.Va., home to West Virginia University, and north to New York’s Long Island, a stone’s throw from both Hofstra and Adelphi Universities); the Washington Capitals, Wizards, Redskins and Mystics; and the Baltimore Ravens and Orioles. The Greene Turtle leverages these sponsorships to further its brand identity, as well as having restaurants in high-traffic destinations, with two locations in both Rehoboth Beach, Del., and Ocean City, Md., one in Lewes, Del., two near Virginia Beach, one at the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C., and one at BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport.
“The Verizon Center and BWI locations have allowed us to expand the brand outside of the Mid-Atlantic. At the Verizon Center, people come not only from the region but also from other states to attend a Capitals or Wizards game, a concert or an NCAA Basketball Tournament game. Plus, BWI is an obvious way to market outside the region with travelers from all over the country,” Barry says. “The brand has exploded as our footprint has expanded. The beach locations are great, as tourists come from all over, buy our T-shirts, go back to their hometowns and then become ‘walking billboards’ for us. How cool is it to work for a company where people want to wear your logo on a T-shirt? When was the last time you saw someone walking around with an Applebee’s T-shirt?” he laughs. Barry adds that another method The Greene Turtle utilizes to expand its brand is through its proprietary branded and theme-related beverages – Shell Raiser beer on tap, Hell in a Shell cocktails, bottled The Greene Turtle Root Beer and Boardwalk Lemonades, for example.
Loyalty programs are also a key to success, Barry adds. The Greene Turtle’s most prominent one is its Mug Club, where patrons buy a numbered ceramic mug that is kept onsite to be retrieved on every visit, rewarding them with VIP status, invitations to exclusive events and discounts on beverages. “Recently we expanded the Mug Club so that if you are a member in Bel Air but visiting Rehoboth Beach, you can show your loyalty card and the bartender in Rehoboth will allow you to drink as a guest with a mug kept behind the bar,” Barry says. There is also The Greene Turtle Rewards program, which is now tied in with an app that includes a gaming component that lets members vie for rewards that can be redeemed toward food and beverage purchases at any location.
Expanding Beyond the Mid-Atlantic
When Barry came on board in 2007 as COO and subsequently CEO/President, the company aimed to franchise the operation and expand geographically with the goal of having 150 franchise and company-owned restaurants throughout the East. That year, The Greene Turtle Franchising Corporation sold a majority share of the corporation to the Columbia, Md.-based investment firm JPB Capital Partners. The chain is now in discussions with a new private equity group to support its growth.
“We now have a location in Long Island and a second location is under construction, with a plan to build 10 stores over the next seven years there. In New Jersey, we have sold two-thirds of the territories there and plan to build 15 restaurants in the next nine years. We’ve expanded into Pennsylvania and will build 10 stores there. We are also looking seriously at the Carolinas,” says Barry, who adds that the company has 40 stores open with 47 in the pipeline. When The Greene Turtle expands, though, it does so wisely, with an average of six to seven new locations each year. “We expand at a good pace so that our infrastructure and support system can handle it,” he says.
A strategic decision was also made a few years ago when considering strategic partners – franchisees. “We are finding success working with franchisees who are already in the franchise system somewhere else – fast food, for example – as they know how the franchise model works,” Barry says. Tom Finn, vice president of franchise development, concurs. “Some of our partners have strong finances and have quick-service restaurants (QSRs) in their portfolios, but they have maxed out in that category geographically and are looking to expand into the casual dining restaurant category. We also target those who already have casual dining restaurant experience,” Finn says.
“Our Long Island franchise group owns over 40 Burger Kings. Actually, a lacrosse tournament brought them to Ocean City to see their kids play, and they were introduced to the brand. Our New Jersey group owns 35 Sunoco gas stations, while our Pennsylvania group has franchises with Golden Corral and Checkers,” Barry says. “We want people who can help us grow the brand and bring the benefit of their experiences from other franchises to us so that we can learn from each other.”
Once a franchisee signs up, the first step is to identify the right location. “With casual dining restaurants, it’s fairly straight-forward,” Finn says. “We want to be in the center of the community with good visibility and access. We aim to be near traffic generators – hospitals, schools, shops and office parks, which are great for lunch business. I always say that a successful lunch business can make a good restaurant a great restaurant. We study the demographics of the community, and, of course, the location has to also be a great economic deal for us.” “Location is key,” Barry adds. “For example, in Salisbury, we moved from a ‘C Location’ to an ‘A Location’ and doubled the volume while downsizing by 2,000 square feet.”
Barry says that once a lease is signed, his team discusses the layout and design with the franchisee, approves the architect’s design, helps oversee the construction process and sets up their supply chain. “It’s a turnkey process, which is what they are paying the franchise fee for; we eliminate the guesswork for them, but we also urge them to make the space their own.” To further simplify the process for the franchisee, Barry has instituted what he calls the “4-by-4-by-4” model. “The franchisee is responsible for the four walls of the restaurant – staffing, service and quality food. They also concentrate on the four blocks surrounding the restaurant – you should know every business, every church group and organization. Our job is to then market the four miles around you.”
Over the years, The Greene Turtle has been recognized for its success as a franchise with rankings in Entrepreneur’s “Franchise 500” listing of top opportunities, a “Best Buy” as one of the Top 10 full-service restaurant franchise opportunities by FSR (Full-Service Restaurant) magazine and as one of the Top 25 Franchise Opportunities by Restaurant Management magazine.
So how does one know if the franchise model is the right fit? “I ask people: Do you want a proven brand? Do you want to be an operator or a developer?” Barry says. “If you are a developer, you have to create everything – name, logo, training manuals, menu, ambiance, marketing efforts, etc. What makes The Greene Turtle unique is that we are not a cookie-cutter operation – we encourage creativity. With our franchise, you also get the support – if you run into trouble, you can pick up the phone and ask for help. You are not on an island by yourself, as not only do you have the support team here at corporate, but you also have an entire network of other Greene Turtle franchise owners, and we encourage them to share information with each other. Even if you have a server who does not show up for a shift, you can call a nearby location to ask for help, and they’ll send an experienced server over to fill in.”
A Part of the Community
While The Greene Turtle has expanded to 40 locations spread from New York to Virginia, Barry recognizes the importance of having each location be regarded as a local dining spot. One of the ways to accomplish this is to be actively involved in the community. A unique initiative is the “Tips for Tots” program, where staff members volunteer to pool their tips one day in December and buy gifts to donate to their local Toys for Tots drives. “This program is the nearest and dearest to my heart; I literally get chills every time I talk about it,” Barry says. “It was started in 2006 by two bartenders in Salisbury. They decided to take their tips from the night – $400 – and go to a Wal-mart to buy toys for the Toys for Tots program. Since then, we have raised over $100,000 – all from tips.”
Another successful community outreach effort is The Greene Turtle’s “Funds for Friends” program, where groups arrange with individual restaurants to have their members, friends and families visit the restaurant on a particular day and in return receive a portion of that day’s proceeds donated to their cause. Over $1 million have been donated to local charities via individual locations. “This year we have a new program called ‘Turtle Cares,’” Barry says. “Money raised will be pooled and a committee will look at applications for an employee or his/her family in need. It’s a way for employees to give back to their fellow employees.” I95