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Greene Turtle goes from shore favorite to franchising success

The Greene Turtle

The original Greene Turtle in Ocean City, Md. (Submitted photo)

Forty years ago, Ocean City looked a lot different than it does today. The Bay Bridge was still new, the high-rise condominiums were just being built and the Baltimore Colts made regular appearances at the beach town.

Now, the Ravens have replaced the Colts, and a plethora of high-rise options in Ocean City, but one old favorite has managed to hang on – the Greene Turtle. Celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, the sports bar has expanded to a restaurant chain with 37 locations across Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia and New York.

“A business is only as good as its employees,” said founder Steve Pappas, who credits much of the chain’s success to its staff. “We have been fortunate with that over the years.”

While expanding a small business or franchising a restaurant can be difficult for owners, Pappas and co-founder Tommy Dickerson found their niche with the sports bar, which started as a friendly venture between two sports fans.

“They’ve been very fortunate that the sports bar category has always been fairly successful,” said restaurant franchising expert Joe Spinelli, who helped franchise the first few Greene Turtles. “Even when the economy is down, people still go.”

The Ocean City location didn’t hurt the restaurant either. As a well-known beach bar, Spinelli said, people associate the name with vacation and thus with “a happy time.”

Keeping the brand consistent and true to its roots has helped the restaurant grow and stay successful, Pappas said.

“I can tell you the one thing that makes us different from every other bar is our little icon – our little turtle,” Pappas said. “That icon is so recognizable, you don’t even have to put the Greene Turtle label on it – people know it.”

Consistency is everything to Pappas – and that remains true for the staffing as well. Even after a majority of the Greene Turtle was purchased in 2007, the original owners and founders remained. Now, Pappas said he looks forward to passing the ownership off to his kids, who have worked there since they were teenagers.

Pappas said staff members like CEO Bob Barry, who joined the company in 2007, have preserved the original look and feel of the first location and expanded the brand authentically.

“Bob has maintained our consistency throughout our [66 open or developing] locations,” Pappas said. “There’s something to be said that the Turtle we opened up today is going to be close to the one we opened in ’76.”

The restaurant’s expansion outside its home state was a surprising success that both Pappas and Spinelli said they doubted at first, partly because of how Maryland-centric the eatery was. But with the right funding and branding, Spinelli said, the chain has continued to flourish.

“It’s Maryland’s No. 1 sports bar, so the name is recognizable,” said Dawn Hodge, marketing and office manager of the original Ocean City location. “That’s what has made it be able to expand into West Virginia, New York, Virginia.”

At first, the sports bar was just that – a friendly spot for locals to grab a beer. The addition of food, starting at the second Fells Point location, also bolstered the franchise.

“The food has really elevated them,” said Spinelli, adding that when the Greene Turtle started out food wasn’t a priority. The chain didn’t start serving food until it acquired a second location in Fells Point, which was the first with a kitchen. The Turtle “grew from a local brand, from old Ocean City” to a successful mid-Atlantic chain that can attract “a different type of customer base, not just people going there to drink and watch sports,” Spinelli said.

Vice President of Franchise Development Tom Finn sees these changes in image and brand as a way to attract a broader demographic, something other casual eateries haven’t quite reached and is the Greene Turtle’s “greatest asset.”

“It’s evolved over 40 years to something that has become … a brand with one of the broadest demographic appeals in the industry,” Finn said. “If you go into the Greene Turtle, there are baby boomers, young couples, families, groups of guys and gals … it’s kind of unique.”

The restaurant is both kid- and family-friendly, Pappas said, with sports-bar roots. For Hodge, who has worked at the same Greene Turtle for 20 years, the staff is all “one big family.”

“With sports bars, you see one opening up every week. But the longevity that we had, success has to go to employees,” Pappas said. “Our employees have gotten to us to where we are now.”