The pandemic couldn’t have hit at a worse time for The Greene Turtle, a chain of Maryland sports bar restaurants that originated in Ocean City in the 1970s. Not only was it almost March Madness, a major draw for the company’s sports-fanatic customer base, but The Greene Turtle was also just on the precipice of a big revamp of its brand image and menu offerings.
A beloved bar, The Greene Turtle was hoping to supplement its drink offerings with new food items that would appeal to a wider and more modern audience, and that would convince its existing customers to come in to dine more often.
Naturally, COVID-19 threw a wrench in that.
What should have been an exciting rebirth for the company turned into months and months of uncertainty — as it did for most restaurants after a stay-at-home order restricted on-site dining. But while many dining establishments nationwide were largely concerned with making the switch to takeout and delivery service, The Greene Turtle’s team was left wondering when they would finally be able to roll out their new menu, all while quickly accommodating to the so-called “new normal.”
“It really started in a fairly intense way. We battened down the hatches and really shrunk the organization in a rapid-fire way,” recalled The Greene Turtle’s CEO, Geovannie Concepcion.
All but four of its 36 locations, which includes 16 company-owned and operated restaurants and 20 franchises, closed entirely for the time being, and hundreds of employees were let go.
The four bars that remained open were ground zero for the company to get a glimpse into running restaurants during a pandemic. Sales through third-party apps, like Uber Eats and DoorDash, tripled, forcing the company to reevaluate parts of its workflow to better accommodate the influx of online ordering.
The Greene Turtle also added new offerings, like to-go beverages and cocktail kits, to the mix (“orange crushes are one of our top items, so that did really well,” Concepcion said). At the beginning of the pandemic, it even tried selling retail items, like toiletries and cleaning supplies, that were hard to access elsewhere — a less successful endeavor than the bar offerings.
“We ended up not getting the traction that we really thought out of the retail side, and that was OK, that’s just part of the process,” he said. “The cocktail kit did well, but what we saw were the actual cocktails being made to go being the bigger driver.”
The turning point for The Greene Turtle — which has since reopened all of its own locations, though a few franchisee units never reopened — was the summer, in Concepcion’s view. The warmer months brought customers back to the restaurant; later, the October opening of The Greene Turtle’s biggest franchise to date, located in California, Maryland, was further cause for celebration.
“It set new store sales records, which was super impressive, and what we’re super happy about is the fact that that continues to be the highest-volume Turtle in the system,” he said. “So just sort of a really nice thing to have coming out of COVID and just showing the strength of the brand in Maryland.”
The boost that the California store gave The Greene Turtle brand, Concepcion said, helped to encourage the sport bar chain’s team as the fall and winter months loomed late last year. Plus, the pandemic wasn’t new anymore, and the staff was now much more experienced at running a restaurant during a pandemic.
For The Greene Turtle, the benefits of the past year have ended up outweighing the challenges. As summer approaches, the restaurant chain is once again moving forward with adjustments to its brand.
First, it finally brought back the modernized menu, which includes hip dishes like Old Bay ribs, in April. It launched a new happy hour menu to coincide with March Madness. Slamburgers, a trio of beef sliders, have been among the restaurant’s most popular new offerings.
“We really wanted to have fun with the menu,” Concepcion said.
Not only is The Greene Turtle now reaching up to 90% of its 2019 volume, but the team has also decided it’s time to expand. The sports bar chain is currently planning two new Baltimore locations, one in Canton and another in Gambrills.
These new bars aren’t another pre-pandemic plan, postponed by COVID-19. Rather, they were inspired by the company’s success and perseverance throughout the pandemic.
“In the back of our heads, we tried to keep ourselves in a positive state by saying, ‘When all of this starts to work itself out, if we can come out strong and maintain the brand, there’s going to be a lot of developers and a lot of folks that will want to work with us, and, especially having this great new prototype that is setting sales records, they’re really going to want us to be a part of their site,’” Concepcion said. “It ended up, thankfully, being that way.”