Of the hiring crisis, he adds, “I think that’s going to usher in the next wave. Technology was a way to increase efficiency and it [now] probably becomes a mission critical way to operate.”
Consumer engagement and digital innovation have run parallel throughout The Greene Turtle’s recovery. The brand tried a couple of virtual brand ideas internally before electing to give Virtual Dining Concepts’ phenomenon MrBeast a shot.
By late April, the concept, named after YouTube star Jimmy Donaldson, was being served out of 600 restaurants nationwide. Operators can add MrBeast Burger to an existing kitchen. VDC provides training and recipes, as well as ingredients, packaging, and marketing support.
The Greene Turtle activated the platform on the corporate side. Concepcion says he had no idea who MrBeast was until one of the company’s staff members’ children flagged it.
“I think the challenge with the virtual concepts was always the cost of creation is zero,” he says. “So you have tons of content and there’s a little bit of confusion from the consumer standpoint. But if it were to work, it would be because there’s this super strong connection between the personality or brand that’s launching it, and the folks who are using it. And you would assume that they would be more digital forward.”
In a recent Datassential study, 39 percent of consumers said they’d be interested in virtual brands connected to celebrity chefs. Twenty-five percent said the same of “entertainers” and 22 percent “social influencers.” The biggest preference went toward virtual brands connected to charities, at 50 percent. Movies (29 percent), athletes (21 percent), and politicians (13 percent) rounded out the list.
Datassential also found, in October 2020, 35 percent of guests said they had virtual brand awareness and 23 percent ordered from one. Come March 2021, it was 50 and 34 percent, respectively.
Concepcion says MrBeast is “exceeding expectations for sure.” To his earlier point, one thing it’s doing is targeting a digital-forward guest that’s already plenty familiar with the option. Whether people would feel the same about a Greene Turtle offering is hard to say. At the least, there would be some major awareness and adoption gaps to address.
With MrBeast, though, the brand doesn’t blur the proposition, either. “My biggest concern is you don’t ever want to rid the core of you do for something that is incremental and not your core focus,” Concepcion says. “That was a concern and has been in the time we’ve run it. But it’s been nothing but positive all around.” Franchisees are ready to get on board in the coming weeks as well.
On the reverse angle, COVID did give restaurants a chance to reinforce loyalty with frequent guests. As studies throughout showed, people turned to brands they trusted when the deck was stacked.
The Greene Turtle has always enjoyed a strong following since its 1976 founding, especially on the retail side (there’s an apparel and gift shop in Ocean City).
The company moved its online retail platform to a Shopify-based setup. What this allowed it to do, Concepcion says, in working with vendors, was significantly decrease the amount of time it took to deliver and execute orders. Since implementing, run rate has tripled in terms of retail sales.
“The loyalty that’s there with our core guest is just phenomenal,” Concepcion says. “[Retail is] a small part of our overall business, but I think it’s always fascinating, and especially now where we can see the granular data about where people are ordering all this retail memorabilia, is to see this national love of the brand that is really a regional brand.”
Within the four walls, The Greene Turtle completely reworked happy hour. The goal being to simplify the offering so people know what’s happening, and when. It created a $3 $4 $5 tiered platform that allows the chain to focus on variety and value. “The response has been fantastic,” Concepcion says.
The brand still offers its famed Mug Club program where guests pay $40 and get $1 off every draft after. They also receive exclusive member offers and now Greene Turtle Reward Points with every purchase. The Mug Club has been around since the beginning.
Concepcion calls it “loyalty 1.0.”
As the final perk suggests, however, it’s evolved and joined the 2.0 movement. Those who access the Mug Club automatically enroll into the digital loyalty program.
Customers receive a point for every $1 spent. Every 200 points earns $10. There are also birthday and anniversary bonuses as well as referral bonuses.
The program breaks down in tiers: 0–500 points is “True Fan Status;” 500–1,000 becomes “MVP Status,” where guests earn 1.25x points per dollar spent; and 1,000-plus points triggers “Hall-of-Fame Status,” complete with 1.5x points, a short-sleeve Turtle T-shirt, automatic Mug Club membership, and Mug Club events.
One-to-one communication and data are key to navigating the next steps of this COVID journey, Concepcion says.
Second-generation sites and favorable deals offer The Greene Turtle a chance to capture some momentum on the other side. It’s in the process of reestablishing the chain’s full menu and progressing a new prototype with its largest franchisee, also The Greene Turtle’s former COO. The store sprouted out of a former Cheeseburger in Paradise.
“I think the biggest changes are just the fact that it’s a much more modern take on the concept and over time we lost a little bit of the DNA of the bar being front and center,” Concepcion says. “And as move to more of a formal casual-dining type of box, this one, the bar is an extension. We went through a process of new food, new menu. So when you put that new plating, new food, new menu in that more contemporary vibe, it just comes together really nicely.”