The onset of COVID couldn’t have come at a worse time for The Greene Turtle.
The sports bar chose March to launch its new innovation menu that resulted in a net increase of 10 items, with a heavy emphasis on better-for-you and lighter fare, such as steak and salmon bowls.
The restaurant hoped to combine that roll out—along with a new beverage program and other revamps it was testing—alongside the NCAA Tournament. However, those visions were dashed as the tournament was canceled March 12, followed by state-mandated closures of dining rooms in subsequent weeks.
“No doubt it was painful all around and it was particularly painful for us because we tied our relaunch to that March period,” Greene Turtle CEO Geo Concepcion says. “That obviously was a hard hit to the team.”
In that mid-March period, the organization went from nearly 700 employees down to 30 and from more than a dozen company-run stores to four units operating via off-premises only.
That left Concepion staring into the abyss, with an uncertain future.
“At the same time, you’re trying to figure out, how do I make sure that I keep a core that can help us figure this out and at least keep us in the fight while all of this starts to clear up,” he says.
The executive team rolled up their sleeves, moving inventory from store to store. Concepion says it was a “full-on effort from everyone involved.”
Between the Paycheck Protection Program and an increase in off-premises sales, the brand began to see signs of life. After garnering 30 percent of pre-COVID volume at corporate stores in March, sales increased to about 55 percent in May. In July, the restaurant reached 85 percent of normal sales. With the exception of two weeks, the brand has seen double-digit increases week-over-week, including the first week of July. That’s in light of rising COVID cases across the country.
The Greene Turtle reopened all 15 company-run stores, with sales breaking down to 60 percent dine-in and 40 percent off-premises. To-go sales tripled during the pandemic, and the company has managed to maintain that level as dining rooms reopened.
“For a full-service restaurant, I think that’s a huge success in this environment,” Concepcion says.
When the company shifted to off-premises only, the new innovation menu was removed and replaced with an offering that was reduced by 60 percent. However, the revamped menu was reintroduced on July 20, and Concepcion says Greene Turtle hired new culinary talent to test four to five new items that show promise.
Systemwide, The Greene Turtle is now at 38 units, including 23 franchises. Four franchised units closed permanently during the pandemic. However, the CEO says that in the Maryland market, franchisees have seen an equivalent—if not better—resurgence. He notes that four franchises are beating pre-COVID levels year-over-year.
Additionally, staffing is up to roughly 450 employees.
“What we discovered in this entire pandemic, at least for our team, is I describe them as anti-fragile,” Concepcion says. “And I say anti-fragile meaning that the core group that we had actually got strong on the back of all of this. So what does that mean? We had managers who had to work the line in some instances and had to be really close to what was happening in the way we were preparing food, and so all of our folks basically went through a re-training, and we had our best folks doing it. While it was really horrible to lose all of that, the muscles we built and the resilience of the organization was incredible.”
That growth proved key as the company tried to win based on the merits of experience as live sports disappeared. The CEO says that while sports is part of the restaurant’s DNA and always will be, that aspect is supposed to be additive, and not the main draw.
“I think not having sports has hurt us, but we’ve definitely been the beneficiaries of our new menu and our new program,” Concepcion says. “And the volume we’ve recovered with no sports I think shows that pivot we made was definitely starting to work and continues to work for us. So when sports start to come back, in whatever form, I think all of that will just be additive to what we’re already doing, which is what we always wanted. We wanted people to think of us as a great bar and restaurant first with sports as another added benefit of the experience.”
When it came to rebuilding staff, Concepion says his team took it as an opportunity to recreate the environment and culture, and a critical piece of that was determining who should enter the fold.
Despite competing with enhanced unemployment benefits, The Greene Turtle accomplished its goal to restructure the environment, and Concepcion believes it’s because of two guiding questions—do the candidates seem like team players who will create a culture everyone wants to be in and can they produce the results we need?
“Leading with that first question I think really helped us hone in on picking the right people who wanted to be part of the team,” Concepcion says. “And certainly, even though it might have been an option for them to stay on unemployment, they were more drawn to the team environment that we’re creating here.”
Going forward, Concepcion says that no restaurant can deny the evolving consumer who wants more convenience. That means the brand’s future is about retaining the momentum of off-premises and accelerating the response.
The Greene Turtle will dive into the digital element, contactless payment, and the appropriate curbside experience.
“We’re launching tests in all of those areas because we think that not only will we retain that larger share of to-go business, but it will continue to be a big driver for us in the future,” Concepcion says.