Among COVID-19’s many prevailing themes is the fact sports bars took an especially sharp blow last March. Concepts across the country were ready to pull marketing and menu levers for March Madness. But the NCAA cancelled its men’s and women’s basketball championships March 12—the first time the calendar blockbuster would not be held since its inaugural run in 1939.
The Greene Turtle fell firmly into this camp. The organization went from nearly 700 employees to 30 and from more than a dozen company-run units to four operating via off-premises only.
Just about a month ago, however, the Columbia, Maryland-based chain reported its first positive week, CEO Geo Concepcion says. In January, compared to 2019 levels, the brand’s sales were down about 30 percent. The gap started to close in early March.
All 16 corporate stores are back, and so are the 21 other units run by franchisees. Additionally, The Greene Turtle is finalizing leads on two stores expected to be in place by the end of Q3. The last time it opened two corporate restaurants was in 2007, well over a decade ago.
“I think that is a nice place to be coming out of COVID,” Concepcion says. “and I think it shows that all around the organization was, by the time we were in May, post-COVID, we were thinking about well, how can we grow this company coming out of this.”
It’s been an eventful journey for The Greene Turtle and Concepcion, the former COO of Famous Dave’s. At the barbecue brand, Concepcion was the driving force behind many of the concept’s tech-forward shifts. A member of its management team since April 2016, Concepcion was tasked with store optimization and aiding Famous Dave’s refranchising efforts, as well as implementing online ordering and delivery. Before, Concepcion held a variety of roles with Greenwich, Connecticut-based Wexford Capital LP in the private equity group and global macro hedge funds.
He wasn’t a restaurateur by trade when he joined Famous Dave’s—something he said allowed him to take a blank slate to the operational room. Virtual and ghost restaurants before they were part of the industry’s collective conscious. Finding ways to meld hospitality and digital, or get a restaurant brand comfortable thinking like a tech company.
Concepcion joined The Greene Turtle in May 2019. Ahead of COVID, off-premises accounted for roughly 10 percent of sales. Seven percent of that belonged to pickup.
In June, the company was generating triple on an absolute dollar basis in terms of off-premises. Meanwhile, the amount of business coming from digital platforms was five times greater.
“A mega-shift,” Concepcion says. “And so the question became, OK, well, we had this one-time effect obviously. Dine-in was not allowed. And consumers should go away when things start to open up. We’ve only seen it increase.”
The Greene Turtle, like many full-service counterparts, added curbside pickup during the pandemic. It fine-tuned its mobile app. It reconfigured and analyzed digital layout to try to funnel transactions into profitable channels. “I think it was always the challenge for restaurants to try to get their guests to order directly from them,” Concepcion says. “And in order to do that, you need to give them an experience that makes them comfortable and makes it seamless.”
Inside, The Greene Turtle implemented QR codes with OneDine for tableside order and pay. It will be testing a “more traditional pay-at-table” option soon as well, Concepcion says.
The reason being the brand believes it’s on the cusp of a robust summer. The CDC’s announcement that “fully vaccinated people no longer need to wear a mask or physically distance in any setting, except where required by federal, state, local, tribal, or territorial laws, rules, and regulations, including local business and workplace guidance,” has left a lot of operators scrambling. Retail giants from Walmart to Trader Joe’s stripped mandates.
Most restaurants required masks in lobbies and throughout locations (walking to the bathroom, etc.) But the situation is a bit murky now.
“The announcement by the CDC that fully vaccinated people no longer need to wear masks indoors or outdoors means that restaurant operators have the option of determining how best to enforce the new guidance,” Larry Lynch, SVP of Science and Industry, National Restaurant Association, said in a statement. “Because restaurants welcome people who are both vaccinated and not fully vaccinated, operators will still need to work with their state and local regulators to ensure they are in line with all other mandates in place. For this reason, the Association won’t be immediately updating its COVID-19 Operating Guidance.”
“The restaurant industry has always placed a focus on the health and safety of our workforce and our customers, so we are encouraged by the CDC’s decision and the potential it has to help move the restaurant industry closer to being fully reopened in all communities where the virus is not an immediate threat,” Lynch added.
Maine, for once, still requires masking and social-distancing for indoor diners, The New York Times recently reported.
While this creates yet another round of confusion for restaurateurs, it does suggest some real light at the end of the tunnel.
According to an April consumer survey from Datassential, 39 percent of people said they are already vaccinated and 30 percent “plan to get it.”
Importantly, in the past two weeks, 42 percent noted they’ve “eaten inside of a restaurant dining room.” The measure was second only to “gone shopping for non-essential items,” at 46 percent.
And Concepcion wants to ensure The Greene Turtle is ready to satisfy whatever that occasion looks like. “As we’ve looked at our guest journey and one of the pain points, especially where we all know the story on staffing, it’s super tough right now, there’s nothing more uncomfortable than sitting there trying to close the check and you can’t,” he says. “And if you don’t want to work through your phone and pay through your phone, that’s something we do think that’s an opportunity for us to figure out.”
It’s one of those “post-COVID battlegrounds” Concepcion hopes to get in front of. When you consider the challenge to hire frontline workers and staff up, it creates a potential dilemma for bar and grills. If volume floods back, the last thing guests want, Concepcion says, is to hang at a table trying to wave down a server. There just might not be as many guest-facing workers as before, consumer demand or not.
Since Concepcion started, The Greene Turtle has “probably changed 90 percent” of its tech stack elements. Everything from accounting and reporting systems to an upcoming point-of-sale shift. It was groundwork laid pre-COVID. The company implemented operations execution software platform Jolt to tighten some tasks that make running a short-staffed restaurant more viable. Things like ensuring ticketing and back-of-the-house processes and procedures are documented and done every day, and in an easily viewed repository.
Those notions only became more critical.
The Greene Turtle put retention bonuses in place for every level of the organization. And it created a stipend program of sorts at the management level so managers who are short-staffed are compensated for extra work. “What we learned through COVID is we’ve gotten far with our team by doing as best as we can and treat folks right and making it clear that where there’s a challenge, we’re going to try to adjust it and make sure you’re treated fairly as we figure out what the long-term solution is,” Concepcion says.
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.”