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Slow and steady The Greene Turtle, big in the Mid-Atlantic, has huge growth plans in New Jersey

The exterior of The Greene Turtle restaurant in North Brunswick.

As The Greene Turtle concentrically expanded more than 300 miles outside of its origins in Ocean City, Maryland, Bob Barry said the popular casual dining brand missed an important spot.

“We kind of skipped New Jersey,” the CEO said.

That was rectified last month, when The Greene Turtle opened its first sports-themed, family-friendly location in North Brunswick.

“We now have a strategic franchise partner who has the rights to develop multiple units in the southern half of New Jersey, from Middlesex County on,” Tom Finn, vice president of franchise development, said.

Translation: Expect to see the brand’s logo — a smiling green turtle — all over the state within the next few years.

A sports bar for women
Tom Finn, vice president of franchise development, said The Greene Turtle has a tremendous demographic advantage for a sports bar and grill.
“We actually skew slightly female in our customer base,” he said. “Women like to come into our restaurant and, more importantly, they like to bring their families here, too.
“Moms typically drive restaurant decisions whenever a family is involved.”

The Greene Turtle, now headquartered in Columbia, Maryland, generates more than $100 million system-wide with more than 45 locations in Maryland; Delaware; Virginia; Washington, D.C.; West Virginia; New York; Pennsylvania; and, now, New Jersey.

Over the last five years, the brand has grown nearly 20 percent annually, has generated on average more than $2.7 million in sales per unit and has employed nearly 100 workers per restaurant.

The Greene Turtle has come a long way since its beginnings in 1976 — but some things never change.

“We serve American fare for the most part, but with Maryland flair,” Finn said.

And, while it is a national brand, the company said it makes a concerted effort acquire its ingredients from local sources.

“We do a lot of local sourcing,” Barry said.

The brand, which began franchising in 2004, also sells retail merchandise and supports each community it serves by assisting organizations such as the local Little League team or fire department.

“People often are familiar with our brand due to youth sports tournaments,” Barry said.

Professional and college level sports, too: The Greene Turtle regularly sponsors teams such as the NFL’s Baltimore Ravens and the NHL’s Washington Capitals by tossing T-shirts and giving away $100 gift cards.

Being situated within the New York and Philadelphia media and sports markets seems as though it would create an ideal environment in which to implement a similar strategy.

The mug club
More than 1,200 mugs hang atop the bar at The Greene Turtle in North Brunswick.
They are reserved, Bob Barry, CEO, said.
“Patrons can purchase a numbered mug for an annual fee, and that becomes their personal mug,” he said. “They’ll get discounts, invites to members-only parties and be entered into giveaways.”

“But we need to get to a certain scale in an area to be able to afford to put our advertising dollars toward professional sports sponsorship,” Finn said. “So, a big part of our retail marketing strategy is engrained on a grass-roots level in the communities surrounding our restaurants.”

North Brunswick, for example, is focused on Rutgers University and its nearby patrons.

“There are so many great communities here in which people are extremely passionate about sports,” Barry said.

Why, then, did it take more than a decade for The Greene Turtle to reach the Garden State?

“Well, the liquor licenses are expensive and challenging,” Barry said. “You have to make sure you will get a return on your investment. They may be an asset, but if the law is changed, does that asset go away because licenses are added in a particular county or township?”

Additionally, New Jersey’s high taxes and cost of real estate make it more expensive for The Greene Turtle to open locations here than in other markets.

Giving back, locally
Bob Barry, CEO of The Greene Turtle, encourages his franchisees to follow the 4-by-4-by-4 rule.
“Build and manage your four walls, connect with other businesses and organizations located four blocks around your store and market within a four-mile radius,” he said. “Being involved in the community is very much part of our culture. We want to make sure that our team members and our individual locations are already very active in the community when we open.”
Team members at The Greene Turtle, for example, are encouraged to participate in organizations such as Tips for Tots, in which they donate their tips to purchase presents for Toys for Tots; the Kids Play USA Foundation, in which they assist with the high costs of athletics for youth; and Funds for Friends, in which sales go to a select organization one day each month.

Nevertheless, the brand has persisted. Thirteen additional locations — the next being in Deptford — will be built in central and southern New Jersey over the next couple of years.

“We are also looking for a similar strategic franchise partner to mirror such efforts in the northern part of New Jersey, as well,” Finn said. “They would need to have the interest, the financial capability and the multiunit development and operational knowledge in order to develop the available territories there.”

A single unit costs, on average, somewhere between $1.5 million and $2 million dollars — and a partner would be expected to open somewhere between five to 10 locations.

“But if we can find rents that seem to be 7 to 9 percent of what we might estimate sales to be, we would feel pretty good about that site’s success,” Finn said.

Independent brands such as The Greene Turtle tend to be solid industry investments right now, Barry said.

“One of the reasons why we have been so successful is that we are not looked upon as a chain due to our ability to give local flair to each restaurant,” Barry said. “We are not a cookie-cutter franchise, and no two Turtles are the same.

“The Greene Turtle becomes more of a local neighborhood hangout that way.”

E-mail to: megf@njbiz.com
On Twitter: @megfry3

Meg Fry

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