Greene Turtle creeps outward

Md. chain plans regional, perhaps national growth

October 10, 2007|By Andrea K. Walker | Andrea K. Walker,SUN REPORTER

A backgammon table and a dart board: Those were the closest sports-related activities the Greene Turtle Sports Bar and Grille offered customers when it opened more than 30 years ago with a single location in Ocean City.

The original owners first decorated the bibliophile-themed pub with stacks of books. Then they sold the bar to two former jocks from Salisbury University who immediately added a couple of televisions and began courting sports fans to come watch their favorite game.

Today, the Greene Turtle is one of the area's best-known watering holes, with 16 restaurants in Maryland and Washington. Sports memorabilia cover the walls, big screens blare major games and some locations offer TVs at each dining table.

The company's logo, a grinning turtle with a stretched-out neck, to some people is as recognizable as the University of Maryland's terrapin mascot.

The chain grew to such a regional draw that in July it caught the interest of investors from JPB Capital Partners, the Columbia-based private equity firm headed by J.P. Bolduc, former chief executive of W.R. Grace & Co. JPB has been involved in many high-profile deals over the years, including taking Asian eatery P.F. Chang's from a local Arizona restaurant to a nationally recognized name.

JPB executives believe they can help the business expand regionally, and maybe one day nationally, in a market that is saturated with sports bars. Moving beyond their initial concerns about whether the Greene Turtle brand can succeed beyond its Maryland roots, the company's owners say they can compete in a market with the national likes of ESPN Zone, Champs Sports Grill and so many others.

They've built the company regionally, they say, by staying in tune with their customers, being hands-on with each restaurant and reinvesting in the business.

"We think given the positive reputation they have that we can help them find new locations and franchises to grow," said Greg Carey, who works for JPB and is serving as chairman of the board for the Greene Turtle.

JPB bought a majority interest in the Greene Turtle for an undisclosed sum but the original owners continue to run the day-to-day operations. The private equity firm, which brings franchising experience and financing to the business, also hired several key personnel, including a chief operating officer.

`We couldn't keep up'

"We got to a point where we knew it was going to be hard to continue to do this," said Tom Dickerson, 51, one of the owners of the Greene Turtle. "Even though the restaurants were doing well we couldn't keep up. We needed someone with deeper pockets and more experience."

Dickerson was just out of college in 1981 when he and Salisbury University soccer teammate Steve Pappas, now 52, bought the business. Both had worked just about every job at the bar, rising from doormen to bartenders and then managers.

Pappas' parents put up their Dundalk home as collateral to help the pair secure financing for the restaurant. Dickerson had money he inherited from the sale of a family bar.

The pair said they spent the first six years of ownership by working round-the-clock days. The bar was popular among college kids and beach crowds in the summer. It began to outgrow its 1,600 square feet of space and expanded into a neighboring surf shop.

In 1986, old college buddy Bill Packo joined the business and opened the second bar in Fells Point in Baltimore and added food to the menu. Mike Sanford, a former basketball coach at Salisbury University, later joined the business.

The Greene Turtle grew to five restaurants by 2001, with spots in Laurel, West Ocean City and Edgewater. It was easier to get financing with the business more established, and employees at the bars often invested money in the new ventures as well.

That same year, the company began franchising some locations as a way to expand the business faster. That move cost current business partners less money. And they increasingly fielded inquiries from people asking about franchises. Franchise fees are $30,000 and potential owners need to be able to provide $600,000 to $1 million in construction, leasing and other costs.

The company now has 16 restaurants, including recent locations in Bel Air, at Baltimore- Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport and the Verizon Center sports and concert arena in Washington.

Michael Stoehr and a partner opened a Greene Turtle franchise in Columbia last year. When he was younger, Stoehr, now 41, would watch games at the Ocean City location while on vacation during the summer. Stoehr and his partner plan to open a franchise in Crofton in 2009.

But Stoehr said opening the first restaurant went slower than he had hoped and it made sense that the Greene Turtle owners sought more help as their business grew.

"They were brand new at franchising," Stoehr said. "JPB is a good thing."

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