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How CEO Robert Barry is working to preserve the soul of The Greene Turtle

By Alyssa Hurst

In “Where Are They Now?”, SmartCEO takes another look at companies and CEOs previously featured on our magazine cover. The Greene Turtle’s cover story appeared in the March 2008 issue. Read it hereIf your company was featured on our cover and you’re interested in having us revisit your story, email ahurst@smartceo.com.

Greene Turtle

Robert Barry

When SmartCEO last talked to The Greene Turtle seven years ago, one guiding principle stood out: the soul of the turtle. It’s what turned a doodle of a turtle on a napkin into one of the most recognizable brands on the East Coast. It’s what carried four college buddies on a career-long journey, spreading The Greene Turtle throughout new communities. It’s what has allowed The Greene Turtle to open 41 locations, and it’s what has inspired new people to join the family time and time again. Today, armed with the soul of the turtle, a new CEO, a brand-new majority partner and big plans for growth, The Greene Turtle is set to win yet another race.

“We’ve done extremely well. We’ve matched our goal; we’ve signed up some really exciting things. We did things that we wanted to,” says president and CEO Robert Barry. Back in 2008, The Greene Turtle was still under the leadership of “founding father” Mike Sanford, but after his retirement in 2012, Barry took the reins. It was a natural fit. “I fell in love with The Greene Turtle,” Barry says. Sanford and his co-founding fathers Tom Dickerson, Bill Packo and Steve Pappas haven’t left the company altogether though — all four are active members of the board.

Along with the leadership turnover came a change in food offerings. Back in 2008, sales came from an even split of food and alcohol. Today, the company takes its food more seriously, and that side now brings in 65 percent of sales. “In the past, The Greene Turtle was known as more of a watering hole, but we’ve really taken a hard look,” says Barry. “We hand-make products on a daily basis. We have a lot more … healthy options. We still have pub food available, but we’ve put a big huge focus on delivering great food and great service,” he adds.

Another recent change: Up until October 2015, private equity firm JPB Partners had majority control of the company. After an amicable split, The Greene Turtle found a new partnership with Stone-Goff Partners. This change marks a new chapter in The Greene Turtle’s story — one that Barry believes will lead to a new level of growth.

“Strategically, we said we wanted to expand outside the Mid-Atlantic,” says Barry. “We now have locations in Long Island. We plan to build 10 stores up there in the next seven years. We have 15 restaurants that we are going to build in New Jersey over the next nine years. We’ve expanded into Pennsylvania, where we’ve added a 10-store deal. We are seriously looking at the Carolinas,” he explains. In addition to these, The Greene Turtle has added stores in West Virginia, Pittsburgh and Ohio.

Greene TurtleThat might sound like a lot of growth in a little bit of time, but The Greene Turtle has always drawn inspiration from its namesake when it comes to winning the race. Back in 2008, Sanford said, “The last thing you want to do is grow, then wake up one morning and realize, ‘We were going 75 mph when we were really only safe at 55.’” Today, Barry echoes his words with a similar sentiment: “I think we are going to expand at a good pace so our infrastructure and our support system can handle it.” For Barry and The Greene Turtle, that pace is about six to seven stores each year.

For The Greene Turtle, success has always come at the hands of the communities it serves. Families, friends, sports teams and employees make up the true soul of The Greene Turtle. With so many chain restaurants focusing on continuity, streamlined processes and SOPs, it’s all too easy for that soul to slowly diminish, but that is one thing Barry is unwilling to allow. “We don’t want to be cookie cutter. You want to know that you’re walking into The Greene Turtle, but we certainly don’t want the footprints to all look the same,” he says.

Take, for example, The Greene Turtle’s Morgantown, WV location. “We have a bunch of mountaineer things in there and local sports. And they do things a little bit differently. They’ve created a stadium look where they are hanging things from the ceiling. We want them to express their own identity in each store,” says Barry. “We are so involved in the communities that we are in, so we want to make sure we put those elements in,” he adds.

To that end, The Greene Turtle makes an effort to really become a part of each community it enters. Over the last four years, the company has raised more than $1 million to put back into its communities, and created a program that Barry says is near and dear to his heart. “It’s a program where the staff members volunteer to pool their tips for one day in December, and they take that and they buy gifts to donate to their local Toys for Tots drives. Last year alone, they raised over $16,000,” he says. “We want to be known as the local hangout. Although we are a chain, and we are 41 stores and growing, we always want to make sure that we’re in that community.”Greene Turtle

It all comes back to this: the soul of the turtle. So what, in fact, is that soul? “It’s the little things,” says Barry. “It’s a really hot day and we’re doing an event and we’re handing out bottled water, We’re opening up our facility for people to come and rest … it’s the little things that really matter and what makes us a little different.”

In 2008, The Greene Turtle had 19 locations in operation. Today, it has 41 open, and nearly 50 more in the pipeline. In 2008, Mike Sanford, one of the company’s four founding fathers, was the company’s CEO. Today Robert Barry stands in that role. In 2008, The Greene Turtle was the Mid-Atlantic’s favorite local watering hole, built on beer and sports. Today, The Greene Turtle is known as a “family-friendly sports-themed bar and grille,” serving communities up and down the East Coast. A lot has changed for The Greene Turtle in the last seven years, but its soul remains intact.