Making Converts

When The Greene Turtle Sports Bar & Grille officers decided to begin franchising back in 2003, they reached a crossroad that every growing restaurant concept will come to, and probably more than once: to build new or to convert.

“We made a strategic decision to not be a ‘cookie cutter’ concept,” says The Greene Turtle president and CEO Mike Sanford. Instead they opted to “fit new restaurants to existing real estate, be it stand-alone locations, end-caps or whatever.”

While no two Greene Turtles are exactly alike, they do share one thing that helps maintain store-to-store consistency and productivity: the kitchen layout, and a predetermined relationship between the position of kitchen, dining room and bar.

Speed and cost savings are the two main reasons Sanford points to for choosing conversions over ground-up construction. “Build-outs require much more time, including site plans and approvals, environmental impact studies and so on,” Sanford says. “With conversions, though, from the time you sign the lease, you’re looking at leasehold improvements that when completed, can have you open for business in anywhere from five to eight months.”

Conversions On The Rise

“We’re seeing conversions come into play more than they did in the past,” says Sanford, who, when he spoke with FER, was in the process of opening three locations in three weeks. Currently about 25% of Greene Turtle stores are conversions, and that percentage is growing.  

The tough economy that’s caused so many restaurants to close their door also means “there’s a tremendous opportunity to get a good deal by moving into an existing space,” notes Alan Hamm, the Kensington, Md.-based architect and consultant who has worked with The Greene Turtle for more than a decade. “On top of that, it’s more environmentally responsible to repurpose an existing store,” he adds. “You’re saving more overall resources.”

Not every restaurant conversion is created equal, however. “If you have to go in and gut the place completely, it’s likely to be more expensive than starting from scratch with a brand new shell,” Hamm says. 

Meet The Turtle

Before talking about the Turtle’s conversion strategy, pull back the camera for a big-picture look. The first Greene Turtle debuted in Ocean City, Md., in 1976 as a backgammon and reading hangout. Two years later, the two partners who took over operations upsized the bar, filled the interior with TVs and sports memorabilia, and thus launched Turtle in a new direction. The first franchised store opened in ’03.

These days, the company’s 25 unique Greene Turtle restaurants sport up to 60 TVs per store, including flat screens in every booth. A long row of beer mugs hanging above the bar, part of the restaurant’s Mug Club, helps generate repeat business. The restaurants generally range in size from 5,500 sq. ft. to 8,000 sq. ft., with the exceptions being a 2,500-sq.-ft. airport location and an 11,000-sq.-ft. conversion location. The Greene Turtle brought in $54.5 million in ’09 and is on track to generate about $68.5 million this year.

Site Evaluation

Whether an existing restaurant property would work for a Greene Turtle conversion depends on its layout and flow.

“Those are the first two things we look at when considering a site for conversion,” says COO Bob Barry. “How’s the flow? How much space does the kitchen take up? Typically our menu, which uses a lot of pre-prepped items for consistency, means we can operate with about 25% of the square footage for the kitchen, including storage and refrigeration, and the remaining 75% for dining room and bar.”

Flow is just as critical as size of kitchen. “Because we serve so many appetizers and finger foods, the kitchen has to have easy access to the bar as well as to the dining room,” Barry says. Another consideration is the restroom location. Since the Greene Turtle serves both families and sports fans, planners look for sites where restrooms are centrally located, and that have two entrances to minimize clientele crossover.

Constant Kitchen As Core

The one thing that remains constant at all the newer Greene Turtle stores is the basic kitchen layout. In the case of a conversion from a previous restaurant, the company will look at reusing certain pieces of existing equipment–walk-ins or ventilation, of course, but also other items depending on specifics.

The cookline includes the usual bar-and-grill suspects. Moving from left to right in the recently opened Chesapeake, Va., Greene Turtle kitchen, you’ll find a charbroiler, griddle, four-top range/oven combo, a single-deck convection oven, a bank of four gas-powered fryers, a countertop convection steamer and a reach-in freezer.

On the opposite side of the aisle is the make-line, with a refrigerated sandwich-prep table on either end and a three-well hot table near the center along with a worktable. Completed food orders are placed on the pass-through window and kept hot with strategically placed heat lamps. Two microwave ovens, one facing the sandwich line, the other the pick-up line, are used for quick heating.

The ice cuber and beer cooler in the floorplan are to the right of the main kitchen, accessible yet out of the main kitchen traffic . Dry storage and the walk-in cooler and freezer are at the back of the kitchen, closest to the back entrance for easy delivery and storage. 

Orders are transmitted by printers or order-display monitors, depending on the store. “The order-display system makes for quieter kitchens since the expediter doesn’t need to yell for what he needs,” Sanford says. The system also boosts production efficiency because the computer can time cook orders to ensure everything on a ticket is ready at once.

One other note on the kitchen layout concerns the dishroom. Because servers, rather than dedicated bussers, are clearing tables as well as serving, planners positioned the dishroom as conveniently close to the kitchen entrance as possible—in the case of the floorplan pictured in this story, the dishroom is just behind the wait station. Food safety is maintained with regular training and the accessible placement of four handsinks, one each in the dishwashing, beverage area, cooking and pick-up areas.

Hidden Issues

While speed and cost savings are a plus for choosing to convert an existing restaurant to a new brand, negatives can be hidden issues such as structural deficiencies or non-compliance with current national or state codes.

“A lot of times you’re inheriting someone else’s problems,” Hamm says. “You’ll run into things that wouldn’t happen in ground-up builds.”

Case in point is the store in Chesapeake, Va., which opened in June.

The property had been home to three or four restaurant concepts during its life, and each new operator had tweaked the exterior—and in so doing covered up major problems,” Hamm says. “When the Greene Turtle franchisee began to update the exterior, his crew found that water leakages had caused the steel beams to rust out. We had to tear the structure down to its bones to rebuild it.”

Luckily for the franchisee, the landlord was understanding and helped offset the cost and extended the construction deadline.

Conversions can also have repercussions well after the property is operational. Sanford describes a situation three years ago in which The Greene Turtle wanted to expand one of its retrofitted stores. “The restaurant met the fire-safety code at its existing size, but the 1,200 sq. ft. we wanted to add would have bumped it past 8,000 sq. ft. and into the code requirement calling for sprinklers,” Sanford recalls.

“The building’s utility infrastructure wasn’t there,” he continues. “It would have required the installation of a bigger water pipe from the street, digging up the parking lot, bringing in the utility company…” The unexpected complication would have cost Greene Turtle an extra $200,000. Not surprisingly, the addition was shelved.

 Do Your Homework

Nothing spoils a good relationship with franchisees like unexpected costs.

“You don’t want to have to go back to your franchisee and tell him that his $1 million store will now cost $1.75 million because he suddenly has to tear up the floor to add access ramps to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act code,” Sanford says.

Such surprises were easier to deal with back when financing was more readily available than it is now. A Greene Turtle conversion project in ’06 at the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C., ran into trouble when asbestos was discovered after construction had started. “We had failed to catch it up front,” Sanford says. “It cost us about $50,000 extra and put us behind schedule by nearly two weeks.”

“Do your homework up front and keep franchisees in the loop with any possible thing that might affect their pocketbooks,” Sanford adds.

“Restaurants are hard on buildings, so we spend a lot of time at the sites looking hard to try to find problems up front—especially in the area of plumbing,” Hamm says. “Older buildings are particularly prone to such issues, which is why we often recommend sending cameras down into the plumbing lines to check for blockages, leaks or breaks,” Hamm says. “It’s money well spent.”

Money well spent, indeed. As long as lending is tight, consumers are cautious, and closed restaurant sites are available, conversions will continue to grow. A consistent core production area and a flexible front of house maybe become the formula of the future.

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