OCEAN CITY – In 1976, the Greene Turtle North opened its doors on 116th Street, offering peanuts, backgammon and cold beers. Today, Greene Turtles span the State of Maryland and although the small bar has grown into a successful franchise over the years, the laid-back atmosphere and promise of good times has never faded.
College roommates Steve Pappas and Tommy Dickerson first became a part of the Greene Turtle in 1977 as employees of the small uptown bar. Pappas also worked as a men’s lacrosse coach at then-Salisbury State College at that time. In 1981, during a lacrosse practice, Pappas was presented with an offer that would eventually change his life.
“Tommy came out to practice and asked me if I wanted to buy the Greene Turtle with him,” Pappas said.
Despite a lagging financial situation, the pair took a chance. After borrowing money and having Pappas’s parents put their house up as collateral, the Greene Turtle was theirs.
In 1986, the pair decided to bring another college friend into the mix. Billy Packo joined the Greene Turtle family, opening a second location in Fells Point, which proved to be an instant success. “When we opened Fells Point, we had lines wrapped around the building,” Pappas said.
In 1990 their scope expanded even further when another college friend joined the team, opening a third Greene Turtle in Laurel, Md. The snowball continued in 1999 with the opening of the West Ocean City location and an Edgewater operation.
In 2002, the group began to realize that if they wanted to keep expanding they would need some help, so they made the tough decision to sell off part of their business and become a franchise.
“We thought it was a good idea and we couldn’t do it on our own,” Pappas said.
Their biggest fear in franchising was that they would lose their unique concept, so they stayed active in the franchising process to ensure that each Greene Turtle maintained the same feel and concept as the original. By June 2008, there will be 23 Greene Turtles across Maryland and Delaware, with more to come for 2009.
“It has changed a little bit, but it still all comes back to the beach, that’s where it all started,” Pappas said.
Along with the success of the restaurants came the success of the apparel. Greene Turtle T-shirts are sold all over the world and everything from Greene Turtle key chains to golf balls can be found in the apparel shop.
The Greene Turtle also expanded to TV and radio. Pappas can be heard Wednesday nights on WQMR in a live radio show. Turtle Talk, found on channel RVG-10, is a 20-minute TV show running every quarter after the hour, seven days a week.
Despite the expansion of Greene Turtle, the underlying theme has remained the same over the years.
“It’s just been a fun place. When you come to Greene Turtle, you expect to have a fun time,” Pappas said.
The target demographic has always been aimed at anyone and everyone Pappas said, explaining that whether it’s a businessman, jock, soccer mom, or the whole family, there’s something for everyone. “You can come in, in a business suit or shorts, it doesn’t matter,” he said.
Pappas attributed a large part of the success to the chemistry between himself, Dickerson and Packo. “All three of us think the same, we act the same,” he said.
Over the years, their lives have followed similar timelines as well. Becoming family men at the same time took them in similar directions as far as the business was concerned.
“We were really trying to keep the same concept, but as we got older our values changed a little bit,” Pappas said.
Family values became more important in the business, spurring them to create youth and high school soccer and lacrosse clubs sponsored by Greene Turtle.
The sports theme has always been a major factor, mixing with the rock n’ roll theme to give Greene Turtle a unique atmosphere.
“Without changing our rock n’ roll image, we’re still a sports bar. Springsteen and sports, that’s what we’ve been doing and that’s what we’ll keep doing,” he said.
Pappas insists that they couldn’t have come this far though without the help of their employees.
“The most important thing for the success of the Greene Turtle are the employees,” he said, noting several employees who have been with them since the beginning.
The community has also played a role in the success, according to Pappas.
“We give back to the community as much as possible,” he said. “When we moved here, we made Ocean City our home and it’s been really good to us.” To give back to the community, Greene Turtle holds a variety of fundraisers throughout the year. On Jan. 3, the Greene Turtle North will be holding a fundraiser for local Maryland State Trooper Heath Berkey who is participating in the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society Team in Training. Donations will be made at the door and 10 percent of all proceeds from the night will go to Berkey.
Although the winter months are inevitably slower, Pappas is holding a special New Year’s Eve party, featuring DJ Wax, party favors, food, a champagne toast, after-midnight snacks and free shuttle rides home. Bowl specials will also be available all day long on New Year’s Day.