Last Monday, June 15, the tent outside Turtle’s Bar & Grill was bustling with people enjoying food, drinks and a live band. They were celebrating Turtle’s 30th anniversary in business. I caught up with Bryan Turtle, the owner, a couple days later to talk about his three decades in downtown Shakopee.
His parents Gary and Sherry Turtle bought the main building and started serving customers when Bryan was 22. On opening day, he was bartending.
“My dad was the kitchen guy. Mom was the restaurant girl and did the accounting. I was the bar manager and bartender,” Turtle said. “That was the first time I’d ever bartended.”
Family members continue to work there. Turtle’s sister-in-law keeps the books and his wife Lisa is the restaurant manager. His daughter Kristi manages the bar. The business has about 70 employees.
The main bar and restaurant had been the Shakopee VFW. Turtle expanded the footprint by purchasing the adjacent paint store that sat on the corner of Lewis Street and First Avenue. That addition became Minnesota’s first non-smoking sports bar.
About 21 years ago, the restaurant expanded again by adding the 1890 Social Centre. The space, built in 1890, was fully remodeled to host banquets, live bands and other special events. The building maintains its historic charm.
“It was kind of run down when we bought it. We worked with the Scott County Historical Society to renovate it,” Turtle said. “They had a bunch of old pictures, so we actually used a picture from them to recreate the front and start over on the inside to get it back to its historic look.”
Over the years, he’s done everything from pour drinks to wash dishes to run operations. One of his current — and favorite — jobs is booking wedding receptions.
“I get to meet with couples who are really excited and happy,” he said. “I remember when we were the new kids on the block trying to make a name for ourselves. Now, I’ll be planning a wedding for a couple who remember coming here for chicken nuggets when they were five.”
He also likes booking musical acts.
“When we opened the Social Centre, the Lamont Cranston Band played for the grand opening. That was a good time and exposed me to live music and the opportunity to do more of that. We’ve had the band the Radiators from New Orleans play about 15 times. My wife and I fell in love with their music and actually traveled to see them whenever we could.”
I’ve met Turtle several times over the years. He waived fees for youth sports teams and school organizations I was involved with to let them use his Social Centre.
“There’s a residual benefit of goodwill. Our relationship with the community is predicated on that kind of activity. This is a great town,” he said. “Everyone is now rallying around the downtown. There’s a lot of Shakopee pride.”
Turtle runs the restaurant’s social media channels. His posts are supportive of local restaurants. If people think he’s supporting the competition, he wants to be clear—he is.
“Pablo’s was here before us, and when O’Brien’s opened, people were asking, ‘What’s that going to do to you?’ Well, we’ve only gotten busier since they opened,” he said.
COVID-19 threw new challenges at him. He had to pivot his business quickly, and customers showed their support with takeout orders, then dining out under the tent.
“When service went to outside-only, that’s when the city really stepped up,” Turtle said. “I emailed the mayor and the city administrator saying, ‘Can you help me?’ They were already working on a solution. They said, ‘We’ll close the street so downtown businesses can put a tent up.’”
When the tent eventually comes down, outdoor seating will be available. Turtles will have 17 tables on the sidewalks.
“It’s all approved and the furniture is on the way,” Turtle said. “We’re pretty excited about that.”
Turtle’s serves certified angus beef burgers, makes its own pizzas from scratch, including blending sausage from a decades’ old recipe, and spent eight months perfecting its chicken breading.
“That was my dad’s doing,” Turtle noted. “We wanted the breading to be spicy, but not offensively spicy. It’s a mixture of regular breading, spicy breading, and a couple of secrets that we do after that. A lot of what my dad did are the staple items on our menu. We add things as they become popular, but for the most part, the pizza, fried chicken and our burgers haven’t changed a bit.”
Something else that hasn’t changed in 30 years is the community support.
“The town has really welcomed us from day one. It’s been incredible to see, over the past 30 years, what’s happened downtown with the energy and the new businesses,” Turtle said. “It’s a true blessing that we opened in Shakopee.”