The Turtle Club is known to many as a restaurant with excellent prime rib of beef and an extensive salad bar, but it really is a club that has members and history.
It’s the kind of club that has elements of a church family. It’s an “if a member catches two fish, they bring one here to share” kind of club. There is love; and potlucks.
Stewardship of the club has successfully passed from the late Greta Lindley to Tony Carter.
“I don’t think I’ll ever feel like it’s mine. I didn’t build this. I feel like I’m just taking care of it,” the new owner said. “We’re developing some more healthy menu options, but nothing that has worked for 40-plus years will be taken away. Our members have promised death if I change anything.”
They made an agreement for him to buy the club in 2019, and he worked with Lindley until she passed of stroke in October 2020. Her remaining interest went to her son, Bud Curtis.
“Bud is an engineer, and he is learning the business. He wants to contribute and has taken the alcohol and food handling courses. He is taking a course on Quickbooks. He’s basically on board for whatever we are doing,” Carter said.
Lindley bought the club in 1985 and operated it until her death.
The Ancient and Honorable Order of Turtles was founded in England during World War II by American airmen stationed there. It focused on drinking and creating off-color, linguistic riddles. According to Wikipedia, Turtle Clubs grew out of American Legion and VFW Posts and spread across the country in the post war years. Their creed is, “Turtles are bright eyed, bushy tailed, fearless and unafraid folk with a fighter pilot attitude. They think clean, have fun a lot, and recognize the fact that you never get anyplace worthwhile in life unless you stick your neck out.”
“This has been such a great gathering place for so many people for so long. We’ve been coming here every Friday night for 30 years,” said member Karen Cowthorp. “Greta was the most wonderful hostess and owner. She was good to everyone in the community. Most have no idea how kind Greta was to people. She was beautiful inside and out.“
As a younger man, Carter made his living playing music, and that led him into the restaurant and bar business in South Carolina. His wife, Rachel, is from Fairbanks. When she became pregnant six years ago, they decided to start their family here.
He started in Fairbanks operating equipment. Rachel’s mother, Martha Rodenberger, worked at the club for 20 years and introduced him to the club family.
“The sense of community among the members was incredible, and I fell in love with the place,” Carter said. “We shut down for six months due to Covid. Debt climbed and revenue disappeared.
“Greta gave a lot. Any charity that came through the door got something. She took good care of her employees. There was not a lot in reserve, and we were not busy enough to keep the doors open,” he said. “She offered to let me out of our deal, but this is one of those places that has to survive. A large chunk of Fairbanks culture can be found here. We had 35-40 employees. Failure was off the table.
“When we could reopen, a few bartenders came back. Forest Chumbley and I jumped into the kitchen and learned to cook. I didn’t know the recipes. We changed the menu to what we knew how to cook, and started serving anything we could to keep the doors open. There was a lot I had to learn quickly.”
They are above water, paying down debt, and back to the original menu featuring prime rib and the salad bar.
“The borough worked with us to get the taxes caught up, and the federal government made things as easy as they could. It wasn’t all bad,” Carter said. “This place is a lot of fun, but there were some sleepless nights. We are working with engineers to design much needed building upgrades and have so far replaced the plumbing and built a deck. The next two years will have a lot of renovations, but we want to keep the rustic feel. We hope to build an outdoor stage and bring more summer nights of music.”
“We have people in three-piece suits and others who just came from working in a mine. There’s just one class of people here, The ‘I want to eat beef,’ people. It’s as Alaskan as it can get,” he said.
With his background in music, Carter knows a lot of talented artists. From time to time, he brings someone up from the Lower 48, for a couple of weeks. Most recently, Hanna Bethal of Nashville was booked for Oct. 23, 28 and 29.
“Tony is a wonderful owner and manager. He’s bringing in younger people and a new crowd. He’s doing a great job carrying on,” Cowthorp said. “You know everyone, and you feel very safe here. ”
The Turtle Club is located at 2098 Old Steese Highway in Fox. It can be reached at 907-457-3883 or www.turtleclubfairbanks.com. Reservations are recommended.