PLEASANT GROVE — When Arizona residents Rob and Sharon Richardson come up to Utah for a visit, they always stop into their favorite local 'fast food' restaurant for a taste of its signature fish and chips.
"Their halibut fish and chips are really good!" he said. So good, in fact, that it's the only meal either of them has ever eaten in the nearly five decades they've been coming to the Purple Turtle in Pleasant Grove.
"I can get a hamburger anywhere," he said. And even after all these years, it's as good as it was when he first started patronizing back in the 1970s while he was a student at Brigham Young University, Richardson said.
"Absolutely, without a doubt," he added. He has continued to return because of the food and the service his family has received over the years.
"It's the food, it's the atmosphere," he said. "We brought our kids when they were little. Now when they come up (from Arizona), they bring their kids. It's kind of a family tradition."
That kind of loyalty has allowed the Purple Turtle to survive and thrive for 50 years in the same location at the corner of State Street and 100 East in Pleasant Grove since 1968. The idea for the business was literally dreamed up by the original owner, Lloyd Ash, who had a vision in his sleep, explained current co-owner Steve Cobbley.
"There was a gas station here, and he had a dream one night that there was a really successful restaurant (on this site)," he said. "All he remembers was that there was a turtle coming up out of the ground."
He said Ash had the same dream the next night, which prompted him to open the Purple Turtle drive-up restaurant. In 1979, it was expanded to include an indoor dine-in and customer area that is still there today, along with a drive-up window that was added in 1993.
Despite the growth of franchise fast food chains over the years, the Purple Turtle has been able to maintain its viability by focusing on offering better food and giving customers what they want rather than serving low cost, lesser quality fare, said co-owner Andrew Wilkins.
"We do things based on what the customer likes versus what might make more (business) sense dollarwise," he said. "Also, being part of the community is a big thing, too."
Both Cobbley and Wilkins worked at the restaurant as teenagers and learned the value of hard work and a few other important life lessons that served them well into adulthood, they said.
"Over the years, I worked here and had really good bosses that cared about me," Wilkins, 30, said. "I wasn't just another employee. That experience developed into me wanting to do the same for other people, too."
He purchased a half-share of the business last year, while Cobbley, 56, bought a half-share in 2005. He said what sets their food apart is the fact that everything is hand-prepared
"(For instance), the fish and chips are all hand cut," Wilkins said. "We skin and bone the halibut. The onion rings, we make ourselves."
He said it may be far more time-consuming, but the customers appreciate the effort and higher quality, and are willing to pay a little more for it. The business has maintained profitability even during a tough two-year period from 2008 to 2010 when the recession and a road construction project on State Street impacted customer flow, Cobbley said.
"What's kept us in business is that we do things differently," he said. "We don't cook food until it's ordered, so you're going to wait a little while when you get here. We buy a higher quality of ingredients to make a higher quality product, so it's going to cost a little bit more."
Sales have increased every year, he said. And though they have only had one location since opening in 1968, there are considerations for possibly launching another location in the not-so-distant future, Cobbley said.
"We're actually looking at it right now, somewhere along the Wasatch Front," he said.
Until then, they will continue to take care of the customers who keep them in business month after month.
"We have customers who come in here once or twice a week, every week," Wilkins said. "Those customers come here because they like it here. We want to keep taking care of them."
It's that commitment to customer service that has helped the Purple Turtle develop a large following of loyal patrons who frequently tell their friends to "give it a try."
Paul and Christine Worthen recently moved from Page, Arizona, to American Fork. They made their inaugural visit on Thursday on the recommendation of an acquaintance, and they were not disappointed. It met all the expectations they had, Paul Worthen said.
"The young man who helped us order the food was really, really helpful," he said. "Rather than the national chains you see all over, we would sooner stop at a place like this."
Christine Worthen noted that while she isn't particularly fond of traditional fast food, the quality of the fare at the Purple Turtle would entice her to make an exception in this case.
"This is really good food," she said. "We would eat here again."