Spaniard the turtle is on a winning streak.
Halfway into the weekly turtle races at Crafted Taphouse + Kitchen in downtown Coeur d'Alene, the surprisingly speedy yellow-bellied slider already has two wins under its shell.
Spaniard's got some tough competition so far, though, namely from tankmate Saturday Soup, another of the bar's six resident pond turtles who otherwise chill in a 250-gallon tank by the host stand. Every Friday night, the turtles temporarily depart from this aquatic home for a bit of good old-fashioned fun.
Crafted has been hosting the turtle races for the past four of the bar's five years in operation, says owner Rob Berger.
The hip spot is known for its impressive craft beer selection — there are 62 rotating taps — and a gastropub-style menu of burgers, other handhelds and more. Yet when it comes to the late-night crowd, especially outside of summer's peak season, Crafted needed a boost after its first year of business. Thus, the turtle races took off.
"We were trying to get an event for a Friday night to get people in and help promote the late-night business," Berger says. "I was at home with my wife and was like 'What if we did a turtle race?' and we thought that would be fun. We didn't have any idea how fast they are, either. You think they are this slow-moving creature and they're actually really fast."
Berger alleges the turtle race idea was all his, and only later learned of another bar in Southern California hosting a similar event.
At around 9:30 pm on a recent Friday, Crafted's staff begins race night preparations. Tables in the dining room are moved so event host Parker Spady can lower the bar's custom-built, 12-foot-diameter turtle racing table from the ceiling using a remote controlled winch. Sensing it's getting close, a crowd begins forming. One guy takes a video with his phone of the massive table slowly descending.
Up front, another employee carefully lifts the six small turtles from their tank into a black plastic dish bin, then gently places them all in the middle of the table where a circular barrier keeps the animals contained until it's time to go. Each turtle — Spaniard, Saturday Soup, Myrtle, Shelly, M.F. Jones and Stalin — is identified by a band around its shell so Spady can tell them apart. A camera above shows a top-down view of the table on two TV screens for expanded viewing. Some of the turtles inside the pre-race pen move around restlessly, as if warming up for what's next.
Finally, just before 10 pm, the lively crowd of spectators eagerly place their first-round bets on one of the six reptiles. Those who correctly guess the turtle to first make it to the table's outer edge each round get a coupon to redeem at the bar for a $1 pint of a featured beer.
Before the Heat One countdown, Spady goes over the most important rule: "Do not touch the turtles."
If staff catch someone doing so, it's an immediate boot from the bar. Crafted takes the safety of its turtles, and its patrons, seriously. Besides the animals' protection, the rule is also in place because turtles can carry salmonella and other bacteria. The race's late start also purposely coincides with the nightly closing of the restaurant's kitchen.
"We enforce that really well, and there's never been any harm done to a turtle," Berger says. "They're like our babies, so we take really good care of them."
He says staff clean the tank weekly, and in the four years since the races began, only one person to his knowledge has complained that the event isn't ethical or humane for the turtles.
A volunteer from the often controversial animal rights group PETA even came by once, observing the event and taking notes, but gave the bar "two thumbs up," Berger says, before leaving.
It's not an exaggeration that Crafted's turtles are fast. Of the six or seven heats per night, the actual "race" lasts around 15 seconds before a winner is declared.
As Spady lifts the starting barrier, the 6-inch-long creatures immediately take off, a few heading straight for the table's outer wall. Some of the turtles get a brisk start from the center only to stop, or even turn around and head the other direction. Others may stall out completely, or take a more meandering route to the finish line.
Standing on the table amongst these shelled speedsters, Spady calls out leaders on the mic: "It's Spaniard and Saturday Soup! Spaniard! Now Saturday Soup!"
The crowd erupts as the two frontrunners hurriedly plod neck-and-neck.
Spectator Jessica Moon is experiencing Crafted's turtle races for the first time, driving over from Spokane to have dinner, and deciding to stick around for the races.
"It's super fun and a really cool environment. We literally stayed here for five hours just to watch the turtle races," Moon says. "It's well worth it."
Another group of locals brought a visiting friend from Spain out to the races. Appropriately, they've bet every round on the evening's favorite turtle, Spaniard.
"Every time we have friends visiting, we bring them," says Ashley Eigenman. "After I moved here and the first time my friends told me about it, I thought it was a joke. It sounded too good to be true."
By the end of the night's races, Spaniard has taken four out of six heats. Usually, bar staff switch up the turtle's name bands between races if there's an obvious early favorite, though not tonight.
By 10:30 pm, the turtles are already done for the night, and back in their watery digs. The jovial crowd disperses out to Crafted's huge outdoor patio, or on to other bars along Sherman Avenue.
"It's been a huge success for us since we started and that's why we keep doing it," Berger notes. "We think that it's a fun thing for people in Coeur d'Alene to come check out." ♦
Turtle Races • Fridays at 10 pm • Free • 21+ • Crafted Taphouse + Kitchen • 523 Sherman Ave., Coeur d'Alene • craftedtaphouse.com • 208-292-4813