Go Greek

February 10, 2016

Restaurant executive Nick Vojnovic joined Tampa-based Little Greek Fresh Grill in 2011. Photo by Mark Wemple

Restaurant executive Nick Vojnovic found a novel way to beat back a mid-life crisis after he moved on from a decade-long gig running sports pub chain Beef ‘O’ Brady’s.

Forget the convertible or the Harley. Vojnovic went back to school. He enrolled at University of South Florida, where he earned an M.B.A. in about 18 months, mostly in weekend classes. At 51, and already with a degree from Cornell University’s famed hospitality school, Vojnovic says he learned a lot from the experience — both in life and academically. “It was humbling,” says Vojnovic. “My 13-year-old daughter had to show me how to make up a power point presentation.”

Five years later, Vojnovic, 56, is back in his comfort zone, helping upstart restaurant franchise operators go from the toddler stage to something more mature. Vojnovic is doing that with Tampa-based Little Greek Fresh Grill. The concept, founded by entrepreneur Sigrid Bratic in 2005, is authentic Greek food in a fast-casual setting.

Little Greek is on a big run under Vojnovic. It has gone from four locations in 2011, when Vojnovic partnered with Bratic, to 25 by the end of last year. And system-wide sales have nearly doubled since 2013, from $7.4 million to $14 million in 2015.

The chain also recently picked up some national industry notoriety. Restaurant News named it a breakout brand, and more recently, national foodservice research firm Technomic named Little Greek one of its six franchises to watch in 2016. “Little Greek Fresh Grill is a fast-growing concept in an under penetrated fast-casual Mediterranean growth segment,” Technomic President Darren Tristano says in a statement. “The experience and knowledge of its leadership team, speed to market and accelerated success put Little Greek in a strong position to be a category leader.”

Vojnovic, with his M.B.A. and his on-the-job leadership experience at Beef’s and Famous Dave’s barbecue chain, is more cautious than the complements. That’s because growing too fast is one of his biggest takeaway lessons from Beef’s. The chain grew from 30 locations and $16 million in annual sales to 270 chains doing $250 million a year in sales during his 12 years at the helm, from 1998-2010. The downside to that fast growth is it led to a litany of issues, from poor store openings to underprepared staff to back-office slowdowns.

The goal is to open up to seven Little Greek stores in 2016. Locations include Lakewood Ranch in east Manatee County, Riverview in Hillsborough County and Kennesaw, Ga. Vojnovic says he intends to make sure every location focuses on all of the company’s five core values, which include passion, integrity and constant improvement.

On continuous improvement, Vojnovic has many items on his to-do list. It includes better training systems so employees can be more efficient; streamlining food purchasing and other costs to lower expenses; and instituting a process of audit and store visits to bring uniformed quality control to the chain.

Vojnovic also addressed an external challenge: Greek food has a certain turn-off level to people who don’t know the culture and flavors. One step there was to put the American version of the food first on the menu followed by the Greek words, such as spinach pie (spanakopita.) “People can be intimidated by gyros and souvlaki,” says Vojnovic. “We Americanized the menu.”

Going back to his Beef’s lessons, Vojnovic does more to share financial metrics with franchisees and managers. For example, each franchisee has access to daily sales data so he can spot trends quickly. And all franchisees share profit and loss figures on a regular basis, to come up with ideas and get in front of problems.

“I’m a big believer in constantly trying to improve yourself,” says Vojnovic. “(But) I’m working harder at this than I thought I would. We still have a long way to go.”

By the numbers
Little Greek Fresh Grill
Year Revenues Percent Growth
2013 $7.47 million
2014 $10.47 million 40%
2015 $14 million 33.7%


Conference to Explore Health Care Impacts, Menu Trends

May 23, 2013

UCLA Extension’s 17th Annual Restaurant Industry Conference is scheduled for April 3 on the UCLA Campus at Covel Commons in Los Angeles. The event will explore emerging concepts, culinary trends and other topics affecting the restaurant industry such as Obamacare.

“It was at prior (UCLA Extension) conferences that the size and scope of the farm-to-fork and food truck phenomena were first explored, as well as the importance of internal marketing and leadership from multiple dimensions. We expect more substantive trends to be unveiled this year,” said Anna Graves, conference chair and co-leader of the restaurant, food and beverage industry group for Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP.

This year’s conference includes keynote speeches from Greg Creed, CEO, Taco Bell Corp., and Walter Robb, co-CEO of Whole Foods Markets.

Adam Fleischman, founder and CEO of the Umami Restaurant Group, (which also launched its 800 Degrees pizza chain) will join an “emerging concepts” panel that includes Alan Jackson, founder, and Ian Olsen, COO, of the Lemonade Restaurant Group, as well as Tony Shure, co-founder of the Chop’t Creative Salad Company and Burton Heiss, senior vice president of Nando’s Restaurant Group Inc.

Examining menu evolution will be Amy Alarcon, vice president of Culinary Innovation, Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen; Alex Benes, partner at Wood Ranch BBQ & Grill; Randy Kies, senior vice president for growth and development, Lark Creek Restaurant Group; and Donald Moore, chief culinary officer and SVP of kitchen operations, The Cheesecake Factory, Inc. Moderating this panel will be Steven Goldstein, partner, The Culinary Edge.

Which restaurants are winning over customers the best – and maintaining their loyalty – will be part of a market research discussion by Ron Paul, president and CEO, and Darren Tristano, executive vice president of Technomic Inc. Unveiled during this session will be the top 500 chain restaurant performance index compiled by Technomic.

Also, an expert panel will offer attendees the latest advice and insights into the Affordable Care Act. Panelists include Behzad Cohan, president, CG Investments Inc.; Scott Morsch, area senior vice president, Gallagher Hospitality & Restaurant Group; Michelle Neblett, director of labor and workforce policy, National Restaurant Association; Scott Nicholson, vice president of operations, Veggie Grill; and Paul Potvin, CFO, Elephant Bar Restaurants.

The conference also features a panel discussing crisis communication and brand protection.

UCLA economist Dr. Edward E. Leamer will offer the latest figures on whether the U.S. will recover more jobs lost during the recession and how employment rates will likely impact restaurants.

Finally, the presentation of the 2013 Innovation Award will go to Dr. Tim Ryan, president, The Culinary Institute of America. Presenting the award to Dr. Ryan will be last year’s winner, Jerry Deitchle, chairman of BJ’s Restaurants.


Former McDonald’s CEO and ‘Hamburger U’ Founder Has Died

January 18, 2013

Fred TurnerFred L. Turner, one of the first employees of McDonald’s Corp. and the founder of its Hamburger University training program, died of complications from pneumonia Monday night. He was 80.

Mr. Turner wrote the company training manual and is credited with tripling the chain’s restaurant base during his time as CEO. Friends say he was known as “the heart and soul” of McDonald’s.

“His influence on McDonald’s cannot be overstated,” said Mike Roberts, a former McDonald’s president. “Ray (Kroc) was the visionary, but Fred was the heart and the soul, the operational thrust of the company.”

Known for working side by side with restaurant employees, Mr. Turner wrote the company’s first operations and training manual in 1958. It still serves as a basis for restaurant operations — no small thing for a company renowned for its consistency.

Mr. Turner founded McDonald’s Hamburger University, a training program for managers, franchisees and company employees, in 1961. McDonald’s now has seven Hamburger University campuses, including one on its Oak Brook campus that was named after Mr. Turner in 2004.

Mr. Turner, a longtime resident of Deerfield, kept an office at McDonald’s and remained involved in the company until his death.

A Des Moines, Iowa, native, Mr. Turner attended Drake University after a stint in the U.S. Army. He approached McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc about becoming a franchisee. But Kroc was so impressed by Mr. Turner that he persuaded him to join the company in 1956, said longtime friend and business associate Al Golin.

“Then he became a one-man operations department,” said Golin, who began media representation of McDonald’s around the same time. “The first couple of years he was with McDonald’s, I never saw him because he was out opening McDonald’s, personally, every one of them.”

Kroc and Mr. Turner worked closely together until Kroc’s death in 1984.

“Ray was the charismatic supersalesman, and Fred really was the man who made things go,” Golin said. “He was a very hands-on person.”

Golin recalled a trip to Russia about 20 years ago, when McDonald’s was opening its first restaurant there. Company executives attended a party at the Kremlin in advance of the opening, he said.

“I saw Fred the following morning and said, ‘Where were you?'” Golin said. Mr. Turner had been at the restaurant. “While we were eating caviar and drinking champagne, he was worrying about the french fries and the buns being toasted right.”

Mr. Turner was named president and chief administrative officer in 1968. He became president and CEO in 1974, stepping up to chairman and CEO in 1977, and remaining in that role for a decade.

The Oak Brook-based burger giant more that tripled its restaurant base and expanded into new markets around the world during his tenure as CEO.

Ted Perlman, chairman of the Havi Group, a Downers Grove-based McDonald’s supplier, called Turner “a guts guy.” He recalled one afternoon in the 1960s when Turner returned from lunch with a wider, thicker napkin than McDonald’s was making available at its restaurants.

Perlman recalls Mr. Turner asking why McDonald’s wasn’t using them. “I said, ‘Fred, it’s going to cost you two-and-a-half times as much,'” Perlman said, to which Turner responded, “Did I ask you what it’s going to cost?” The napkins were changed shortly thereafter.

Mr. Turner’s style was best suited to the company’s entrepreneurial period and the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, Perlman said.

“The environment was more conducive back then, when you could cut through things and didn’t have to worry about who got promoted where,” Perlman said.

Putting training systems in place and establishing programs such as Hamburger University for McDonald’s “has been an important pillar for their growth and success over the past 50 years,” said Darren Tristano, executive vice president of Technomic, a Chicago-based food-industry research and consulting firm.

“One of the biggest elements of McDonald’s success has been its consistency, that the customer knows what to expect in terms of food, service and speed,” Tristano said. The chain’s emphasis on training, he added, has been critical to establishing that level of consistency.

Mr. Turner stayed on as chairman of McDonald’s until 1990, when he was named senior chairman. He continued in that role until 2004, when he retired and became honorary chairman.

Outside his career at McDonald’s, Mr. Turner served on the boards of Aon, Baxter, and W.W. Grainger, among others.

He was also a committed philanthropist. He co-founded the Ronald McDonald House Charities, which serves families of children who are seriously ill and provides care for children in underprivileged communities.

Mr. Turner and his late wife, Patty, avid music lovers, endowed a jazz studies professorship at Drake University, which also opened a Fred and Patty Turner Jazz Center in 2011. Turner was involved in the creation of World War II aircraft exhibits at O’Hare International and Midway airports.

The son of a fisherman and biscuit salesman, Mr. Turner was “a larger-than-life character,” his daughter Teri Turner said.

While the executive was in a fishing club whose membership included Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, “he was more interested in going fishing with the guy around the corner,” she said.

Mr. Turner also told everyone to call him by his first name, including his children and grandchildren. “He’d said, ‘I’m Fred, I’m your friend,'” Teri Turner said, adding that when her daughter occasionally called him Grandpa, he’d say, “You know you can call me Fred.”

Teri expressed gratitude that Mr. Turner was able to spend time with his family before he passed away.

“There was a moment when he looked at us and said, ‘Who had a better life than me?'” she recalled him saying. “‘I did something with my life. I made a difference.'”

Mr. Turner is also survived by daughters Paula Turner and Patty Sue (Bob) Rhea and eight grandchildren. Visitation will be from 3 to 9 p.m. Friday at the Patty Turner Senior Center in Deerfield, with the funeral at 11 a.m. Saturday at Holy Cross Catholic Church in Deerfield. In lieu of flowers, the family has requested donations to Ronald McDonald House Charities or the Patty Turner Senior Center.


National Restaurant Association Partners with Technomic to Bring Adult Beverage Expertise to Members

December 21, 2012

To strengthen its commitment to providing business-enhancing resources to its members, the National Restaurant Association (NRA) has partnered with Technomic to provide actionable information on adult beverages and restaurant bar programs.
“Wine, spirits and beer can be a profitable part of a restaurant’s offerings. Having the latest information at their fingertips will help operators maximize profitability and provide guests a selection of adult beverages to meet their increasingly sophisticated palates,” said Dave Matthews, executive vice president of Innovation & Membership Advancement for the National Restaurant Association. “Technomic is a recognized leader in the adult beverage information space, and we are confident that our strategic partnership will provide ready-to-implement expert advice and insights to help restaurants succeed.”

“Adult beverage is a dynamic element in the hospitality business, now and for the foreseeable future, and numerous opportunities exist for operators and suppliers to build sales and revenue,” said Darren Tristano, executive vice president, Technomic. “We are pleased to bring our adult beverage information and expertise to NRA members and contribute to their success in 2013 and beyond.”

Technomic will provide content for the NRA’s Restaurant.org website and e-newsletters on adult beverage topics to help NRA members strategically plan their bar programs. Additional content will be provided in the form of subject matter experts for webinars and seminars at the 2013 International Wine, Spirits & Beer Event, to be held May 19-20, in conjunction with NRA Show 2013 in Chicago. In addition, Technomic provided a special adult beverage report that was included in the NRA’s .

Technomic is a leading research and consulting firm serving the food and foodservice industries. The company has over 40 years of experience and specializes in benchmarking studies, customer satisfaction and need assessments, organization effectiveness programs and trade channel research.

Founded in 1919, the National Restaurant Association is the leading business association for the restaurant industry, which comprises 980,000 restaurant and foodservice outlets and a workforce of more than 13 million employees. We represent the industry in Washington, D.C., and advocate on its behalf. We operate the industry’s largest trade show (NRA Show May 18-21, 2013, in Chicago); leading food safety training and certification program (ServSafe); unique career-building high school program (the NRAEF’s ProStart, including the National ProStart Invitational April 19-21, 2013, in Baltimore, Md.); as well as the Kids LiveWell program promoting healthful kids’ menu options.


Massive Trend Watch: Franchise Direct Food Franchise Industry Report 2012

November 27, 2012

ATLANTA, GA–(Marketwire – Nov 15, 2012) – Franchise Direct (www.FranchiseDirect.com) has delivered the Food Franchise Industry Report of 2012, bringing accessible industry analysis of 60 franchise concepts into one central location. This annual trend spotting report provides extensive sample franchise analysis in thriving food franchise sectors, which comprise one third of franchise establishments and are part of a great leading industry creating nearly $1.7 billion in the United States daily.

Compelling shifts in full service and fast food industries are shaping franchises across the board in 2012 due to a remarkable emphasis on healthier eating concepts. Ongoing health legislation and growing consumer awareness prompt adjustments throughout the food service world. The report highlights major food franchise players creating healthier eating concepts, including pizza and ice cream industries. Dating back to the 1940s, pizza and ice cream eateries maintain strong roots in American culture, with customization of product offerings and the redesign of atmosphere for patrons holding fast as two firm industry trends. Both have been consistently upholding relevancy by adapting model and menu concepts to meet changing demands.

Strong technology trends highly influence food franchising, with simplicity and customization perks uniting mobile technology and franchise business. Technology and everyday life are more interwoven than ever before and food franchises have ramped up mobile applications in 2012 with a continued focus on video and purchasing apps to sync customer orders with mobile lifestyle trends. Technomic executive vice president and restaurant analyst Darren Tristano shares this point on generational shifts: “Flexibility and customization is very important to Millennials (those born between the early 1980s and late 1990s).”

Ever expansive food-based franchise concepts are also the focus of this report delivering in-depth research content focused on emergent and time-honored industries experiencing an upsurge, including food-gifting franchises with 2012 sales expected to reach over $11 billion. With at least 70 franchise brands offering smoothies on their menu and over 80% of Americans as coffee consumers, the smoothie industry and coffee establishments continue to pull their weight as mainstay features for American consumers. Also experiencing an even greater demand are vending machine franchises, due to even greater accessibility features for a busy and active populace.

About Franchise Direct: Franchise Direct is an online portal for the franchise community that operates a suite of ten multilingual sites in the world’s major economies.


McDonald’s, rivals see diminishing appeal for kids meals

April 19, 2012

Purchases of children’s fast-food meals falling off as dollar menus undercut pricing, accompanying toys tank

By Emily Bryson York, Chicago Tribune reporter, 8:29 PM CDT, April 10, 2012

Julie Oelling’s 6-year-old daughter Zoe started asking to go to McDonald’s for Happy Meal toys when she started preschool two years ago.

“When she was 4, it was kind of a big thing to do, but when she turned 5, it tapered off,” Oelling said, adding that it’s been about six months since her daughter’s last request. “I’d even say she’s starting to outgrow it now depending on what the toy is.”

Long portrayed as a key contributor to childhood obesity, fast-food kids meals may be losing their appeal to youngsters — and, more importantly, their parents. The emergence of dollar menus among restaurants have given price-conscious parents a powerful incentive to choose an a la carte burger or fries rather than ponying up nearly $4 for a kids meal.

Industry observers also say the toys served up with every meal aren’t capturing older kids’ attention, while others add that children are simply aging out of the meals earlier as they’re becoming more technologically savvy.

According to the NPD Group, visits to fast-food restaurants in which kids meals were purchased have declined every year since 2007, falling 5 percent in 2011 from the prior year.

“I don’t know if there’s a silver bullet here, or a smoking gun that would indicate” why it’s happening, said a McDonald’s franchisee. “I think there’s a combination of factors at play.”

“It’s something we’d love to reverse,” he said.

Fast-food kids meals have been subject to intense scrutiny in recent years. Activist groups have zeroed in on the products and accompanying toy, saying they introduce children to a lifetime of unhealthy eating. San Francisco and a number of other cities have enacted regulations for nutritional content of fast-food kids meals when toys accompany them. Regulations vary by city.

While McDonald’s is the largest player in fast food by far, most major chains, including Wendy’s, Burger King and Subway, offer kids meals. Burger King declined to comment for this story, and Wendy’s did not respond to requests for comment.

In a statement, McDonald’s spokeswoman Danya Proud said the chain is “seeing behavior shift slightly among what is being ordered” for children, “because families are eating differently than they used to when they go out.”

“Kids are curious and may share items with their parents, or they still stick to their favorite Happy Meal,” she said, adding that “Family visits to McDonald’s remain strong and slightly higher than the rest of the industry.”

Darren Tristano, executive vice president of Technomic, a Chicago-based food industry consulting firm, estimated that McDonald’s has the biggest share of kids meal sales in the fast-food industry, as much as 25 percent of the total. He doubts McDonald’s Happy Meal sales have been declining.

“I would put it flat at worst,” he said. But with the rest of the chain’s business soaring, a major product line stuck in a holding pattern would be struggling by comparison.

The Oak Brook-based burger giant is riding nearly nine years of global same-store sales gains. During 2011, McDonald’s total U.S. sales increased 5 percent to $8.5 billion. By comparison, total quick-service industry sales rose 2 percent in 2011 to $240 billion, according to NPD.

Happy Meal sales account for about 10 percent of McDonald’s U.S. sales, the company said, but the meal, and toys in particular, have been an important vehicle to get kids and their parents to eat at the Golden Arches. Higher incidence of family meals at fast-food restaurants tends to boost the average check, an important metric of success in the restaurant industry.

“They’re very important if you think about the roots of what (McDonald’s Corp. founder) Ray Kroc was trying to do: Create an environment where families could have a meal at an appropriate price,” Tristano said.

One executive familiar with McDonald’s business said that Happy Meals have been losing older children for at least a decade.

“First it was around 11 or 12, then it went from 10 to 11, then 9 and now anytime after 8 years old, kids aren’t satisfied with the Happy Meal offering,” the executive said, adding that was a reason the company introduced the “Mighty Kids” Happy Meal, with larger entrees like double cheeseburgers and six-piece chicken nuggets, in 2001.

Toys have been a big problem in retaining older children, the executive said, adding that they expect more, thanks to increased exposure to technology.

Others, like former McDonald’s franchisee Irwin Kruger, said the shift is “probably more correlated with education and income, or people who have a stronger sense of the importance of a balanced meal. But you have to throw in the cost of cheaper food on the dollar menu.”

Bonnie Riggs, NPD restaurant industry analyst, agreed, noting that mothers have “probably switched to the value menu because it was cheaper than the kids meal.”

Parents who order a sandwich, fries and a drink from the dollar menu would likely have paid $3 until the end of March, compared with $3.39 to $4.49 for a Happy Meal at a downtown McDonald’s. Prices may vary by region.

Recent changes at the fast-food giant, which created an “Extra Value Menu,” have made such pairings more expensive. A four-piece order of chicken nuggets, small fries and chocolate milk cost $3.78 in downtown Chicago, compared with $3.89 for the most similar kids meal combination.

“I think there’s a lot to the idea of ‘Let’s buy a big hamburger and cut it in half to share’ because of the economic situation,” said Barry Klein, a former McDonald’s advertising executive who now works as a marketing consultant. He added that the 20-piece order of chicken nuggets, now offered on the Extra Value Menu for less than $5, would be ideal for a family to share.

Some parents move away from kids meals just to get more food.

Vandana Sharma, mother to sons Varun, 11, and Aayush, 8, said she stopped buying Happy Meals two years ago in favor of a la carte burgers and fries. A small fry is 2.5 ounces, compared with a 1-ounce portion in a kids meal, which also comes with a small side of apple slices.

“Before, they were only interested in the toy,” she said, adding that the meal went straight into the trash. “Now at least they’re eating.”

Freelance writer Cheryl V. Jackson contributed.

eyork@tribune.com

Twitter @emilyyork

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