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%

Former Beef’s President Serves up Greek Chain

November 7, 2012

By RICHARD MULLINS | The Tampa Tribune

When Nick Vojnovic wanted to build his next great restaurant empire, he went to a small, family restaurant called Little Greek and started picking up dirty dishes at tables.

“When you clear tables, you see right there what people are eating, and what they’re not, and you can talk with each one about the experience,” said Vojnovic, the former president of Beef O’ Brady’s parent company. True, Vojnovic could probably find other forms of market research, but “I wanted to take all the mistakes I made building Beef O’ Brady’s, and not do them again.”

Now, Vojnovic is trying to transform Greek food the way Chipotle changed Mexican – by creating a fast and casual version, prepared and customized on site while the customer watches, at lower prices than a sit-down restaurant. Plus, make the restaurant efficient and standard enough to franchise across the country.

They’re off to a quick start – but not too quick – Vojnovic says, and that’s on purpose. With nine locations, they may reach 13 by year’s end, with another 11 locations sold as franchises. Whether that growth turns into success may turn on how well the company uses complex Greek recipes to capture the country’s blossoming love of fresh food fast.

Vojnovic originally found the Little Greek model through Paul Sampson, a Tampa restaurant consultant and president of Franchise Edge, who was representing Little Greek owner Sigrid Bratic.

“Nick and I are friends, and we knew each other for a long time through Beefs,” Sampson said. “I knew he was looking for a new concept, so I showed him this one … We saw it as a diamond in the rough.”

The name “Little Greek,” comes from a location’s address on Little Road, in New Port Richey.

One of the biggest challenges is the Greek food itself, which has complexities far different than burritos or pizza.

For instance, the recipe for Dolmades, stuffed grape leaves, has 17 ingredients and a dozen steps, including soaking and pressing the leaves, mixing the spices, chilling the ground beef in a bowl floating in ice water, wrapping the leaves and baking them for hours.

“If I’m able to focus on just them, I can bang out a batch in two to three hours,” said Robert Thomas, a cook at the Little Greek location on S. Dale Mabry Highway. That’s simple compared to making the baked eggplant dish Mousaka, which also takes potatoes, ground beef and hand-made béchamel sauce. “That’s delicate. With béchamel, you have to simmer the milk and eggs just barely, mixing the whole time, but not too much.”

Little Greek also makes salad dressings on site, plus chicken skewers and pitas, and bakes the traditional baklava dessert. All those recipes had to be standardized, Vojnovic said, because some of the original versions in a Little Greek recipe book had entries for spices that said “Not too much, not too little.”

Prices, meanwhile, remain on par with a Panera.

A Greek salad costs $6.19, a combination Gyro $6.99, a Dolmades plate $7.69 and Baked Mousaka for $8.99. The most expensive item is the dinner-sized lamb or steak kebabs for $11.99.

Within a year, the chain has gone from four locations to nine, and will likely open three more by year’s end, including two locations in Texas. That’s partly because Vojnovic has plenty of connections to help along the way, including food vendors and franchisees who he knows from previous restaurants.

Outback Steakhouse founder Chris Sullivan came through a Little Greek and gave some advice on the food: Keep the service speed up and improve the hummus, which Vojnovic is now doing. The national-level restaurant consultant Darren Tristano also visited a location.

“I was really impressed with the food,” Tristano said. “It’s a very contemporary atmosphere. You can pay $8 to $10 for a really high-quality experience. But the emphasis is on the food and not necessarily the ethnicity of the food.”

For instance, the décor isn’t all blue and white with photos of Athens. Instead, it’s a more modern feel that’s very similar to Panera or Chipotle.

Other chains across the country have a similar idea across.

Zoe’s Kitchen has grown to more than 60 locations in 12 states, with a fresh, and much simpler Greek menu than traditional Greek restaurants that have several dozen items throughout the day. There’s also Daphne’s California Greek, Cava Mezze Grill, Roti Mediterranean Grill, CK Grille and Garbanzo Mediterranean Grill.

One big lesson, Vojnovic said, from his Beef’s days was the importance of controlling growth. Plenty of people may walk in the door looking to buy a franchise, he said, and the current economy makes real estate quite cheap. “You don’t want to find out all the sudden you’re opening up a location a week.”

Now, Little Greek has four company-owned locations and nine franchise spots, including South Tampa, Palm Harbor, USF, Clearwater, Westchase and two in the Dallas area.

Eventually, they’ll open up more and larger locations, but not too quickly. “We want to learn to walk,” he said, “before we run.”

Vojnovic, Bratic Have Big Plans for Little Greek

January 26, 2012

Big Plans

Vojnovic, Bratic Have Big Plans for Little Greek

The former president of Beef ‘O’ Brady’s is back on the Tampa Bay restaurant scene with ambitious plans for a Greek concept.

Nick Vojnovic, who left the family sports pub chain in June 2010, now is president of the Little Greek Restaurants chain.

Vojnovic envisions 25 Bay area Little Greek restaurants in five years and 100 across the country in 10 years. So far he’s sailing on smooth waters with plans to open five restaurants in the first half of 2012.

Vojnovic reviewed various concepts before signing on with founder Sigrid Bratic and becoming a 70 percent shareholder in Little Greek Franchise Development LLC. in May. He saw a promising business model and untapped demand for fast-casual Greek food.

“When I came on board I said I was looking for a small franchise company I can grow,” Vojnovic said.

There are five Little Greek restaurants, including three owned by Bratic. A franchise location owned by Fotis Giannoisis is set to open in Westchase in Jan. 12, and Bratic is on track to open restaurants in Tampa and St. Petersburg in January and March, respectively.

Part of the strategy is that Bratic will open restaurants herself, build them to her specifications and sell to franchisees once established.

“It’s much easier for a franchisee to come in with an existing cash flow,” Vojnovic said.
On the east coast of Florida, a franchisee is scheduled to open a restaurant in the second quarter of 2012.

Little Greek is scouting out space in South Tampa for the possible opening of a company-owned restaurant around the same time.

A niche in Greek

The Greek segment of Mediterranean cuisine feeds Americans’ growing desire for healthy, tasty food, said Darren Tristano, executive vice president of Chicago-based food research firm Technomic Inc.

The “under-penetrated” segment has few national players. The largest is Daphne’s California Greek, a chain based in Carlsbad, Calif.

Competition will come from independent restaurants more than from chains, Tristano said.
In addition, the lower price points and a faster experience of the fast-casual segment continue to be a draw.

It’s an opportunity that if well-executed can fit the needs of American consumers well, Tristano said.

Another part of Little Greek’s strategy is to offer a lower turnkey investment, or total opening cost, of around $150,000.

Vojnovic expects the average location to generate $12,000 to $13,000 a week, making the investment-to-sales ratio about four-to-one.

Little Greek will offer such investment costs in part by targeting “second-generation” restaurant space, or sites that became open when restaurants went out of business.
The Carrollwood location, for example, previously was a Quiznos Restaurant, and a South Tampa site under consideration was a Wingstop.

Restaurants have turned to second-generation space to save costs, said Brian Bern, senior director with Franklin Street Real Estate Services, a Tampa firm working with Little Greek to find space.

“It was definitely a trend that came from the recession with a lot of restaurants that didn’t make it,” Bern said. “The ones who had cash took advantage and were able to expand.”
Retrofitting an old restaurant as opposed to remodeling or building from scratch can save a new restaurant owner impact fees, infrastructure costs and other expenses.

Despite rough economic times, good sites come and go quickly. Bern found out about Little Greek’s Westchase location of roughly 1,050 square feet through conversations with the landlord.
“We’re able to strategize on which areas make sense,” Bern said.

A Little Greek history

Little Greek began in 2004 when Sigrid Bratic bought the Happy Greek restaurant in Palm Harbor. After renaming and updating, she opened restaurants in New Port Richey and Feather Sound in 2008. Little Greek’s first franchise restaurant opened in September 2010 in Richardson, Texas. Three months later Bratic sold the Palm Harbor restaurant to franchisees and it became the second franchise location. Bratic opened a Little Greek in Carrollwood in September 2011.

View the full article on Tampa Bay Business Journal