A restaurant franchise pro senses a great opportunity in an untapped market segment. He comes to the venture with many lessons learned.
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%
Follow Mark Gordon on Twitter @markigordon