OLD SEMINOLE HEIGHTS — The gluten-free muffins and veggie sandwiches that Ivan Nikolov cooks up on Florida Avenue are just the latest learning experience for a man whose journey started nearly a world away.
Nikolov was practicing traditional folk dances in a small city gym in Sofia, Bulgaria, when curiosity moved him to the room next door.
There, the 15-year-old saw aspiring bodybuilders lifting weights. He didn't know much about the sport back then, but he knew that he liked what he saw. And soon he was learning all he could about bodybuilding.
In 2000, he applied for a student visa to the United States, hoping to find better opportunities to excel in his new craft.
So how did Nikolov, now 36, get from bodybuilding to mixing gluten-free muffins at Viitals, his Seminole Heights cafe?
"From the moment I stepped foot in the United States, it was just a chain of fortunate events," said Nikolov.
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Once in America, Nikolov attended the American Language Academy in Tampa and also other academic institutions to sharpen his English, all the while keeping a steady focus on bodybuilding.
In 2003, he competed in his first U.S. competition in Miami with the Musclemania chain of bodybuilding competitions and placed fourth.
Soon, Nikolov was competing regularly and began to make a name for himself on the local fitness scene. In 2004, he entered the Tampa Bay Classic NPC show and won the overall show. The same year, he met Silvia and later married her.
In 2008, he found himself on that same Miami stage that started it all. But this time he sensed that his days of heavy training, strict diets and stage routines would end.
"Around that time, I decided that there were more important things to do in life than to try to selfishly build a body and get up and display it on stage," Nikolov said. "I've always wanted to touch people and influence them and help them improve their health."
That next phase of Nikolov's life came surprisingly enough by way of a muffin.
While visiting an online forum, Nikolov stumbled upon a recipe for protein muffins. The muffin, he said, was fine for bodybuilders accustomed to the bland tastes of protein shakes, boiled chicken and steamed vegetables. But he knew it wouldn't appeal to the masses.
He could create something better, he figured. He researched nutrition and began experimenting with different recipes.
"I was on a strict diet, so I was the perfect guinea pig for all of that. I was sick of drinking my food in the form of shakes. I wanted to find out how we could still eat healthy and enjoy the food," he said.
The protein muffin was treated like a science experiment where Nikolov would modify ingredients and flavors. After a number of versions, and with the help of a local kitchen that mass produced his muffins, he finally came up with a recipe for a vegan protein muffin that he liked. He sold them at local smoothie and ice cream shops. Soon the muffins gained popularity and were sold at local health food stores like Abbey's Health and Nutrition and Rollin' Oats.
Nikolov used the money he made as a personal trainer, coupled with the money his wife made as a waiter at Byblos Cafe, to supplement his new business. Eventually, the couple found a space to open Viitals, which specializes in healthy and gluten-free foods. The shop opened in October 2009.
"It was our rebirth," Nikolov said. "We knew that we finally found something that we love. I finally knew that I had the tools in my head to fulfill my mission in life to help people become healthier."
He named the cafe Viitals because he felt the word "vital" summed up everything his cafe stood for. He changed up the spelling as a play on words in honor of his wife, Silvia. "It's my little way to appreciate her as a partner in life and as a soul mate," he said.
Nikolov spent more time in the cafe engineering new gluten-free and vegan recipes that would later become customer favorites.
"Ivan is an unbelievable guy," said David Wistocki, a University of Tampa student and Viitals customer. "He has a true, genuine passion for the food he's making and you can hear it when you talk to him."
Some regulars have severe food allergies. Others just enjoy the paninis, vegetarian sandwiches, muffins and other sweets.
"Perhaps the most impressive thing about Ivan is his constant striving to better both himself and his products," said Katrina Morales of Tampa. "Just because his bread is good does not mean it couldn't be better. Each and every time I sample his food it improves in both taste and texture."
Like that little boy who stood filled with curiosity as he watched the bodybuilders work out in Bulgaria, Nikolov again strives for something different — this time to grow his business and promote healthy eating.
"I used to call myself a bodybuilder," Nikolov said. "Now, I call myself a health enthusiast."
Jonathan Milton can be reached at [email protected]