Nick Vojnovic, 59, is president of Beef 'O' Brady's, a Brandon-born chain that grew to 270 locations in 24 states. Beef's has a reputation for middle-of-the-road pub food (80 million chicken wings served annually), but with 52 locations in the Tampa Bay area, it unquestionably reflects local tastes. Brandon sports eight Beefs and only seven McDonald's. Even Brooksville claims three. Vojnovic hails from a family of Yugoslavian restaurateurs whose immigrant mother did not want her kids in food service. Vojnovic got a hotel management degree from Cornell ("because their graduates all got jobs") that led him to consultant and executive-level roles at Chili's, Applebee's and Famous Dave's, a 170-store barbecue chain. His brothers ignored mom's advice too: One is a restaurant broker, the other a vice president at Popeye's.
There is, of course, no Beef 'O' Brady. What's the story?
Jim Mellody, who founded the chain in a onetime Brandon deli, kind of backed into creating a family sports pub. He started a steakhouse in 1985, but that didn't work. He had a sign that said "beef," so he just added his mother's maiden name to get Beef 'O' Brady's.
Your bosses, Chuck Winship and Gene Knippers, once held a multistate Chili's franchise in a partnership with Tampa restaurateurs Chris Sullivan and Bob Basham. When Sullivan and Basham sold their interest to Chili's parent company, they started the Outback Steakhouse chain. When Winship and Knippers sold to Chili's, they acquired Beef's and hired you as franchise development director. What was that like?
We only had four people at headquarters when I started. The franchisees were on handshake deals, so we installed a formal structure. I was jack-of-all-trades. I would sell a franchise, help pick the real estate, train the owners and help them open. Chuck and Gene let me add someone at headquarters for every new franchise sold. Today we have 270 stores and 40 people at headquarters in Tampa. And 17 stores are run by the children of the first owner.
The economy has hurt all sit-down casual dining chains. Sales in your average mature store slipped by 10 percent to $886,000 between 2006 and 2008 — not quite as bad a decline as your peer group. You've closed about 18 stores in that period, about twice the national average. How did you react to that?
There is no bank financing for new stores. So we turned on a dime about six months ago. We're seeking alternative sites that cost a fraction as much to get in business. We're putting Beefs in empty spaces like an Applebee's in Bangor, Maine. We're trying to get in airports and college student unions, like our store in the Marshall Center at USF. And we've opened two test stores in hotel restaurants which can be converted for about $100,000. The return on investment is as quick as a year. The first hotels are a Best Western in Brandon and the TradeWinds Island Beach Resort in St. Pete Beach. At the Best Western, 60 percent of the hotel guests now dine on property vs. a hotel national average of 5 percent.
What about the menu?
Jim Mellody's chicken wing recipe has served us well. We now have a steak burger made from trimmings from one of the big steak house chains that I would put up against anybody's burger. But our menu needs more wows that make us stand out without adding to the complexity of a three-person kitchen. We need to showcase our healthy foods better. We used smaller portions to get some items down to $4.99. We're filling the gaps around our menu of finger food. We're testing breakfast items and dinner entrees. We added liquor in 80 stores after research found women customers wanted a margarita, daiquiri or mojito. We just have to be careful to discourage selling shots.
The economy also turned as you were about to take Beef's menu to the next level. You dropped plans to hire a corporate chef in 2008 in favor of more field supervisors to help franchisees cope with tough times. How do you develop the menu?
We bring in 11 franchisees monthly and look for ideas. Vendors bring in chefs who work with us. It's a balance. Some franchisees don't want to change a thing. Some think we should be more cutting edge and create more sides from scratch.