Make us your home page

Sunday Conversation: Little Greek Fresh Grill president Nick Vojnovic

Little Greek Fresh Grill President Nick Vojnovic was diagnosed with primary myelofibrosis, a life threatening condition that requires a bone marrow transplant. One match was found on the “Be the Match” donor registry.

Courtesy of Little Greek Fresh Grill

Little Greek Fresh Grill President Nick Vojnovic was diagnosed with primary myelofibrosis, a life threatening condition that requires a bone marrow transplant. One match was found on the “Be the Match” donor registry.

During his 15 years as president of the Beef 'O' Brady's chain, Nick Vojnovic recalls, there was a fundraiser at the Valrico corporate store for a child battling leukemia. The event included a "Be The Match" bone marrow registry drive and Vojnovic gladly went through the process of signing up, placing a cotton swab in his mouth, and turning the sample over to officials. He had no idea if he would ever be a match.

Vojnovic, 57, moved on and eventually bought into the Little Greek Fresh Grill chain, becoming president and helping build the upstart franchise into 29 locations. Along the way, he turned out to be a match for someone in need of a bone marrow transplant.

But doctors discovered a complication: His blood cells were more tear-shaped than oval. Not only did they reject him as a donor, but over time, the condition grew worse. Earlier this year, doctors diagnosed him with primary myelofibrosis, a life-threatening condition that will require a bone marrow transplant and a challenging recovery period.

Vojnovic recently spoke with Tampa Bay Times Staff Writer Ernest Hooper about the diagnosis and why he's choosing to go public with his battle.

Tell me about how you learned of the diagnosis

When the results came back, she wrote on a little piece of paper: primary myelofibrosis. I go, 'What's that?' She says it's a pretty bad disease … and the only cure is a bone marrow transplant, a stem cell transplant. I say, 'Can you give me some information on this?'

She goes back and brings me out a piece of paper. It's an Internet, Google search thing, and basically where she put me, she says, 'You have three years to live.'

Oh my god

It's overwhelming. You can't fathom it. Your brain's spinning. You're kind of not hearing what they're saying. I hadn't even brought my wife because I didn't think it would be that big of a deal.

I go home and start doing the research and initially, a lot of it is so gloomy because it's older data. Then you start seeing some doctors and names that say, 'Hey we're testing this, we're trying this.' You think maybe there's some hope.

So the doctors first said you could delay the transplant. What happened?

Ultimately, I said I don't want to just sit around and wait so let me at least do a trial. Maybe it'll work and if it doesn't work, they'll learn something for the guys behind me. Unfortunately, you're kind of a guinea pig. They put me on a trial with two different drugs. The one concern my doctors had is that this disease can turn into acute myeloid leukemia. If I get that, it's very dangerous. So three or four weeks ago, one of my markers spiked up and the doctor said, 'Time for a transplant.' So that's when I said I need to get a donor.

Did you find a match?

There are 14 million people in the "Be the Match" donor registry and I have one match. Now they have to find out does she still want to do it, is she pregnant, is she healthy. So we're in a little bit of limbo.

I told my wife there's 14,000 people who don't have a match, so let's use our network to try to get the word out and encourage people to go "Be the Match," get the kit and sign up … not so much to help me but to help others. It's a relatively easy way to save a life.

How did you find the motivation to want to help others when you're struggling with this?

It's a terrible situation to be in. I think, 'Do I tell people or not?' That's always a big struggle. Thom Stork, who runs the Florida Aquarium, he had leukemia. I said, 'Thom, when do you tell people?' He said, 'I was blown away by how many people rallied around me.' People want to help and it is really wonderful to see how much people care. Everybody has got stuff in life. Everybody has things they have to deal with. Some people you know they have things and some people you don't know, but if you can help other people out — that's what we're all about, helping people out when the chips are down.

Do you worry about the restaurants?

What happens is that you don't realize how your life is so entangled. My mother has dementia. So we moved her down. I visit my mom every day but she doesn't know who I am. We're trying to sell her house. Unfortunately, I have to plan that I'm going to be out of commission for awhile or I might not make it. Like with Little Greek, Chuck Winship, the former CEO at Beef 'O' Brady's, has offered to meet with my team and make sure everything is tracking well.

People are stepping up and helping out, but I say to my wife, 'What do I do with all these issues I have going on?' That's going to be quite challenging. I have 10 different areas to cover and who's going to do it. Who's going to visit my mom?

How do you deal with all of this?

For me, keeping myself busy with other stuff helps because if you focus on it, it just eats you up. Sometimes I wake up in the morning and look in the mirror and wonder, 'How in the world?' I'm a nice guy, I help people out, I eat well, I exercise. I thought I did all the right stuff, but genetically something just switched in my body and instead of fighting that defect, it just let it go. But I look at my wife and say, 'No regrets.' Everybody has their journey and this is mine. Hopefully I can get through it. When I go to church, I pray for my daughter and son. It's hard for them because they have to deal with their mortality.

Sunday Conversation is edited for brevity and clarity. Contact Ernest Hooper at Follow @hoop4you.

>>fast facts

Be The Match

Doctors have diagnosed Little Greek Fresh Grill president Nick Vojnovic with primary myelofibrosis, and he needs a bone marrow transplant. To help others seeking a match, Vojnovic is launching a registry drive. Learn more by going to

Sunday Conversation: Little Greek Fresh Grill president Nick Vojnovic 10/14/16 [Last modified: Friday, October 14, 2016 6:42pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. Pinellas licensing board asks Sen. Jack Latvala for $500,000 loan

    Local Government

    The troubled Pinellas County agency that regulates contractors wants Sen. Jack Latvala to help it get a $500,000 lifeline from the state to stay afloat.

    State Sen . Jack Latvala, R- Clearwater, is being asked to help the Pinellas County Construction Licensing Board get $500,000 from the state so it can stay open beyond February.  [SCOTT KEELER   |   Times]
  2. In advertising, marketing diversity needs a boost in Tampa Bay, nationally


    TAMPA — Trimeka Benjamin was focused on a career in broadcast journalism when she entered Bethune-Cookman University.

    From left, Swim Digital marketing owner Trimeka Benjamin discusses the broad lack of diversity in advertising and marketing with 22 Squared copywriter Luke Sokolewicz, University of Tampa advertising/PR professor Jennifer Whelihan, Rumbo creative director George Zwierko and Nancy Vaughn of the White Book Agency. The group recently met at The Bunker in Ybor City.
  3. Tampa Club president seeks assessment fee from members


    TAMPA — The president of the Tampa Club said he asked members last month to pay an additional assessment fee to provide "additional revenue." However, Ron Licata said Friday that the downtown business group is not in a dire financial situation.

    Ron Licata, president of the Tampa Club in downtown Tampa. [Tampa Club]
  4. Under Republican health care bill, Florida must make up $7.5 billion


    If a Senate bill called the Better Care Reconciliation Act of 2017 becomes law, Florida's government would need to make up about $7.5 billion to maintain its current health care system. The bill, which is one of the Republican Party's long-promised answers to the Affordable Care Act imposes a cap on funding per enrollee …

    Florida would need to cover $7.5 billion to keep its health care program under the Republican-proposed Better Care Reconciliation Act of 2017.  [Times file photo]
  5. Amid U.S. real estate buying binge by foreign investors, Florida remains first choice

    Real Estate

    Foreign investment in U.S. residential real estate recently skyrocketed to a new high with nearly half of all foreign sales happening in Florida, California and Texas.

    A National Association of Realtors annual survey found record volume and activity by foreign buyers of U.S. real estate. Florida had the highest foreign investment activity, followed by California and Texas. [National Association of Realtors]