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The luckiest man in the restaurant business is from Tarpon Springs

Nick Vojnovic has made a success of expanding chain restaurants.
Nick Vojnovic, president of Little Greek Fresh Grill and Green Market Cafe.
Nick Vojnovic, president of Little Greek Fresh Grill and Green Market Cafe. [ Photo: Courtesy of Little Greek Fresh Grill ]
Published Nov. 27, 2021

Nick Vojnovic grows chain restaurants. The former president of Beef ‘O’Brady’s is now president of Little Greek Fresh Grill and also Green Market Cafe. In 10 years, he expanded Little Greek from four restaurants in two states to 44 in six states. He received the 2021 Silver Plate award from the International Food Service Manufacturers Association for career achievement and community service in the category of fast-casual restaurants.

He is also the recipient of a bone marrow transplant for a deadly blood disease called myelofibrosis. One woman in 26 million people proved to be a genetic match — a then-22-year-old American University student named Caroline Gómez. Her donation gave him a 60 percent chance of surviving. It will be five years in January.

“I’m a lucky guy,’’ he says.

Vojnovic, 62, of Tarpon Springs, talked with the Tampa Bay Times about the chain restaurant business and the disease that would have killed him.

You graduated from Cornell University. What was your major?

My younger brother and I both (majored in), they called it hotel administration. At Cornell, we were considered the knuckleheads. We were the guys, “What is your test, how to set a table?” We literally would be walking up the hill with chef coats. We were not very well-respected at Cornell University.

What are the risks of expanding a chain restaurant? Can you do it too quickly?

That’s one of the mistakes we made, I think, at Beef ‘O’Brady’s. We grew too fast. We were doing 50 stores a year, and what happens is you start rushing the locations. You pick locations, “Well, it’s close enough.” The cost to build them got high. It was ‘07, ‘08, the economy was booming, and the construction costs jumped up. So we sold the company in ‘08 and when the economy turned, a lot of stores closed.

There’s two different kinds of restaurants. There’s companies like Outback that open all their own restaurants. They own them, they sign leases, they build them. And then most restaurant chains are franchises — Taco Bell and McDonald’s and all that. That’s kind of what I do now. We franchise. We sell a franchise model and they pay a fee — usually right now $30,000 — to kind of get the rights to open a store. We find the location, negotiate the lease. We help them design it; we help them build it. We train them, we provide an opening unit support team, and then we provide ongoing support.

What’s the key to making them a success?

The key for me is a good owner-operator. If you’re not a good owner-operator, I can’t guarantee that you’re going to make money. You have to be a good businessperson, take good care of your customers, run a clean restaurant, make sure the food’s good — high quality and clean and fresh. You’ve got to be on top of your game.

Nick Vojnovic, president of the Little Greek Fresh Grill chain, received a bone marrow transplant in 2017.
Nick Vojnovic, president of the Little Greek Fresh Grill chain, received a bone marrow transplant in 2017. [ Photo: Courtesy of Little Greek Fresh Grill ]
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If a franchisee isn’t doing well, it tarnishes the image of the whole chain, doesn’t it?

Correct. In 10 years, we had one store close. … We’ve had several sell. But, generally, if you’re not good, we find someone to buy you out. Sometimes some people just aren’t cut out for the business.

How are you affected by the worker and supply shortage?

Right now, you can’t get employees, you can’t get food. I just got a phone call: Our stores in Dallas, they’re out of baklava. They have to wait two weeks for another order of baklava because it’s coming from Tarpon Springs from Hellas Bakery. That’s never happened. In 10 years we’ve never had a shortage like that. ... The guys who make our pita bread said, “Nick, we can make pita bread. We have the bag, but we don’t have the little clip that goes on the bag.” … Little things ruin the whole deal. If you don’t have the clip, you can’t do it.

Are restaurants going to have to raise salaries?

Yes. … We have to pass that on. Our profit margins are 15 percent on a good day. … Usually in the restaurant business your wages are 30 percent of your costs. So if both food and labor go up, we have to pass that on just to be able to keep them open. ... I think, just talking to my industry friends, you’re going to see restaurant (prices) go up 10 percent. That’s just to even try to keep up with what we were making before. You’re not making more money, you’re just trying to keep up.

You found out about your blood disease when you signed up to donate bone marrow for a child with leukemia, you say.

And I got picked, and all of a sudden they said, “We can’t use you.” I said, “What do you mean, I’m healthy as an ox. I’ve never been in a hospital a day in my life.” “Something’s wrong with your blood.’’ … Instead of being oval, like normal blood cells, mine were teardrop-shaped with a little point, so they wouldn’t last as long. But my bone marrow could keep up. Well, over the next 15 years the bone marrow started wearing down, and that’s (when) my red counts … they started going down. And so I went in there, and the gal says you’ve got one to three years to live.

Ah, terrible.

And (they) said, well, the only good thing is you’re a good candidate to get a stem cell transplant, but it’s a 60/40 percent survival rate.

And then Caroline Gómez came into the picture.

They said you have to wait a year to meet her, because if you die, we don’t want her to be disappointed. … Most people don’t make it through the first year. … Caroline Gómez saved my life.

Do you keep in touch?

Yeah. I’m hoping to get invited to her wedding. She lives up in D.C. My daughter got married last year and they came down for the wedding.

And you’re feeling good?

Aside from taking eight pills a day, I would not know I was sick. I’m in the top 10 percent of the patients. I’m a lucky guy.

So I go to the beach every night to catch the sunset, to be thankful for another day. … Sunset Beach, every night if the weather is good, and I do an hour walk and I sit down on the same bench and I watch the sun go down. As I always tell my friends … it’s a good day to be alive.

If you’re interested in being a bone marrow donor, go to bethematchfoundation.org.