Nick Vojnovic is ebullient and engaging. The 59-year-old owner of the quick-serve Little Greek Fresh Grill chain has a vivacious personality that sweeps you up. Before you know it, you have a new friend.
In the restaurant business, where success can hinge on a welcoming atmosphere and exceptional staff as much as a stellar menu, these traits can be the difference between a great or lackluster restauranteur.
Despite a bone marrow disorder, from which he is still recovering, Vojnovic, with the help of his business partner Sigrid Bratic, propelled Little Greek from four stores in 2011 to 40 today. The most recent location opened in Lee Vista, near Orlando and there are 10 in the greater Tampa Bay area.
Little Greek is in six states (Arkansas, Florida, Kentucky, Illinois, Ohio, and Texas) and boasts $25 million in total annual revenue. The chain was also recently included in Quick Serve Restaurant Magazine’s “40 and Under” list of the top fast-casual restaurant concepts across the nation.
Vojnovic credits his passion for building a concept, an eye for like-minded franchisees and a love of people for his success. “I’ve always loved the customer interaction piece, so that’s what I try to bring to Little Greek,” says Vojnovic. “Don’t just make a transaction, but go out and get to know your customer.”
Born in Pittsburgh to parents who had emigrated from Yugoslavia, Vojnovic recognized the value of hard work from an early age. “My dad was able to earn a scholarship from Cornell, which was their ticket out,” Vojnovic says. “My parents then put me and both of my brothers through Cornell, which was an incredible sacrifice. They worked hard to give us the best future.”
That future included the restaurant business for all three sons, an outcome Vojnovic’s mother wasn’t initially happy about. “My mother’s family owned restaurants, and she didn’t want any of us to be in the restaurant business because of the long hours and constant headaches,” Vojnovic says. “Guess what happened? All three went into the restaurant business. I do feel like it was in my blood.”
After graduating from Cornell’s School of Hotel Administration in 1981, Vojnovic worked for a consulting firm for a year or two, but after that, it was all casual dining. After stints at Applebee’s, Chili’s and Famous Dave’s, he was hired as president of Beef O’Brady’s and moved to Tampa in 1998.
“Beef O’Brady’s was my big break,” says Vojnovic. “I had a great 12-year run there, building the business from 30 locations to about 280, in 23 states.” A private equity firm bought the business in 2007 and Vojnovic stayed on as president. However, when the economy slowed down and stores began closing, the firm brought in a new CEO in 2010.
Looking back, Vojnovic points to unchecked growth for the store closings. “We grew too fast,” he says. “Growing by up to 50 stores a year was too much, it was a big mistake.”
With a severance package and an eye to finding a new restaurant concept to grow, Vojnovic enrolled at the University of South Florida’s College of Business and earned a master’s degree.
While there, an adviser urged him to take a close look at Little Greek. “I looked at 80 different franchises to buy, but Little Greek offered the best opportunity to take a small franchise and really get it going,” Vojnovic explains. “It’s that entrepreneurial piece that I enjoy the most and that’s what’s lost when a business gets too big.”
That entrepreneurial piece brought challenges, he says.
“When you first start a small company, you’re not good at everything, so you have to find people who can fill the gaps in your own skills,” he says. “I’m not super organized, I’m more of an outgoing sales guy and I learned the hard way that I can’t just hire people like me. My first hire at Little Greek was a very organized young woman who came in and made a big difference right away. Every person in my organization has unique gifts that I value and appreciate every day.”
In 2016, Vojnovic was hit with myelofibrosis, a bone marrow disorder that’s a precursor to leukemia. “My oncologist told me I had a year to live unless we could find a stem cell donor,” Vojnovic says. “My whole world was rocked. I just couldn’t believe it. I had never been in a hospital, I was in good shape, it was a very surreal experience.”
His family hoped for the best but prepared for the worst. His daughter, who was engaged to be married and feared he wouldn’t make it to the wedding, tattooed “I love you very much, dad,” on her arm, in his handwriting, so she could look at it as she walked down the aisle.
At the same time, Vojnovic was worried about his business. How would Little Greek fare if he didn’t make it? He brought in his old CEO from Beef O’Brady’s to take the reins while he was receiving treatment. He also promoted his son, Jon, to the corporate team, to help prepare him to take over if the worst happened.
“I’d been working for Little Greek for years in various positions and had just been promoted as a regional franchise consultant for the Tampa Bay area when my dad got sick,” Jon says. “It was very nerve-wracking, getting up to speed on all that my dad does, but he’s always had such a great attitude and he’s a fighter, so that helped my whole family stay optimistic.”
In 2017, someone stepped in to save his life. Of the 30 million potential donors in the National Bone Marrow Donor Registry, one person had the genetic combination to match his. The donor agreed to provide stem cells, and Vojnovic received a transplant.
For a year, Vojnovic didn’t know his donor’s name. Then, in 2018, the nonprofit organization Be the Match brought Vojnovic together with Caroline Gomez, the 24-year-old woman who saved his life. “I am so thankful for Caroline,” says Vojnovic. “If it wasn’t for her I wouldn’t be here today. She’s part of the family now. A second daughter.”
Today, Vojnovic is still recovering and is about 60 percent back at work. He feels blessed to have a second chance and the opportunity to continue to grow Little Greek. Now, with his 40th franchise, he has become a melting pot for entrepreneurs. “Our franchise group is from all over the world and all walks of life,” he says. “We have owners from Estonia, Egypt, Greece, Pakistan, Ecuador, Texas and more. Their commonality is that they’re not scared to work hard.”
Looking to the future, Vojnovic is committed to continuing to grow slowly and steadily. “In our industry people grow too fast and then crash and burn. That’s what we experienced at Beef O’Brady’s. We want to avoid that,” he says. “We want to open good, solid stores that will be successful in the long term. We’ve never had an owner operator not make it and we never want to.”
Since his illness, Vojnovic is taking things a bit slower, but still indulging in his two great passions: sports and travel. “My wife’s more of a home girl, so I travel with my brother and my kids. We have a trip planned to Belgrade [Serbia, the former Yugoslavia] and then a cruise out of Venice,” he says. “My wife and I like to take mini-vacations at our home on Sunset Beach.”
Vojnovic’s parents instilled the value of giving back, and it remains a key part of his life today. He and the franchisees support many charities, with food and monetary donations, including Be the Match, Autism Speaks, Real Men Wear Pink and the National Wheelchair Basketball Association. As Little Greek grows, he aspires to do more on a larger scale.
For now, Vojnovic is happy to have a second chance at life and for the opportunity to continue to grow—both personally and professionally. “My experiences have taught me that life is very fragile,” he says. “You have to make the most of each day and that’s what I try to do.”