The luckiest man in catering is from Tarpon Springs

Nick vojnovic develops restaurant chains. The former president of Beef ‘O’Brady’s is now president of Little Greek Fresh Grill and also of 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 his professional achievements and community service in the category of fast and casual restaurants.

He also received a bone marrow transplant for a fatal blood disease called myelofibrosis. One in 26 million women has been found to be genetically compatible – a 22-year-old American student named Caroline Gómez. His gift gave him a 60% chance of surviving. It will be five years in January.

“I’m a lucky guy,” he says.

Vojnovic, 62, of Tarpon Springs, spoke with the Tampa Bay weather about the restaurant chain and the disease that allegedly killed him.

You graduated from Cornell University. What was your specialty?

My younger brother and I (specialist) called it the hotel administration. At Cornell, we were considered fools. We were the guys, “What’s your test, how to set a table?” We would literally be walking up the hill in chef’s coats. We weren’t well respected at Cornell University.

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

That’s one of the mistakes we made, I think, at Beef ‘O’Brady’s. We grew up too fast. We were doing 50 stores a year, and what happens is you start rushing locations. You pick locations, “Well, that’s pretty close. The cost of building them has become high. It was 2007, 2008, the economy was booming and construction costs skyrocketed. So we sold the business in 08 and when the economy turned around a lot of stores closed.

There are two different types of restaurants. There are companies like Outback that all open their own restaurants. They own them, they sign leases, they build them. And then most of the restaurant chains are franchises – Taco Bell and McDonald’s and all that. It’s kind of what I’m doing now. We cross. We sell a franchise model and they pay a fee – currently usually $ 30,000 – to sort 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 a support team to the opening unit, and then we provide ongoing support.

What is the key to making it successful?

The key to me is a good owner-operator. If you are not a good owner-operator, I cannot guarantee that you are going to make any money. You have to be a good businessman, take good care of your customers, run a clean restaurant, make sure the food is good, of high quality, clean and fresh. You need to be on top of your game.

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

Correct. In 10 years, we have closed a store. … We had several sell. But, generally, if you are not good, we find someone to redeem you. Sometimes some people just aren’t made for the business.

How are you affected by the labor and supply shortage?

Right now, you can’t get employees, you can’t get food. I just got a call: our stores in Dallas are out of baklava. They have to wait two weeks for another baklava order as it comes from Tarpon Springs from Hellas Bakery. It never happened. In 10 years, we have never had a shortage like this. … 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 spoil the whole thing. If you don’t have the clip, you can’t.

Will restaurateurs have to increase salaries?

Yes. … We have to convey this. Our profit margins are 15% on the right days. … Usually, in the restaurant business, your salary is 30 percent of your costs. So if both food and work increase, we have to convey that just so that we can keep them open. … I think, just talking to my friends in the industry, you’re going to see restaurant prices go up 10 percent. It’s just to try to keep up with what we were doing before. You don’t make more money, you just try to keep up.

You discovered your blood disease when you signed up to donate bone marrow to a child with leukemia, you say.

And I was chosen, and all of a sudden they said, “We can’t use you. I said, “What do you mean, I’m as healthy as an ox.” I have never been to the hospital for a single day in my life. “Something is wrong with your blood. … Instead of being oval like normal blood cells, mine were teardrop shaped with a small tip, so they didn’t last that long. But my bone marrow could follow. Well, over the next 15 years the bone marrow started to wear down, and that’s (when) my red count… they started to go down. And so I went in there, and the girl says you’ve got one to three years to live.

Ah, awful.

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

And then Caroline Gómez entered the scene.

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?

Yes. I hope to be invited to his wedding. She lives in DC My daughter got married last year and they came for the wedding.

And do you feel good?

Other than taking eight pills a day, I didn’t know I was sick. I am in the top 10 percent of patients. I am a lucky guy.

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

If you want to become a bone marrow donor, go to bethematchfoundation.org.


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