When Nick Vojnovic wanted to build his next great restaurant empire, he went to a small, family restaurant called Little Greek and started picking up dirty dishes at tables.
"When you clear tables, you see right there what people are eating, and what they're not, and you can talk with each one about the experience," said Vojnovic, the former president of Beef O' Brady's parent company. True, Vojnovic could probably find other forms of market research, but "I wanted to take all the mistakes I made building Beef O' Brady's, and not do them again."
Now, Vojnovic is trying to transform Greek food the way Chipotle changed Mexican – by creating a fast and casual version, prepared and customized on site while the customer watches, at lower prices than a sit-down restaurant. Plus, make the restaurant efficient and standard enough to franchise across the country.
They're off to a quick start – but not too quick – Vojnovic says, and that's on purpose. With nine locations, they may reach 13 by year's end, with another 11 locations sold as franchises. Whether that growth turns into success may turn on how well the company uses complex Greek recipes to capture the country's blossoming love of fresh food fast.
Vojnovic originally found the Little Greek model through Paul Sampson, a Tampa restaurant consultant and president of Franchise Edge, who was representing Little Greek owner Sigrid Bratic.
"Nick and I are friends, and we knew each other for a long time through Beefs," Sampson said. "I knew he was looking for a new concept, so I showed him this one … We saw it as a diamond in the rough."
The name "Little Greek," comes from a location's address on Little Road, in New Port Richey.
One of the biggest challenges is the Greek food itself, which has complexities far different than burritos or pizza.
For instance, the recipe for Dolmades, stuffed grape leaves, has 17 ingredients and a dozen steps, including soaking and pressing the leaves, mixing the spices, chilling the ground beef in a bowl floating in ice water, wrapping the leaves and baking them for hours.
"If I'm able to focus on just them, I can bang out a batch in two to three hours," said Robert Thomas, a cook at the Little Greek location on S. Dale Mabry Highway. That's simple compared to making the baked eggplant dish Mousaka, which also takes potatoes, ground beef and hand-made béchamel sauce. "That's delicate. With béchamel, you have to simmer the milk and eggs just barely, mixing the whole time, but not too much."
Little Greek also makes salad dressings on site, plus chicken skewers and pitas, and bakes the traditional baklava dessert. All those recipes had to be standardized, Vojnovic said, because some of the original versions in a Little Greek recipe book had entries for spices that said "Not too much, not too little."
Prices, meanwhile, remain on par with a Panera.
A Greek salad costs $6.19, a combination Gyro $6.99, a Dolmades plate $7.69 and Baked Mousaka for $8.99. The most expensive item is the dinner-sized lamb or steak kebabs for $11.99.
Within a year, the chain has gone from four locations to nine, and will likely open three more by year's end, including two locations in Texas. That's partly because Vojnovic has plenty of connections to help along the way, including food vendors and franchisees who he knows from previous restaurants.
Outback Steakhouse founder Chris Sullivan came through a Little Greek and gave some advice on the food: Keep the service speed up and improve the hummus, which Vojnovic is now doing. The national-level restaurant consultant Darren Tristano also visited a location.
"I was really impressed with the food," Tristano said. "It's a very contemporary atmosphere. You can pay $8 to $10 for a really high-quality experience. But the emphasis is on the food and not necessarily the ethnicity of the food."
For instance, the décor isn't all blue and white with photos of Athens. Instead, it's a more modern feel that's very similar to Panera or Chipotle.
Other chains across the country have a similar idea across.
Zoe's Kitchen has grown to more than 60 locations in 12 states, with a fresh, and much simpler Greek menu than traditional Greek restaurants that have several dozen items throughout the day. There's also Daphne's California Greek, Cava Mezze Grill, Roti Mediterranean Grill, CK Grille and Garbanzo Mediterranean Grill.
One big lesson, Vojnovic said, from his Beef's days was the importance of controlling growth. Plenty of people may walk in the door looking to buy a franchise, he said, and the current economy makes real estate quite cheap. "You don't want to find out all the sudden you're opening up a location a week."
Now, Little Greek has four company-owned locations and nine franchise spots, including South Tampa, Palm Harbor, USF, Clearwater, Westchase and two in the Dallas area.
Eventually, they'll open up more and larger locations, but not too quickly. "We want to learn to walk," he said, "before we run."