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Little Greek growing with American-friendly cuisine

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Published:   |   Updated: December 16, 2013 at 05:31 PM

Bruce Bursack loves the new Little Greek restaurant in New Tampa. So many other people do too that sometimes Bursack can’t get in the door.

“I love the salads, and they’re so big that my wife and I pretty much always share them,” he said, after finishing lunch there last week. “Last time, we couldn’t get in there were so many people. So we went to McDonald’s. But it wasn’t as good.”

Good thing for Bursack, the Tampa-based Little Greek plans on building a lot more locations to handle the crowds.

With 16 locations now, the company could reach 23 by late 2014, and then 50 total over the next five years. The next site should open soon in Trinity, said chain President Nick Vojnovic. After that, the company is in negotiations over potential sites in Brandon, Valrico and another near Dallas.

Vojnovic acquired a controlling stake in the chain back in May 2011 when it just had four locations around Tampa Bay. In many ways, it was a typical Greek restaurant with posters of seaside Greek villages on the wall and menus with item names that could be true tongue-twisters for Americans.

Much of the food remains true to that tradition. Nearly everything is made from scratch on site, even complicated items like stuffed grape leaves, the traditional Tzatziki sauce, and chicken and rice soup. But Vojnovic made other changes that both slimmed down the menu and Americanized it a bit. He removed items like roast beef and ham sandwiches that he said they didn’t make well.

But he also made changes to make the experience authentic yet easier for Americans to understand, much less pronounce.

Instead of “Spanakopita,” there is “Spinach Pie,” and instead of “Avgolemono” soup, there is “Chicken-Lemon Rice” soup. Instead of “Souvlaki,” there are “Chicken Skewers.” Same things, different names. “People were scared to try and pronounce it, much less taste it,” he said.

The new prototype store design takes some Greek cues (aqua blue lights) but also uses more elements common to any suburb in America (brick pillars and wood wainscotting). It’s working so far. When locations opened in Dallas and Austin, they were “slammed,” Vojnovic said. “There was no other Greek places around, so people went nuts for them.”

Like many “fast-casual” restaurant groups, the chain stuck with a format somewhat familiar to any fan of Chipotle. Customers walk up to a register, order their food from an open kitchen, fill their own drinks and then sit down. Servers then bring food over to customers.

Huge ranks of rival fast-casual restaurants aim to do for their food what Chipotle did for the burrito and Five Guys did for the burger: standardize the food across a chain, speed up the preparation in an open kitchen and let customers pick from a relatively narrow set of ingredients to add variety.

There are new Asian food chains, including one launched by Chipotle, plus new chains selling French-inspired crepes, Italian flat breads and sushi on demand. One thing remains steadfast among all these projects, and that’s keeping the customer’s total bill significantly lower than casual restaurants like Chili’s or Applebee’s.

At many fast-casual chains, the only employees on site are kitchen workers, a cashier and perhaps a staffer to clean tables. That’s a far lower labor level than full-service restaurants that need to deploy a host, servers, bussers and perhaps a bartender, in addition to the kitchen staff.

Unlike many of those chains, however, Little Greek is showing a willingness to open up in both standard sites like strip malls and nontraditional sites such as airports, college campuses and mall food courts. Though the foot-traffic can vary widely, Vojnovic said the restaurants still do well overall, and they’re great exposure for thousands of passing potential customers.

rmullins@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7919

Twitter: @DailyDeadline

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