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When the paths of an Estonian immigrant, a small Greek restaurant, and a successful restaurateur looking for the next big idea in fast-casual dining crossed, the result was an upstart brand, Little Greek Restaurant, that now has plans to expand across the U.S.
Sigrid Bratic emigrated from Estonia and worked in a Florida restaurant, where she advanced from hostess to manager. The wife of Bratic’s employer opened up a second restaurant called Happy Greek, which struggled until Bratic got a loan from an Estonian bank and bought the place. She reopened the 1,200-square-foot restaurant as Little Greek Restaurant in Palm Harbor, Florida, in 2004, and, despite limited English language skills, turned the business around by working seven days a week and placing an extreme focus on good customer service. With authentic Greek recipes she inherited from the restaurant’s previous owner, she created Little Greek’s core menu that is used today.
Bratic’s friends opened two additional Little Greek Restaurant locations in the five proceeding years, and she eventually bought them out. A couple from Texas who dined at Little Greek Restaurant whenever they visited Florida then took the concept to Dallas. There were four Little Greek Restaurants by 2011, when Nick Vojnovic, now president of Little Greek Franchise Development LLC, entered the picture.
“I was president of a family sports pub chain called Beef ‘O’ Brady’s,” Vojnovic says. “Our high-water point was 270 stores. Then a private equity firm bought us out. I was looking for a new concept to help grow.”
Little Greek Restaurant
President: Nick Vojnovic
HQ: Tampa, Florida
Year Started: 2004
Annual Sales: $7.2 million
Total Units: 16
Franchise units: 15
He says he looked at 80 different concepts, from burgers to pizza and from yogurt to burritos. “Then a friend of mine who was a franchise consultant told me about Little Greek,” Vojnovic says. “So I went and took a look.”
The concept appealed to him, he says, because it served fresh, tasty, healthy food, and because there was no Mediterranean-Greek competition in the national fast-casual arena.
Vojnovic formed a partnership with Bratic and came on board in May 2011. He has since helped grow the chain from four to 16 locations across Florida, Texas, and Arkansas.
The top three sellers at Little Greek Restaurant are gyros, the Greek Salad, and Chicken Skewers, which at a traditional Greek restaurant would be called souvlaki.
“We had to Americanize the menu,” Vojnovic says. “A lot of people are unfamiliar with the cuisine. They’ll say, ‘I don’t eat Greek food,’ and I’ll say, ‘Of course you do, it’s just grilled chicken and salad.’”
The restaurant bills itself as having a “Greek-style menu.” The spanakopita is called “Spinach Pie” and the avgolemono has the name “Chicken-Lemon Rice Soup.” The Greek terms are in parenthesis so guests are able to learn the authentic names of the dishes. The staff is trained to explain that tzatziki sauce is a Greek condiment made with yogurt and cucumbers.
Gyro, chicken, lamb, tilapia, and falafel sandwiches are available in a pita or as a wrap and priced from $5.99 to $7.99. Homemade fries and a drink can be added to any sandwich for $2.99. For those who simply refuse to go Greek, there’s an “American favorite” char-grilled beef burger, but it too is served on a pita and is topped with Feta cheese and tzatziki sauce. The chicken, lamb, and beef tenderloin skewers are served over rice with Greek salad. These platters range in price from $8.99 to $11.99.
The Greek salad is traditional, with lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, green peppers, Feta cheese, Kalamata olives, and pepperoncini peppers. Guests can customize the salad by excluding any of these items if they wish. The only dressing available, however, is house-made Greek.
For the adventurous diner who wants to try several authentic Greek offerings, a Sampler Platter is available at some locations. It includes one lamb skewer, one chicken sewer, rice, dolmades (stuffed grape leaves), gyro meat, Spinach Pie, Greek Salad, hummus, and pita bread, for $13.99.
Vojnovic says half of Little Greek’s sales are dine-in and half are takeout orders. The lunch/dinner split is also 50/50. An average ticket is about $10.45. “We sell more sandwiches for lunch and platters for dinners,” he says.
The even split between lunch and dinner makes Little Greek Restaurant attractive to franchisees, Vojnovic says, as does the low cost of getting started.
“We try to keep construction costs down by going into restaurants that have closed,” he says. The average total cost to open a Little Greek Restaurant is $125,000–$150,000.
Since Little Greek takes over existing restaurant space, each store is different. Most average about 1,600 square feet, but two are in mall food courts and have slightly downsized menus.
“Our restaurants don’t look alike at all,” Vojnovic says. “We’re recycling restaurants and each store reflects its owner and the market it is in.”
Vojnovic says his goal is to have 25 locations open by the end of 2014, 50 in five years, and 200 in 10 years.
“Geographically we’ll hit Tampa, Orlando, Fort Myers, and Central Florida hard and basically fill out those markets we’re already in,” he says. “Then we’ll be picking and choosing franchisees and going wherever we meet people who are good operators. We want people with passion and integrity.”
Not cookie cutter in size or appearance, Little Greek doesn’t demand every location have the same menu, either.
“We do slightly different menus in different areas, and from store to store, operators can tweak things,” Vojnovic says. “This lets franchisees improve the brand by accommodating different tastes to give customers what they want.”