Start to Finish: What Inspires Execs | December 2015 | By Nicole Duncan

Start to Finish: Nick Vojnovic

Nick Vojnovic, president of Little Greek Fresh Grill, talks about the leap of faith he took when he joined the concept.
Florida based Greek fast casual executive shares leadership tips.
Nick Vojnovic, President Little Greek Fresh Grill

My mom had three boys and didn’t want any of us to be in the restaurant business. Guess what happened? All three went into the restaurant business. I do feel like it was in my blood. I went to Cornell for hotel restaurant management. I worked for a consulting firm for a year or two, but after that, it’s been all casual dining: Applebee’s, Chili’s, Famous Dave’s, and then Beef ‘O’Brady’s as president. I was there for 12 years; we started with 30 restaurants and reached about 280. We sold it to a private equity firm around 2007. During the recession we started losing stores, so the firm brought in a new CEO.

I was given a severance package, so I went back to the University of South Florida for my executive MBA. I looked at 80 different concepts. One of my advisers kept saying, “Nick, you’ve got to check out this Little Greek.” I looked at one that was in a terrible location, and it was outselling the Five Guys next door. The food was amazing and people were lined up out the door. I struck a deal with the founder, Sigrid Bratic. I told her I’m not good at creating concepts, but my strength is growing small franchise companies. In the four and a half years since I started, we’ve gone from four locations to 23, and two more should open by the end of the year.

It’s an interesting move to go into the quick-service side. With Little Greek, we’re making really high-quality, from-scratch Greek food to order in a very fast-paced environment. I always loved the customer interaction piece, so that’s what I try to bring to Little Greek. Don’t just make a transaction, but go out and get to know your customer.

It was a leap of faith. I’ve seen lots of people leave very successful positions and end up not being able to grow. The National Restaurant Association has a fast-casual advisory board, and I got to participate. There are a lot of great people there—Don Fox, Paul Damico from Moe’s—who you can network and learn from. These executives really go out of their way to help give advice, direction, and guidance. We’re very fortunate to have an industry like that.

What was your first job?

Dishwasher at the Penn Monroe Bar & Grill in Monroeville, Pennsylvania, at 12 years old.

What is your favorite restaurant or type of food excluding Little Greek?

I love the local hole-in-the-wall kind of places, but right now my go-to is one my buddy runs called Anthony’s Coal Fired Pizza.

What are some of your interests outside of the business?

I love to travel. I did a trip with my 17-year-old daughter to Europe.

Which menu item or operational strategy are you most proud of?

The biggest issue isn’t really competition; it’s just that people don’t know what Greek food is. We changed our name to Little Greek Fresh Grill, and we started promoting our mini Greek salads with grilled chicken instead of the gyro because a lot of people have no idea how to pronounce “gyro,” let alone what it is..

Who are some leaders who inspire you?

Chuck Winship, our CEO from Beef’s. My brother Greg over at Arby’s; I call him daily for advice. And certainly Bob Basham from Outback Steakhouse and Don Fox from Firehouse Subs.

What is the best piece of advice quick-serve executives should hear?

Get a great and diverse group of advisers, because any one person who gives you advice has their own biases from their life experiences. If I get a consistent message from four or five people whom I respect, that’s a good decision.

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