Manny Nikolaidis is taking his meat-and-potato empire beyond the confines of Polk County with franchise operations in Osceola and Orange counties.
WINTER HAVEN – At 63, Manny Nikolaidis shows little sign of slowing down. In fact, he’s picking up steam, having recently launched a franchise of his eponymous chophouse operation.
The gregarious, avuncular restaurateur has built a loyal following of meat-loving acolytes hooked on modest prices and generous portions. As the name implies, Manny’s Chophouse is given to brawny sirloins, T-bones, baby backs, burgers and much more.
Thirteen years after opening his first Manny’s in Haines City, Nikolaidis is taking his meat-and-potato empire beyond the confines of Polk County with franchise operations in Osceola and Orange counties.
Three of his restaurants — the original and one each in Winter Haven and Lakeland — remain his. The Lake Wales restaurant is now a franchise.
A Greek immigrant who moved to the States as a 16-year-old in 1970, Nikolaidis joined his parents in the kitchens of the Girves Brown Derby restaurant chain, starting in Cleveland and eventually throughout much of Florida, including Lakeland. The chain now operates solely in Ohio.
Nikolaidis left the company to strike out on his own in the early 1980s, and in 1983 he and a partner purchased Mike's Restaurant in Bartow. A few years later Nikolaidis and another partner opened the Sea Flame restaurant in Winter Haven, which closed in late 2010.
Nikolaidis sold his interests in both restaurants and returned to Greece in 1997, only to return in 2003 to open his first Manny’s Chophouse in Haines City.
The married father of three who maintains a thick Greek accent presented his plans for franchising his restaurant chain to The Ledger. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q. Paulina Lu of Orlando and her partners, your principal franchisee, have how many Manny’s restaurants?
A. They opened their first Manny’s about 2½ years ago in Kissimmee (on West Irlo Bronson Memorial Highway). Then Baldwin Park is next. It’s a community right behind downtown Orlando and it looks like Celebration. It will be open at the end of April. They’ll have a third in Altamonte Springs at the site of a former Macaroni Grill. That will be open in the middle of the summer. And they just signed a lease for a fourth Manny’s in Lake Buena Vista. That will be open sometime in 2019.
Q. What does it cost to franchise a Manny’s?
A. For the owner, it’s close to $1 million for everything, which is not bad; it can go up to $1.2 million, depending on which location you choose and how much equipment is needed. Does it have a cooler and an (exhaust) hood? Does it need any remodeling? So it’s around $1 million. The franchise fee is 3 percent, or $30,000 down. (And then there’s an ongoing royalty fee of 4 percent of gross revenues.)
Q. Has there been much interest from other potential franchisees?
A. There is interest (from others) but so far they’re not very serious. I had a guy who wanted to open one in Key West. This is not big money, but you’ve got to work. We’re going to tell you the truth. We’re not going to tell you what you can make. You really have to build up your own business.
Q. What was involved in setting up a franchise system?
A. You have to be very well organized; you have to go by the federal laws as far as franchising, and you have to have the whole package — a good franchise lawyer; there are certain rules you’re obligated to. We tell the franchisee what kind of equipment they need. We have to approve the building and the location.
Q. How do you manage quality control?
A. I do that myself. We have a recipe book; everybody has to follow that. We have our own meat cutters because there are certain ways we cut the meat, certain ways we treat the meat. We have our own spice that we put on the steaks. A certain amount of quality control is up to the manager of each store.
Q. Who is responsible for introducing new products? In other words, does the franchisee have any leeway?
A. If we have a new item we first test it in our store. We test it over and over then put it out as a special at the Haines City store, which is busier. Right now we’ve got crab cakes in the works — a beautiful, nice recipe that I came up with — hardly any bread. So we’ve been testing that for about 10 days now. Once we get it right and people like it, we’ll implement that and send it out to everybody. Put it in the (recipe) book. Then we tell the franchisees, see how much they sell.
Q. What’s the best advice you can give someone who wants to open a Manny’s?
A. You cannot teach my ethic. But I can teach you (how to compensate customers who are unsatisfied). Forget the money, don’t even think about it. Think about the human being that came in to enjoy himself. Make him happy. Apologize. I’m embarrassed (when a customer says he didn’t enjoy the experience). It’s like what can I do for you? You want another steak? If they’re trying to screw you out of 10 bucks then tell them that, tell them they’re a cheapskate so they never come back. I cannot teach personality. I do that from my heart.
Q. You’re on record as having built Manny’s on a foundation of your experience with the Brown Derby chain. What did you glean?
A. I was involved with Brown Derby for about 15 years, after I first came to this country. It was 20 years ahead of the time. You’re talking about furniture, silverware, steak knives. It was similar to what Longhorn (Steakhouse) is now. That was Brown Derby 50, 60 years ago. They had nice décor, nice tables, good quality products, prices were reasonable. My parents and I came in 1973 or 1974 and opened up the first Derby in Florida. It was in Tallahassee. Me and my mom and dad, we opened up about four or five stores in Florida. We were cooks. My dad was a very hard worker. He never complained. My mom, she worked with him. I was about 19 years old (at the time). I worked the line at lunch and dinner. When lunch slowed down we’d go back to the prep area, and I was peeling shrimp to help them out. I owe everything to that company.
Q. What did you learn from your years as an owner of Sea Flame?
A. I was too young; I was 33 when I took over the restaurant. But I didn’t follow my instincts; not 100 percent. I was there for 12 years, and we did good. We used to have tough times in the summertime, and maybe we were scaring people off (with a policy that forbade shorts). If you came in off the lake, you couldn’t come in and get a hamburger.
Q. For a while you flirted with a Greek menu at Sea Flame. Why didn’t it last?
A. I did Greek table service on Thursdays for one year. And I was in the kitchen. It was very good, but I could not carry it out in the wintertime because my steam table didn’t have enough room (to handle the extra crowds of snowbirds).
Q. Ever consider returning to your roots by offering some Greek dishes at Manny’s?
A. I still want to do a separate Greek restaurant. I was thinking about it very seriously. I want to do a good, Greek restaurant. Not gyros. I want to do small plates, 80-100 seats, serve wine, beer. A place where you don’t spend an arm and a leg. It’s hard to set up but you never know. If I see a place somewhere, I might do it.
Q. That’s intriguing. There are relatively few restaurants in Polk County serving authentic Greek cuisine. What would you serve?
A. There’s a lot of stuff you can do. If you do moussaka and pasticcio, and eggplant, it’s good, but people aren’t going to come two times a week for that. You’ve got to do shrimp, fish, lamb, made a couple different ways. You could do a couple appetizers like stuffed grape leaves, tzatziki, an eggplant salad. But you’ve got to do it on a daily basis; take your time. You’ve got to have the atmosphere, you’ve got to spend money. I don’t have time, I’m too old. But I have so much passion. It drives me crazy.
Eric Pera can be reached at email@example.com or 863-802-7528.