But Mr. Williamson maintains he's not crazy, merely a crazy opportunist. "It's an opportunity for me to run my own company. The PepsiCo philosophy is of people [and] potential. And East Side Mario's has big potential."
ROOM FOR GROWTH
PepsiCo hopes to parlay the East Side Mario's concept, currently generating about $80 million, into a $1 billion business. And it's up to Mr. Williamson, as the new president-CEO of the Dallas-based operation, to lead it there.
In that post, he succeeds East Side Mario's founder Mark Bromberg, who resigned.
Mr. Williamson, 46, cut his teeth at PepsiCo or its units, working with the company for 24 years, including time at Frito-Lay, before moving to Pizza Hut in 1982.
CASUAL ITALIAN DINING
At East Side Mario's, he will continue to report to Allan Huston, Pizza Hut president-CEO, under whom Mr. Williamson served as Pizza Hut's chief operating officer. That experience, Mr. Williamson said, will serve him well at East Side Mario's.
"There's a big opportunity at East Side Mario's in the execution of the concept," said Mr. Wil-liamson, an Atlanta native and father of two teen-agers.
The concept for East Side Mario's is casual dining Italian-style. The chain originated in Canada and is operated there by Prime Restaurants; PepsiCo has the rights to the concept in the U.S., where there are now 25 franchisees and 10 company-owned units.
DIFFERENT FROM PIZZA HUT
Although both Pizza Hut and East Side Mario's serve pizza, the comparison ends there, he said.
"The average square footage at East Side Mario's is 6,000 square feet vs. 2,500 for Pizza Hut. Liquor accounts for 15% to 20% of sales" at East Side Mario's, he said. "While East Side Mario's is Italian, pizza accounts for only 5% to 6% of sales."
Mr. Williamson said he will work on strengthening East Side Mario's Italian accent. In Canada, Prime Restaurants touted a Little Italy image, but he said East Side Mario's had lost sight of that in the U.S., adding all-American dishes such as hamburgers and ribs.
Another priority is adding restaurants through franchising.
Once the chain acquires sufficient mass, Mr. Williamson hopes to introduce national advertising. Currently the chain uses the Richards Group, Dallas, for its limited efforts, but Omnicom Group's TL Partnership, Dallas, will take over as the chain's agency on Sept. 1. Mr. Williamson said he hasn't had the chance yet to evaluate whether he'd like to make changes on the ad front.
But Mr. Williamson, who plays tennis and works out three times a week to keep off the pounds from Italian food, knows advertising is essential to building a chain.
"I'm a firm believer in advertising," he said. "It has to bring customers in the door, and then it's up to the operation to keep them there."