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A BIGGER SLICE OF THE PIE Upstart pizza company plans a major expansion


In the shark tank that is today's pizza business, Harry Ilardo is not content to be an anchovy.

Mr. Ilardo, president of mamma ilardo's Corp., is used to being big. Weighing in at close to 300 mostly muscular pounds, he's a 6-foot-5 former offensive guard for Colorado State University and the University of Maryland. At 36, he still looks as if he could flatten a linebacker or two.

Now he wants to be a big cheese in the pizza game. He has a five-year plan that calls for the number of outlets to grow to 180 from 10 and for sales to grow from $8.3 million in 1991 to $160 million.

"I think in two or three years we can certainly dominate our region and be a major player throughout the country," he said.

Mamma ilardo's has a long way to go. The Owings Mills-based company controls only a tiny slice of the Baltimore-Washington market, where it has seven stands in local malls. There are also three franchised outposts in Seattle, Birmingham, Ala., and Portland, Ore.

Mamma ilardo's will add seven stores this year, including outlets at Towson Commons and the Old Post Office complex in downtown Washington. The big jump is expected in 1993, when the company plans to open 25 to 30 outlets.

Mamma ilardo's planned expansion comes at a time when the business is embroiled in increasingly fierce "pizza wars." Many in the industry expect a shakeout.

But Joseph Simone, a former Arby's executive who has come aboard to lead the expansion drive for mamma ilardo's, likes Mr. Ilardo's business philosophy almost as much as he likes mamma ilardo's pizza recipes. (Readers might think the company is "undercapitalized," but lower case is how mamma prefers it.)

The core of that philosophy, Mr. Simone said, is a belief in independent small businessmen. Mamma ilardo's wants to put people in business and give them the support they need to be successful, he said.

The primary vehicle for mamma ilardo's growth will be franchising, which is expected to account for 80 percent of the company's outlets. And it is here that Mr. Simone's experience comes in handy. At Arby's he was vice president of franchise operations, and before that he was senior director of development for the International Franchise Association, which gave him contacts throughout the industry.

"I'm taking a shot that we can build this company," said Mr. Simone, who joined mamma ilardo's Feb. 1 as executive vice president and chief executive officer.

Although Mr. Ilardo and Mr. Simone share a philosophy, they seem to be an odd couple. Mr. Simone, 48, is a live wire -- voluble, frenetic, relentlessly self-confident and evangelical about the virtues of small business. Mr. Ilardo is a massive, yet soft-spoken presence, content to let Mr. Simone do the talking but direct and articulate when he needs to be.

Mamma ilardo's, which was founded by Harry Ilardo's late father at Jumpers Mall in Pasadena, is starting its expansion drive from a solid base in regional shopping malls. Over the years, it has developed an especially good rapport with the Rouse Co., and occupies highly visible sites at Rouse's Gallery at Harborplace, Columbia Mall, White Marsh Mall and Owings Mills Town Center, among others.

Mr. Simone plans outlets at a variety of sites, including universities, airports, military installations and toll road plazas.

One area Mr. Ilardo rules out for now is any venture into the dog-eat-dog world of residential pizza delivery, which would bring mamma ilardo's into direct competition with such giants as Domino's and Pizza Hut. His reason, he said, is that it would be difficult to maintain the quality if it were home-delivered.

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