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5 questions with Joe Williams

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Wednesday, May 15, 2013, at 10:32 p.m.
  • Updated Wednesday, May 15, 2013, at 10:32 p.m.

Joe Williams isn’t your average Joe when he visits a restaurant.

Williams, vice president for brand at Carlos O’Kelly’s, can’t help but scrutinize the decor, the service, the presentation, the food. It’s a habit that carries over from his job.

He’s in the midst of rebranding the more than 30-year-old Wichita-based Mexican food chain to keep it current with restaurant trends.

Williams, 45, is married to Kristey Williams, who is currently serving as mayor of Augusta. They have four children.

Q. You’ve really only worked one place since college?

A. I started waiting tables for Carlos O’Kelly’s in 1989 when I was going to Wichita State. I met my wife there. The Rolphs (owners of Carlos O’Kelly’s) are a great family, and Jon and his dad and his uncle have been very, very good to me and my family.

Q. What does a vice president in charge of the brand do?

A. The menu, the supplier relationships. Today I was working on new bar drinks at the Towne East Carlos O’Kelly’s. We are charged with all of the atmosphere, the ambiance aspects of the restaurant, the decor, how it feels inside and outside, the music, the uniforms, the plateware, the whole tabletop experience. We think of the tabletop as our stage.

Q. How do you rebrand restaurants that many feel they know already?

A. It takes time and energy and deliberateness – and some vision. … For the people who know us, the name means something. But we also realize that people are always looking for fresh ideas. Our job is to keep up with expectations that the menu is as fresh and interesting as it was when they first came in. We are in the process of accelerating this change and evolution. We’ve still got the same four main menu items, enchiladas, fajitas, burritos and chimichangas, but in 1981 you couldn’t get fish into the Midwest very well, but now you can get a nice piece of tilapia for a fish taco.

Q. Do you have trouble just relaxing at other restaurants?

A. When I was young and more analytical, I was very judgmental. I’d say, “the service is no good here; we’re so much better.”

Now I try to walk in just like any other guest to experience what they have to give me. I’ll have the hostess and the server greet me and I’ll sit down. I do try, but it’s a work in progress.

Q. After Carlos O’Kelly’s, what’s your favorite restaurant?

A. Red Rock Canyon Grill. I’m a meat and potatoes guy. It’s a nice restaurant, very well run. The food is a cut above most places.

Reach Dan Voorhis at 316-268-6577 or dvoorhis@wichitaeagle.com.

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