California Pizza Kitchen

Restaurant chain

1985

Egg salad pizza? Cheeseburger pie pizza?

Those were some of California Pizza Kitchen's early miscues, but they have been the exception since the Beverly Hills-based restaurant chain opened its doors in 1985.

"We spend a disproportionate amount of time ensuring we have quality food, innovative food with the right prices, and that's a formula that has kept us successful," said President and Chief Executive Fred Hipp.

California Pizza Kitchen was started by two federal prosecutors, Rick Rosenfield and Larry Flax, who both loved to cook and had sampled cuisine all over the world. With the help of consultants, they developed all the chain's early recipes.

"They knew they didn't know everything and they hired the best consultants to work with them on administrative matters, design and real estate," said Phyllis Ann Marshall, a restaurant consultant with FoodPower in Costa Mesa. "But they were willing to roll up their sleeves, research, spend lots of hours in the kitchen. Even their wives pitched in. They really did their homework before taking the plunge."

They opened their first venture in Beverly Hills with a now nearly ubiquitous design featuring a black, yellow and white color scheme and lots of tile and glass. The kitchen is in full view of most patrons.

Initially, it was a hit and miss process (rabbit sausage was a tough sell) as the owners worked at meshing old and new. This led to the famed Original BBQ Chicken pizza, a combination of barbecued chicken, sliced red onion, cilantro and smoked Gouda cheese.

By the early '90s, CPK operated about 25 restaurants. But the real growth spurt came after PepsiCo Inc. bought a 67 percent stake in 1992, reportedly for between $60 million and $70 million. Flax and Rosenfield continued to manage the chain, which opened nearly 50 restaurants over the next four years.

In July 1997, Pepsi sold its share to New York-based investment firm Bruckmann, Rosser, Sherrill & Co. Inc. The sale came as part of the soft drink company's decision to move out of the casual-dining business.

Hipp, the former head of Houlihan's Restaurant Group, came aboard in late 1997. Flax and Rosenfield have maintained a combined 23 percent stake (the remaining 10 percent is owned by about 200 private shareholders, including Hipp) and still oversee menu changes, but they don't a have formal management role.

The restaurant, which last year pulled in $165 million, operates 93 locations and employs about 5,000 people. It is currently redesigning its interiors with more art, carpeting and warmer colors.

"The market has now gotten competitive," Marshall said. "Back then, they were the first kids on the block to create casual upscale fare, but now there are lots more players out there, so they always have to be looking over their shoulders."

Nola L. Sarkisian

For reprint and licensing requests for this article, CLICK HERE.