In its heyday, California Pizza Kitchen Inc. opened as many as 20 restaurants a year in the United States. This year, the company is opening only one. And it will be a prototype.

Speaking at a restaurant conference at UCLA earlier this month, Chief Executive G.J. Hart said the chain is planning to build the prototype restaurant in Florida. Hart said it will be used to test brand upgrades but declined to reveal details.

The prototype comes at a challenging time for the chain. Like many casual dining restaurants, CPK struggled during the recession. Same-store sales fell 6.6 percent in 2009 and an additional 2.4 percent in 2010, the last available data before the company went private. While CPK was on the cutting edge of pizza-making 20 years ago, analysts say the company has fallen behind the times.

Restaurant consultant Jerry Prendergast in Culver City said demand these days is for wood-fired, Italian-style pizzas with ingredients such as fresh mozzarella and salami rather than the toppings CPK popularized a generation ago, such as barbecue sauce or pineapple.

“The whole pizza world has really evolved tremendously in the last few years,” Prendergast said. “Meanwhile, California Pizza Kitchen has sort of stayed in the 1990s vision of that world.”

According to National Restaurant News’ report on Hart’s comments at the conference, he acknowledged that the company lost its way in recent years.

“We want to be best in class at what we know how to do best,” he said at the conference. “We were the California pizza authority once, and we will be the pizza authority again.”

But that may not be easy.

“Any brand that has been established for a long period of time and has developed a public image has a problem changing directions,” Prendergast said. “It’s hard to change the public’s perception of you once an image is embedded in their brains.”

CPK executives declined to comment for this article.

Rapid growth

Rick Rosenfield and Larry Flax, former federal prosecutors, co-founded the pizza chain in 1985 with a single restaurant in Beverly Hills; by 1992, they had 26 locations. They sold a controlling share of the company to PepsiCo. in Purchase, N.Y., in 1992. New York private-equity firm Bruckmann Rosser Sherrill & Co. bought out PepsiCo five years later. In 2000, the firm took CPK public.

Rosenfield and Flax left day-to-day operations then, but problems arose and they came back in 2003. The duo ran the company until selling it to San Francisco’s Golden Gate Capital for $470 million last year. Today, the chain, headquartered in Los Angeles near Los Angeles International Airport, has 265 restaurants in 30 states and 11 countries. The company is planning a move to Playa Vista later this year.

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