Filling Plate: California Pizza Kitchen Chief Executive G.J. Hart at the chain’s headquarters in Playa Vista.

Filling Plate: California Pizza Kitchen Chief Executive G.J. Hart at the chain’s headquarters in Playa Vista. Photo by Ringo Chiu.

California Pizza Kitchen Inc. was considered a pioneer in its early days for creating hand-tossed pizzas with quirky toppings such as barbeque chicken and pineapple with Canadian bacon.

But a few years ago, profits and sales began to fall as it became harder for the restaurant chain to differentiate itself from other fast-casual chains.

So after a change in ownership amid the economic recovery, the Playa Vista company is looking to retool its image by implementing new dishes and redesigning its 275 properties around the world.

The new menu, with fewer items and some pricier offerings, is part of an effort to rebrand the fast-casual chain as a homier, slightly more upscale destination.

G.J. Hart, who took over as CPK’s chief executive after its acquisition in 2011 by San Francisco private equity firm Golden Gate Capital, said the time was ripe for a change.

“I think, candidly, over the last four to six years, prior to the acquisition, the company became a little risk averse,” he said. “It didn’t lead as much. … In this competitive landscape of quick casual and the headwinds in casual dining in general, it became a tough environment that affected the company like it affected many companies.”

Aaron Allen, a restaurant consultant at Aaron Allen & Associates in Orlando, Fla., said fixing the menu and interior will help gain relevancy, but the trick is selling items at prices customers would pay for while helping a company’s bottom line.

“A lot of restaurants are trying to maintain a full-service restaurant with all of the overhead costs while competing in price and speed with fast-casual concepts,” said Allen. “It’s the dead wrong thing to do.”

The creation of CPK’s customizable “lunch duos,” starting at about $9, was an effort to help it compete with fast-casual restaurants. However, the chain is also hitting the deeper-pocketed customer with main dish items such as a $25 rib eye, a 12-ounce steak that’s the most expensive item on its redesigned menu.

Hart said it was important to offer high-quality menu items, but proper pricing was a concern when the chain started rebranding two years ago.

“We’ve historically been in this narrow band of pricing; this $9 to $15 kind of range,” he said. “We’re trying to round out our menu and give people additional choices.”

Kindling fire

CPK was co-founded in 1985 by attorneys Larry Flax and Rick Rosenfield. Its first location was in Beverly Hills; by 1992, the chain had 26 restaurants. That same year, PepsiCo bought a two-thirds stake for $100 million.


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