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California Pizza Kitchens new Sawgrass Mills restaurant aims to capture what CEO GJ Hart calls a California mindset
California Pizza Kitchen's new Sawgrass Mills restaurant aims to capture what CEO G.J. Hart calls a "California mindset."

California Pizza Kitchen CEO details improvement plans

G.J. Hart talks with NRN about moves the company is making to become California's "pizza authority"

G.J. Hart has been chief executive of California Pizza Kitchen for a little more than a year, working quietly on moves that he hopes will bring reinvigorating changes to the casual-dining brand in 2013.

In early December, the Los Angeles-based company debuted a new flagship location in Sunrise, Fla., at Sawgrass Mills mall that offers a “reimagined brand vision” for CPK’s future. While the chain plans to evaluate elements of the new design and menu before applying them systemwide, Hart said some aspects are ready to roll out.

By midyear in 2013, for example, all restaurants within the 266-unit chain will return to hand-tossing dough for pizza rather than using a dough press. And the menu systemwide has already started embracing a shift toward more innovative, seasonal and healthful dishes.

The design of the new 5,300-square-foot flagship attempts to capture what Hart describes as a “California mindset,” with a creative, hip and energetic atmosphere.

In a recent conversation with Nation’s Restaurant News, Hart described the new restaurant and talked about CPK’s efforts to become California’s "pizza authority."

How is the new restaurant in Sawgrass Mills different?

Pizza is our middle name, but over the years, the pizza oven hasn’t been as front and center as it should be. In the new restaurant, the first thing you see is our pizza oven with a pizza bar — not a traditional CPK design with a counter where you can sit and there’s a server/bartender with the oven back there somewhere. The oven is actually front and center. The pizza bar is almost like a sushi-style bar, where there’s interaction with the pizza cook and people can see the ingredients, and we’re very proud of those ingredients.

We’re hand-tossing the dough, which we historically had gotten away from, so each pizza is unique. We redid the dough. Now it’s a dough that we believe is more relevant, that accentuates the ingredients.

In addition, we’re rolling out a certification for pizza cooks so they can become chefs. We elevate their status. We give them a different uniform. We put their name on the oven and build interaction with guests.

On top of that, we will continue to bring innovative, creative pizzas to the marketplace with our California twist.

Can you give an example?

In Sawgrass, we’ve launched two new pizzas: a Brussels sprout and bacon pizza, and Korean pizza with slowly cooked roasted pork with a kimchi salad on top.

Also in that restaurant — this hasn’t rolled to the system yet — we have redone a lot of the other pizzas. Our mushroom pizza now has five types of mushrooms. We roast them in the oven and, if you want, you can get it with white truffle oil.

These are the things that will help us reclaim our pizza authority, but we hope to learn from this restaurant, adjust, and then start to backfill into the system as we test in different regions.

Does Sawgrass Mills have a separate bar component?

We’re really trying to take our beverage program to a new place. We have a bigger selection of wines. We hope to have an adventure side of our wine menu with some that are unique, or in limited quantities. We’ll do wine flights. We have upgraded our wine glasses.

We’ve also brought in craft beers, starting with California craft, but also some local beers. Lastly, we have reformulated all specialty cocktails, bringing some California vendors and companies.

Plans for further growth

What percent of sales come from the bar and what are your goals to increase that?

Our alcohol mix is very low compared to our competitive set. We feel like there’s nothing to do but go up. I don’t want to say what our goals are yet, but we do believe we have the opportunity to have right kind of menu items and right kind of environment that we will see sales increase. It’s not meant to be late night. It’s really meant to say, if you’re going to come out for dinner with us, a good glass of wine might make sense.

How about the design?

There’s more casual seating with more of an open feel. Instead of a bunch of tables, we’ve got comfortable seating with fire pits on the patio. It’s an inviting place where people might have a glass of wine and small plate.

The outside of the restaurant, instead of screaming yellow and black, those colors are there, but we’re taking elements of more of a sustainable nature. So we have reclaimed woods throughout.

Behind the host stand, we have herbs growing to signal quality and seasonal ingredients. On the walls, we have black-and-white scenes of California. We’ll incorporate color photos of whatever locale the restaurant is in.

The lighting and music are hip and cool. The seating is more flexible, so we can adjust for various size parties. We still have booths, but they’re moveable.

It’s the California mindset, but comfortable. So when you walk in the door, you feel like it gives you a big hug. I know that sounds corny, but that’s how we want people to feel.

How is the New Adventure menu doing that rolled out in August?

That’s in all of our restaurants now, and it has been received really well. If you look at those items, they’re pretty creative, with things like a quinoa-and-arugula salad or a fire-roasted chile relleno.

One thing that’s different from our competitors is that we didn’t say these are all about healthier options, but we do post the calorie count. We wanted a flavorful, unique innovative product that —oh, by the way — is better for you, and let the guests discover that for themselves.

One strategy to come is to have more seasonal items, and local ingredients where we can, and to give our operators more flexibility. At Sawgrass only, for example, we have a small plate with beets and whipped goat cheese; and a sweet pea carbonara pasta.

We’re not ready to say yet what that whole seasonal outlook will be, but I can tell you those two pizzas (the Brussels sprout and the Korean pork) are certainly in our plan for 2013.

Part of what we did this year is menu optimization. We took what was a little over 100 items and reduced that to 74 items. It was important to streamline our menu so we can execute at a higher level.

Where do you see growth moving forward?

Domestically, our intent is to start to grow slowly with new units. We haven’t said a number yet. In addition, we’ll start to have different phases of remodeling in our existing restaurant base, from full remodels to just elements of the new look. We are developing that plan now.

It would be my hope to get a remodeled look in every area of the country from the learnings in Sawgrass. We have already done a couple of remodels, one is in Detroit and one in St. Louis. As we bring together the new products, with higher execution levels, the hospitality piece — striving to improve not just service, but hospitality – we’ll combine all those things as we start to tell our story in 2013. We hope (lapsed customers) will come back and say, ‘Wow, this place is hip and cool.’

Contact Lisa Jennings at [email protected].
Follow her on Twitter: @livetodineout

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