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Lawyers Now Make Case for Upscale Pizza

Restaurant: Partners in expanding California Pizza Kitchen chain met while working as federal prosecutors in Los Angeles.

September 30, 1997|From Associated Press

PARAMUS, N.J. — Larry Flax and Rick Rosenfield didn't want to open just another pizza shop.

When these two defense attorneys exchanged their legal pads for pizza cutters in 1985, their goal was to give a new spin to traditional pizza and then serve it in a quick, yet pleasant dining environment.

Twelve years later, their California Pizza Kitchen chain is now in 80 U.S. cities and plans are in place for international expansion and new, smaller, fast-service outlets.

"We set out to reinvent pizza and now upscale pizza is our brand," said Flax, whose personal favorites include the B.L.T. pizza and the Caribbean Chicken pizza. "There aren't too many other places that offer premium fast-food like us."

Flax and Rosenfield met in the 1960s while working as federal prosecutors in Los Angeles. In 1973, they formed a private practice, mostly dealing with white-collar criminal cases.

While the two worked as lawyers, their passion was in the kitchen. After a case took them to San Francisco for four months, they decided they wanted out of law and were ready to test the restaurant business.

"We always wanted to do it, but then a big retainer would come along and we would delay the dream," Rosenfield said while munching on a salad and focaccia bread at their newest restaurant in Paramus.

"Once we did open, we realized this let us be creative," he said. "It wasn't the judge and jury controlling our destiny, but the people who came to our restaurant to eat."

Their first restaurant opened in Beverly Hills, where they're still headquartered. Following the path of famed California chefs Alice Waters and Wolfgang Puck, they too offered "designer pizzas" topped with everything from goat cheese to rabbit sausage.

But diners didn't jump at their menu. Instead, they yearned for pizzas that meshed the traditional variety with new flavors and foods, like the now famed Original BBQ Chicken pizza, a combination of barbecued chicken, sliced red onion, cilantro and smoked Gouda cheese.

The menu was soon changed, and to this day, the managers try to include new, popular foods in the pizzas, pastas and salads. Thai chicken in a spicy peanut-ginger sauce and portobello mushrooms are now found in many dishes.

"We want people to crave our food," Flax said. "We want people to read the menu and almost taste what they are ordering. Then they'll be wowed by what they are eating."

CPK's success came fast, a lucky thing for Flax and Rosenfield, who had no backup plan if their restaurant failed. Then, and now, CPK mostly caters to upscale diners who want a quick meal, but dislike traditional fast food.

Sites soon opened around Southern California and then in cities like Honolulu, Chicago and Atlanta. By the early 1990s, CPK operated about 25 restaurants.

But the biggest growth spurt for CPK came after Pepsico Inc. bought a controlling stake in 1992, reportedly for between $60 million and $70 million. Flax and Rosenfield continued to manage the chain, opening nearly 50 CPK restaurants in the past four years.

With Pepsi's financial backing, CPK became the 13th-largest upscale casual dining chain in the nation, with sales of $175 million last year, a 4 percent gain from 1995, according to Technomic Inc., a Chicago-based restaurant consulting company.

In July, Pepsi sold its CPK share to an investment firm, reportedly for around $100 million. The sale came as part of Pepsi's decision earlier in the year to move out of the casual-dining business.

"With help from Pepsi, the penetration of our brand was significant," Flax said.

"Now we are thinking of taking the company public, which will help us achieve our dream of making CPK a global brand," added Rosenfield.

More than a decade since their start, Flax and Rosenfield have never looked back.

"Today, there isn't anyone close to us in premium pizza," Flax said.

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