California Pizza Kitchen is credited with introducing the rest of the country to pizzas topped with things other than sausage, cheese and pepperoni, but it started as an idea between two friends who were looking for a new career path. Thirty years later, that idea has grown into more than 250 restaurants across the U.S. and Asia.
1. THE CHAIN WAS STARTED BY TWO LAWYERS WHO WERE LOOKING TO LEAVE LAW.
Founder Larry Flax // Getty
Larry Flax and Rick Rosenfield had been business partners prior to launching California Pizza Kitchen—the criminal defense lawyers had opened their own law practice, Flax & Rosenfield, together in 1973. But after years of stressful trials, the pair ditched their day jobs for another stressful profession—the restaurant business. They pooled their resources (which included $200,000 in loans and an extra $350,000 borrowed from friends) to open the first CPK in 1985 in Beverly Hills, California. "Everybody was saying, 'Two lawyers going into the pizza business? That's crazy,'" Rosenfield told The Wall Street Journal in 2009. "The bankers were mortified."
2. THE MENU WAS DEVELOPED BY A CHEF WHO WORKED AT WOLFGANG PUCK’S FIRST RESTAURANT.
Flax and Rosenfield knew they wanted their restaurant to be part of the wave of gourmet “California” pizza that had been pioneered by Wolfgang Puck just a couple of years earlier, so when they were developing their menu, they went straight to the source. Puck had once tasted a pizza topped with ricotta cheese, red peppers, pate and mustard, and immediately hired its creator, Ed LaDou, as a pizza chef for his first restaurant, Spago, when it opened in 1982. LaDou later teamed up with the men behind CPK to help them develop the menu for the restaurant and is credited with the creation of the chain’s BBQ Chicken pizza. Not a bad legacy.
3. THE NON-TRADITIONAL TOPPINGS ARE KING AT CPK.
Of course you can always just get a plain pepperoni slice, but the restaurant’s signature BBQ Chicken pizza—crust topped with barbecue sauce, smoked Gouda, red onions and cilantro—is what put California Pizza Kitchen on the culinary map. Today, diners can order pizzas in off-the-beaten path varieties such as Thai Chicken, Wild Mushroom and California Club—which comes topped with avocado, arugula, basil, and romaine that has been tossed in a lemon-pepper salad dressing.
4. THE BRAND UNDERWENT A MAJOR RENOVATION IN 2015 FOR ITS 30TH ANNIVERSARY.
In what current CEO G.J. Hart deemed the “Next Chapter,” 80 California Pizza Kitchen locations spent 2015 getting an upgrade that included new tables, decor and an open-air design to create a more rustic ambiance and a brand new menu that included items beyond pizza (like cocktails!). "Our core guest is sophisticated," Hart said last year. "We have a lot of younger foodies." The rest of their locations will be getting their upgrades shortly, creating an environment where diners will want to relax and stick around after finishing their slices.
5. PEPSICO USED TO OWN A MAJORITY STAKE IN THE COMPANY—BUT ALL THAT MONEY NEARLY DOOMED THE CHAIN.
In 1992, the soft drink giant paid nearly $100 million for a 67 percent stake of California Pizza Kitchen and launched the company into an era of unbridled growth that almost killed the chain. Locations opened quickly in cities that weren’t familiar with the restaurant, with diners who weren’t willing to pay a few extra bucks for a pizza. “We made the classic mistakes,” Rosenfield told Los Angeles Magazine. He called it their “Field of Dreams period—build it and they will come. Except that they didn’t.” A private equity firm bought out Pepsi’s two-thirds stake five years later and installed a new CEO.
6. CPK WAS ONCE TRADED ON THE STOCK MARKET.
During the post-Pepsi period of CPK, the company made its debut as a publicly traded business, and after a short period of promising numbers, the numbers sank and the reins of the company were handed back to Flax and Rosenfield in 2003. "Larry and I were pretty insecure," Rosenfield said about their position at the time, after years of being told they were best at PR and weren't up for running the business side. The company was eventually bought by firm Golden Gate Capital and pulled from the public market.
7. DINERS CAN ROUND THEIR BILL TO HELP CHILDREN.
CPK partnered with the Make-A-Wish Foundation last year, allowing patrons to round their bill up to the nearest dollar and donate the change. Thus far, the chain has raised $250,000 for the wish-granting charity [PDF]. CPK locations also host build-your-own-pizza events for kids, and the company donated over $1 million through fundraisers and in-kind donations to non-profits.