Harbor location is the topping California Pizza's new site 'unique,' co-founder says

September 13, 1998|By June Arney | June Arney,SUN STAFF

Thirteen years ago, Larry Flax and Rick Rosenfield traded in the courtroom for the dining room, scrapping successful careers as federal prosecutors and, later, defense lawyers in Los Angeles to try their hand in the pizza business.

That idea has exploded into an international chain of restaurants called California Pizza Kitchen Inc., with more than 80 locations.

Last week, the chain added Baltimore, bringing the concept to the Pratt Street Pavilion at Harborplace in the city's Inner Harbor.

"This location is so unique," Flax said in an interview from the restaurant's patio overlooking the harbor. "Where else in the world do you find this? It's amazing."

The businessmen wanted to be here as long ago as 1992, said Flax, the co-founder of what, by the end of the month, will be a chain of 83 restaurants.

"We never reached a deal with Rouse," he said. "But they called back, and we jumped on it."

The Rouse Co. owns Harborplace, the retail center created by James W. Rouse in 1980.

The Baltimore location, about 3,700 square feet, is smaller than the typical 4,500- to 5,000-square-foot California Pizza Kitchen. But Flax expects the volume of business to be higher than at many of the other locations.

California Pizza Kitchen is a privately held company and is not required to disclose financial details. But Flax said average annual sales are about $2.6 million per restaurant.

"The real challenge here is to get the locals to be enamored with us," he said. "I'm after the people who live and work in the area."

The Baltimore site is the company's first waterfront restaurant and one of about 10 that features a full bar. Greater Washington is home to six of the restaurants. Maryland has locations in Bethesda and Annapolis.

The atmosphere in the restaurants is light and airy, with black, yellow and white decorative tiling on the walls and a view of the wood-burning oven.

Launched in 1985 with a single store in Beverly Hills, Calif., the chain caught the casual dining boom. Sales of $160 million in 1997 are predicted to be up by 9 percent in 1998, Flax said.

The entrepreneurs plan to open another 12 restaurants within the next year, and 12 to 15 in each of the two years after that. Several airport terminals offer a limited selection of their pizzas, salads, soups and sandwiches, but with faster service, called CPK ASAP.

The lawyers both were accomplished federal prosecutors when they teamed up in 1973 to defend white-collar criminals for a prominent Los Angeles law firm. By 1985, their passion for cooking, and interest in cutting down on the extended travel required to conduct lengthy out-of-town trials, spurred them to a new challenge.

Their traveling around the world taught the two a lot about food. Chicago native Rosenfield, 54, and Flax, 56, from Los Angeles, saw a niche in what was an otherwise saturated pizza market -- a need for specialty pizzas that went beyond the traditional cheese, pepperoni and sausage.

They decided to create a casual version of Wolfgang Puck's Spago -- a celebrated West Hollywood restaurant where pizzas topped with goat cheese and duck sausage won popularity.

It took only a few weeks for the pizza newcomers to diversify, coming up with their own recipes for pizzas that cook in three to four minutes in wood-burning ovens. The idea was to offer food that people could taste before ordering, because the toppings were so familiar -- such as the trademark Original BBQ chicken pizza.

"Consumers like safe adventure," said Dennis Lombardi, executive vice president of Technomic Inc., a Chicago food service consulting firm. "They like to know what it is, but they like a little twist to it. That's what California Pizza Kitchen does for pizzas."

Creative toppings make the product unusual, and check averages of $10 to $12 a person add to the consumer appeal, Lombardi said.

One of California Pizza Kitchen's top competitors is The Cheesecake Factory, because of the fare and the youthful demographics of customers, Lombardi said.

Pizzeria Uno and Bertucci's Brick Oven Pizzeria are competitors in what is a $30 billion-a-year pizza industry, where a typical American consumes about 23 pounds of pizza a year.

Home kitchens

The businessmen have come a long way from the days when they first tested recipes in their home kitchens, and Flax made home music tapes for the dining room.

PepsiCo Inc. bought into the company in 1992. During the cola giant's involvement, the chain grew from 26 to 80 stores. Expansion happened rapidly, and Flax admits that there were mistakes in some site decisions, and five restaurants were closed.

Last year, PepsiCo spun off its slower-growing fast-food restaurants -- including Pizza Hut, Taco Bell and KFC -- into a separate company.

The beverage company also sold its 67 percent ownership in California Pizza Kitchen to Bruckmann, Rosser, Sherrill and Co., a New York investment firm. But Flax and Rosenfield remain co-chairmen of the board of California Pizza Kitchen, with each owning 11 percent of the company.

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