California Pizza Kitchen plans new prototype, brand renewal

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California Pizza Kitchen is planning to build a new prototype this year that will represent the brand’s renewal efforts as it attempts to reclaim its position as “the California pizza authority,” chief executive G.J. Hart said Tuesday.

Speaking at the 16th Annual Restaurant Industry Conference hosted by UCLA Extension, Hart, who joined CPK as chief executive in September 2011 from Texas Roadhouse, also hinted at new initiatives to come for the Los Angeles-based chain, which was acquired by private-equity firm Golden Gate Capital last year for $470 million.

Hart was among several leading U.S. restaurant operators at the conference who shared their views on the macroeconomic environment, segment trends and franchising.

Although he did not reveal details, Hart said the company planned to open only one new restaurant in the United States this year, the prototype, in Florida.

With the prototype, the chain will test the economic viability of various brand upgrades, which, if successful, could spark domestic growth in 2013, Hart said.

CPK had lost its way a bit, Hart said, adding that the chain has been inwardly focused, working on “blocking and tackling” over the past several months.

“We want to be best-in-class at what we know how to do best,” Hart said. “We were the California pizza authority once, and we will be the pizza authority again.”

Meanwhile the chain will continue to grow internationally, with 16 new locations planned overseas in 2012, although Hart did not indicate where.

Hart also said he may bring some initiatives to CPK that worked at Texas Roadhouse, where under his leadership revenue grew from $63 million to more than $1 billion over a decade.

Among them is a possible “quasi management partner” program that would align manager compensation with unit performance, “so they’ll have skin in the game,” Hart said.

CPK is also planning to test a new loyalty program that will incorporate digital and social media components.

Sustainability will also be a focus, he said.

“Since we’re a California company, we will look at every part of our business to see where we can become more sustainable,” he said.

Here are some other insights from the conference:

Economy. Ron Paul, president and chief executive of research firm Technomic Inc., and Andy Barish, managing director of restaurant equity research for Jefferies & Company Inc., gave an overview of the industry’s economic environment, painting a picture of improvement still hampered by low consumer confidence, climbing gas prices and underemployment.

Barish said industry market share within casual dining has been stolen by “haves” from the “have nots.”

Among the “haves” are brands like BJ’s, Buffalo Wild Wings, Bravo Brio and Yard House, which have thrived through the recession in part because of their focus on execution and improving the customer experience, he said.

“The haves are building a slightly better mousetrap,” Barish said.

Still showing “signs of life” are brands like CPK, Red Robin Gourmet Burgers and P.F. Chang’s China Bistro, Barish said, all of which are working through revitalization plans that could turn around sinking sales, he said.

The high-growth categories continue to be within the fast-casual segment, and coffee is growing strong, he said.

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