California Pizza Kitchen has come a long way since its founders Larry Flax and Rick Rosenfield pooled together bank loans, personal savings and friends’ investments to lease space for a gourmet pizza place in Beverly Hills, CA.
The “polished casual” concept, which celebrated its 30th anniversary last year, was an immediate hit. The menu, developed by legendary pizza chef Ed LaDou, included the chain’s now-signature BBQ chicken pizza and unique salads.
CPK, as it’s known in the restaurant industry, today operates 210 locations throughout the U.S., with additional locations in 15 countries. The brand has also launched a line of crusts and frozen pizzas available at grocery stores, and licensed through Nestlé, plus an array of cookbooks.
The Los Angeles-based chain has had some hiccups along the way, with different investors and periods of overexpansion in the ’90s and early 2000s. But CPK, which was acquired by investment firm Golden Gate Capital in 2011, has prevailed and is looking to the next 30 years with its Next Chapter program.
Part of the Next Chapter has been refreshing the CPK decor for a warmer, rustic and local feel. Another key aspect is revamping the menus with fresher and healthier options.
“We talked with guests and asked them what they most liked about CPK, and they responded with ‘seasonal’ and ‘fresh’,” says Ashley Ceraolo, senior vice president marketing and beverage. “So we put this into our beverage program, and that means moving away a little bit from beer and wine, and more towards puree-based cocktails, fresh juices and drinks with fresh ingredients.”
Sweet As Agave
CPK’s original beverage menu focused on wines and beer. The chain expanded into cocktails in the 1990s, offering its take on popular drinks of the time, including a classic Margarita, Mai Tai, Apple Martini and Long Island Iced Tea.
With more consumers focused on pure ingredients, CPK began reimagining its cocktail recipes about three years ago. As a result, it started using fresh-pressed agave juice as a sweetener in all locations.
The fresh agave juice goes into CPK’s new Moscow Mule, made with Grey Goose vodka, ginger beer, fresh ginger and agave sour; the Coconut Blossom, with Hangar 1 Mandarin Blossom vodka, Casamigos tequila blanco, fresh agave sour, Perfect Purée coconut and fresh pineapple; and the CPK California Roots cocktail with Svedka vodka, fresh avocado, mint, fresh agave sour and a fennel salt rim. Cocktail prices at CPK average $9.99.
The chain uses a special wine press to extract the juice from agave and then ships the liquid with the produce orders that arrive at restaurants about every other day. “We use it in a lot of our cocktails, and its shelf life is pretty good,” says Ceraolo explains.
CPK’s best-selling drinks have long been its red and white sangrias. About two years ago, the beverage staff believed that they could build a better sangria.
So they experimented with different ingredients and recipes and came up with a honey version. Called the Beehive Sangria ($8.99), it’s a blend of white wine, Cointreau, Monin lavender syrup, Perfect Purée strawberry, honey and lemon. “It tested higher than the red and white sangrias together,” Ceraolo notes.
In addition to rolling out the new sangria, CPK updated the recipes for its red and white sangrias. “We’ve replaced a heavier, syrup-based sangria with a light, refreshing take incorporating seasonal ingredients,” Ceraolo says.
The Red-Berry Sangria, for instance, combines red wine, Rémy VSOP, Monin blackberry syrup, Perfect Purée raspberry, cranberry juice and lemonade. The white Orchard Sangria blends white wine, St. Germain elderflower liqueur, Monin stone fruit syrup, orange and cranberry juices.
CPK also introduced a sangria flight of three 3-oz. pours of the Orchard, Red-Berry and Beehive sangrias. When customers order the flight, priced at $9.99, they also receive literature with tasting notes about the sangria trio.
The latest seasonal offering is the Blood Orange Sangria ($9.79), a mix of Bacardi Limon rum, Kendall-Jackson chardonnay, St. Germain elderflower liqueur, blood orange purée and fresh agave nectar. All of California Pizza Kitchen’s seasonal sangrias are made with St. Germain.
The red, white and honey sangrias are now the three top-selling alcoholic beverages. “It’s definitely something where guests give us a lot of credit now,” Ceraolo says.
“Redoing our sangrias was an interesting journey, and now we know we have something that the guests really like,” adds Ceraolo, whose career in food and beverage dates back more than 20 years. Before joining CPK in 2012, she served as senior director of marketing and beverage for BJ’s Restaurants, and also as director of branding for the Mimi’s Café chain of French-inspired restaurants.
Food-and-drink pairings are a big deal for CPK. All servers carry an information sheet that helps them understand taste models and pairing concepts so that they can refer to it when customers ask for pairing suggestions. The menus point out many optimal pairings; about 90% of the food offerings list suggested drinks. Table tents also advertise pairings, although not every recommended food-drink combo involves alcohol. “Some people want non-alcoholic beverages, and we understand that,” Ceraolo says.
How does California Pizza Kitchen approach its pairings? Ceraolo looks for shared qualities, such as plating anything buttery with a pour of chardonnay. For example, with the CPK Hearth-Roasted Halibut with grilled asparagus and butternut squash farro and baby kale, the CPK menu suggests the buttery, oaky Clos du Bois chardonnay ($7.99 for 6-oz. pour).
Pairings with common ingredients is another tactic. Since the Beehive Sangria is made with a natural honey that CPK also puts into some of its salad dressings, it’s a natural pairing with its California Cobb and Quinoa & Arugula salads.
“We make sure that we’re putting flavor profiles together,” Ceraolo says. “Another thing to look for is, what are the unique flavors to our restaurant, and work from there.”
What would one pair with that legendary BBQ Chicken Pizza? “What are its biggest flavors? That would be the barbecue sauce with its smoky, sweet tang,” explains Ceraolo. “So I recommend it with a fruity wine like a pinot noir.”
The Carne Asada Pizza, with fresh fire-roasted poblanos, marinated steak, cilantro pesto, Monterey jack and mozzarella, is a match with a Modelo beer or any of CPK’s Margaritas, Ceraolo says. A old fan favorite, CPK brought back the Carne Asada for National Pizza Month in October.
When trying to create the ideal menu for guests, Ceraolo and the beverage employees rely on a diverse set of opinions and palates. “We have a really great relationship with our culinary team,” she says.
“We do sequence pairings with our chef. We end up tasting through everything to make sure that it matches perfectly, and that all the flavor profiles of the food, the tastes and smells, come out and are strengthened by our beverages.”
Some of these tastings, held blindly, also include CPK executives, which helps the company leaders understand the taste profiles preferred by guests, Ceraolo says. This is important, because CPK attracts a “wide range of people who like a wide range of taste profiles.”
The opinions of customers are also critical for menu strategy. CPK constantly tracks and measures food and beverage orders, with an analytical focus. The company keeps a close eye on what people order on a per-100 basis. In reviewing this data every six months, CPK will separate items based on a vertical price point and update its offerings accordingly.
“For instance, in wine, we’ll look at every varietal and consider whether we’re reaching a price gap in that category. Are people not willing to pay that much for that varietal?” Ceraolo explains. “Or do we need to offer more premium bottles of that varietal, because consumer spending patterns have changed?”
The brands that California Pizza Kitchen carries indicate that the chain is in touch with the modern trend towards higher-end and craft spirits. The backbar includes spirits such as Hangar 1 vodka, Casamigos and Patrón tequila, Kraken Black Spiced rum and Rémy VSOP Cognac.
“The guest today is looking for more craft and premium spirits,” says Ceraolo. “Especially younger foodies—they come in and want to see that we have craft. So we added a whole new layer of premium spirits at each restaurant.”
CPK restaurants can enhance their backbars from a list of 20 chain-approved craft spirits. Locations also have flexibility to stock local and regional products, and they’re encouraged to do so.
The same goes for beer. Each CPK location has three-to-ten tap handles: Two must go to beers from Sam Adams and Blue Moon (beverage managers can pick which brews within those brands), while the rest are meant to feature local beers. General managers can also select two to three local bottle selections based on regional preferences.
“It’s important to us to feel like we’re partners with our communities,” Ceraolo explains. “Our craft beer program gives managers the opportunity to connect with local breweries and highlight that partnership.”
The restaurants also stock cans or bottles of beer at each location, though Ceraolo points out that CPK sells significantly more beer by tap. There is a standard list of 12; beyond that, the managers have leeway to add local canned or bottled beer.
In designing the wine list, Ceraolo seeks balance between younger foodies and older connoisseurs. The former likes discovering new wines, while the latter will likely order something that they know they’ll enjoy.
Top-selling wines include several white varieties, such as Clos du Bois chardonnay, Kendall-Jackson chardonnay and Coppola pinot grigio.
More consumers, especially Millennials, are developing palates for wine and increasing their knowledge. But plenty of guests are unsure of which wines they might like and why.
For these consumers, CPK developed a social media app that’s accessed through the company’s Facebook page. The app gathers information about its users and then reports back to them on what wine region they would most likely enjoy.
“It was the highest participation that any of our apps have ever had before,” Ceraolo says. “Consumer education is always in demand. Guests always want to know more, and [they always] have their smartphones out with them.”
For the past two years CPK has also run a marketing campaign based around a California wine flight. Not only could guests discover some wines from the state’s diverse industry, they could also learn about the producers and the history of their wineries.
“As part of our California Wine Month September promotion, we introduced unique and creative elements including promotional wine bottles, educational coasters and a campaign microsite that offered wine-tasting tips in a non-intimidating way,” Ceraolo says.
For example, users could click through the site and learn how to navigate wine labels, explore varietal flavor profiles and learn the “four Ss” of wine tasting. “Our ‘What’s your wine personality?’ shareable quiz offered another fun way to interact and learn,” Ceraolo adds.
As a result, restaurant wine sales increased 155%. “That’s the way in moving forward and interacting with our guests,” Ceraolo says.
The chain believes that its specialty drinks will provide another opportunity to draw guests in. Says Ceraolo, “We’re positioning ourselves as a cocktail and sangria place.”
Kyle Swartz is associate editor of Cheers magazine. Reach him at email@example.com