The Founders of California Pizza Kitchen are Starting from Scratch
When Larry Flax and Rick Rosenfield left behind their careers as criminal lawyers in 1985 to jump into the restaurant business, they believed that the strength of their California Pizza Kitchen concept would make or break their success.
They quickly learned they were wrong.
Both realized that the quality of the concept of the restaurant was secondary to the quality of the people who filled it. Now, the pair, five years on the other side of the pizza business, are using the same lesson to build two new national restaurant chains from the ground up.
“It’s déjà vu all over again, starting from scratch—this time though with a lot more confidence and a lot more experience,” Rosenfield says. “But the process is the same. We don’t have the infrastructure we can rely on. But we’re building good people. We have a great team. That’s the beauty of it.”
After selling California Pizza Kitchen (CPK) in 2011, the pair toyed around with diving into the booming fast-casual segment with a Chipotle-like, build-your-own pizza concept. But that felt too generic, so they set their sights on an upscale full-service seafood chain.
The first Bottlefish location opened in December in the high-end Brentwood neighborhood of Los Angeles. While building that brand, they are also finalizing a new, refined pizza concept, called Smoke & Stone, which they believe will put a more modern and bar-centric spin on pizza dining than California Pizza Kitchen did. The first Smoke & Stone location is expected to open later this year in Southern California.
Starting over, especially in the world of seafood, has introduced a whole new learning curve for the experienced restaurateurs, who had become accustomed to executive perches overseeing CPK’s 268 units before they sold the company. Now, as with any burgeoning operation, the job is firmly hands-on.
On busy Friday evenings, the two work alongside the cooks and waitstaff at Bottlefish. “Obviously, you’re dealing with a protein that’s more perishable. And certainly we have to be aware of that, but really the more interesting issue for us is going from a company that built to 14,000 employees to starting a company with 100 employees, and building that whole base again,” Rosenfield says.
“We have to start the infrastructure again, start the administrative practice again, build the HR infrastructure. That to me is the bigger challenge. It’s very energizing.”
The Bottlefish menu—which features everything from fish and chips to diver scallops with sweet corn and roasted mushroom fricassee—is described as innovative, yet familiar. The space, which is decidedly modern, is billed as having an ambiance that is “as comfortable as it is refined.”
As they did with their original pizza prodigy, Flax and Rosenfield will use malls to grow both Bottlefish and Smoke & Stone. However, they’re not particularly interested in the country’s stock of fading traditional malls, which have suffered declines as retailers shutter under the competitive pressures of online shopping. Instead, they’ll explore high-end lifestyle centers that put a premium on interesting dining options and unique experiences beyond shopping.
“Malls are looking for concepts that are very different and are not as plentiful. Seafood is one of those areas we saw offer a lot of opportunity, especially our more polished-casual seafood concept,” Flax says. “Malls are very cognizant of competing with online ordering. They want to get people into the malls, and you can’t order a really great piece of fresh fish on the internet.”
The duo are leaning on longstanding relationships with developers to secure the best locations for their restaurants going forward. They believe many Bottlefish and Smoke & Stone restaurants will be located in the same shopping centers, but they expect the nature of the pizza concept will propel it to a larger presence.
Smoke & Stone will pivot to customers’ changing diets and preferences. It won’t be billed as a healthy restaurant per se, but it will highlight the sourcing of its ingredients, touting organic flours and high-quality cheeses. It will be more bar-oriented and more expensive than their original pizza concept, but not as pricey as Bottlefish. In short, Rosenfield says the pizza restaurant will be “what CPK would be today.”
During their time operating California Pizza Kitchen, independent research found that the chain boasted the most-educated and highest-income clientele of any chain restaurant company in the country, Rosenfield says. They expect the two new concepts to meet or beat that mark.
“Our DNA is understanding the upscale customers. That’s what we did. That’s who we targeted. We targeted upscale women and families. And that’s how we’re thinking about Smoke & Stone as well,” he says. “We’re very, very proud of what we did at CPK. On the other hand, we now get to write on a clean slate, saying what it would be like in the 21st century, starting from scratch.”
For now, the duo are working on refining and perfecting Bottlefish, which happens to sit in the same development as a California Pizza Kitchen restaurant—a coincidence that is not lost on Flax and Rosenfield.
While they don’t envision developers placing a Smoke & Stone in close proximity to a California Pizza Kitchen in the future, they acknowledge that they are now competing with the concept they built from scratch more than three decades ago.
“That customer is our customer. And on occasion they’re going to go to CPK, and on other occasions they’ll step it up a little bit and come to us,” Flax says. “We’re really not directly competing with our baby yet. We’re not into pizza yet, so it hasn’t really been weird.”
Perhaps not weird, but certainly portentous. “It’s just interesting that our restaurant patio overlooks a restaurant that we opened in 1998. It’s still there, and last Saturday night, they were full and we were full.”