The restaurant chain that took barbecued chicken pizza mainstream is ready to push the culinary envelope again. How about a pizza topped with roasted Brussels sprouts and applewood smoked bacon or a Korean barbecue pizza with pork loin and spicy kimchee salad?
Innovative menu items are just one piece of what’s unique about California Pizza Kitchen’s new flagship restaurant unveiled Thursday at Sawgrass Mills in Sunrise. The first of its kind, the Sawgrass location aims to reinvigorate the brand that started in 1985 in Beverly Hills.
“The whole idea is about taking the best of what put us on the map and making it relevant for 2012 and beyond,” said G.J. Hart, who took over as chief executive officer of the chain just over a year ago. “Over the years the brand morphed from being a leader and it became a follower of food trends. We want to bring back the hip, cool feel.”
The changes are obvious from the moment you walk into the restaurant, which opens to the public Monday. The new look is all about focusing on the chain’s California roots. Very little of the bright yellow and chrome remains. The design is California-casual with earth tones and reclaimed wood everywhere from the walls to the floor and tables. An outdoor terrace with couches and fire pits is designed to encourage lingering. Large windows and glass doors let in lots of natural light and fold open to enjoy the weather.
Pizza is center stage with the kitchen designed so diners can watch the pizza makers at work. At the Sawgrass location — and by mid-2013 at all restaurants — pizzas will once again by hand-tossed. Currently the chain uses a pizza press to make the dough more uniform.
The new focus is on upping the culinary quotient across the board with dishes like a roasted beets and whipped goat cheese salad, plus a sweet pea carbonara featuring pea-filled pasta purses tossed with Italian pancetta and a Romano cream sauce. These are some of the unique items only on the Sawgrass menu, which also features a specialty menu of hand-crafted cocktails.
Chain-wide the company has actually slimmed the menu from more than 100 items to 74 in order to improve execution. But there are also more healthy choices like quinoa and arugula salad or a fire-roasted chile relleno stuffed with chicken, cheese, mushrooms, spinach and eggplant that dishes up at only 380 calories.
“As we grew, we didn’t keep up with the creativity on the menu and we tried to be all things to all people,” said Brian Sullivan, senior vice president of culinary innovation, who has been with the company for 24 years. “We’re always going to be pizza-centric. But we’ll continue to push the envelope with these specialty items that resonate with who we are. We don’t want items that you are going to see in other restaurants.”
The chain chose Sawgrass to unveil its new flagship location because of a combination of the area’s diverse demographic base and the influx of international visitors. South Florida has already been a strong market for the brand, which has seven locations in the tri-county area stretching from Coral Gables to Palm Beach Gardens.
The opening is the culmination of a new vision that began to take shape when Golden Gate Capital purchased California Pizza Kitchen in July 2011 for $470 million, taking the company private and bringing in Hart as the new chief executive.
“They saw a brand that was undervalued,” said Hart, who has an ownership stake in the chain. “This is an iconic brand with so much brand equity. If we can bring the excitement and enthusiasm back we’re only going to see it go up.”
Industry experts say the changes make sense because the brand still has a loyal following, although it has not kept pace with the competition.
“It’s a good time for them to go back to what were the fundamental things that made the brand so intriguing,” said Dennis Lombardi of WD Partners, a restaurant industry consultant. “The difficulty is going to be getting the word out to consumers that this is different. The devil is always in the details in these kind of evolutions.”
Based on consumer reaction, the plan is to take pieces of the Sunrise concept and introduce it into the chain’s other 268 existing restaurants. Some restaurants could be completely remodeled, but most will only get elements of the new prototype, which cost $2 million in Sunrise, Hart said. The company’s Fort Lauderdale and Boca Raton locations could be strong candidates for remodeling next year or early 2014, he said.
Community and business leaders, who got a first look at the restaurant on Thursday, were impressed.
“This is phenomenal,” said Luanne Lenberg, general manager of Sawgrass Mills. “We’re so excited to have this caliber of restaurant and to be their test for the rest of the world.”