The untold truth of California Pizza Kitchen

Belive it or not, we've got two lawyers to thank for the existence of California Pizza Kitchen. In 1985, Los Angeles residents Rick Rosenfield and Larry Flax were burned out with practicing law and eager to finally make a career shift based around their mutual love for cooking. The concept of California-style pizza was taking off thanks to the LA hot spot Spago (by Wolfgang Puck), which was doling out gourmet pizzas (among other things) to the rich and famous. Flax and Rosenfield decided they wanted to curate a similar offering for everyday folk, hence the conception of California Pizza Kitchen, which started in a space in Beverly Hills, California. 

The restaurant grew quickly to operate over 250 locations, across 30 states and 11 countries. The California-inspired pizza joint has certainly cemented its status in chain restaurant history but has had a pretty interesting journey since its initial opening. This is the untold truth of California Pizza Kitchen and its legendary pizzas.

Pasta was the original idea for the California Pizza Kitchen's signature dish

While California Pasta Kitchen has a nice ring to it, it ultimately didn't make the cut. Pizza is, obviously, the signature offering at California Pizza Kitchen but homemade California style pies were not the original concept. Founders Larry Flax and Rick Rosenfield told The Wall Street Journal in 2009 that they'd initially wanted to recreate a pasta concept they'd discovered at a restaurant in Chicago. "We checked out a similar restaurant in Glendale, California, and saw not-particularly-good pizza going around. But half the people were having a slice. Literally, that day, we said: 'Let's scrap the pasta and make it pizza,'" said Rosenfield. 

California Pizza Kitchen became pizza-centric both in its menu and its physical space. Rather than cooking the pies in electric deck ovens, they decided to have an old school open-hearth oven in the middle of the restaurant. While California Pizza Kitchen still serves pasta dishes, the pizzas are always what's really kept it on the map.

California Pizza Kitchen invented the barbeque chicken pizza

Not only did California Pizza Kitchen invent the barbecue chicken pizza, but it also happens to be the menu item that saved them. When they first opened, the founders had tapped Spago pizza chef Ed LaDou to curate their menu. LaDou was viewed as a real pizza renegade in the 1970s and 1980s. His decision to veer away from traditional toppings like pepperoni, peppers, and mushrooms, and experiment with seafood and duck sausage pizza toppings blew people's minds back then. And while he offered fanciful items like rabbit sausage and grape-leaf pizza on the original CPK menu, the only dish that people actually ate was the good ole' BBQ chicken pizza. It ended up being a total game changer for the restaurant, and the pizza world at large.  

It was clear that LaDou, who sadly passed away from cancer in 2007, knew he was on the brink of something special by helping to create the pizzas like the barbecue chicken one at California Pizza Kitchen. In 1985, he told the Los Angeles Times, "We are at the threshold of a new epoch in pizza dining, an epoch that will transform convention into invention and open up an infinite spectrum of pizza possibilities." Barbecue chicken pizza was part of that new epoch, but now feels like a staple in pizza cuisine. We have LaDou and California Pizza Kitchen to thank for that.

California Pizza Kitchen was a gluten-free pioneer

If you are living that gluten-free life, California Pizza Kitchen is an excellent option for your dining pleasure. For a pizza joint, it's got a refreshingly hefty amount of awesome gluten-free menu items. But that's nothing new. In fact, according to a California Pizza Kitchen rep who spoke to Pop Sugar, the company was sort of an OG gluten-free bread slinger. The rep said, "CPK was one of the first national restaurant chains to create a certified gluten-free pizza menu.... We can also make any pizza on the menu with a gluten-free crust." 

Normally a place might have one gluten-free pizza option but to offer that much variety to a celiac sufferer or gluten-intolerant customer really is a gift. Props to you, California Pizza Kitchen, for creating a safe space for those with autoimmune deficiency disorders, or just an irrational fear of gluten thanks to our culture's multitude of godforsaken diet trends.

California Pizza Kitchen was the first national restaurant chain to ban smoking sections

California Pizza Kitchen was a pioneer when it came to insisting people forego their privilege to light up Marlboros in restaurants. In 1991, the restaurant became the first natural restaurant chain to officially nix the smoking section. 

It came down to an effort to keep their employees happy. California Pizza Kitchen's two founders, Larry Flax and Rick Rosenfield, maintain that one of their core beliefs as restaurant owners was the importance of being kind to the people working for them, making sure they have room for growth, and granting them respect in the workplace at all times. In a piece for Fortune, they recall meeting with restaurant managers in 1991, who expressed concern over making servers work in areas of the restaurant that were infested with second hand smoke. The result of that conversation was California Pizza Kitchen formally taking the lead in no longer offering an option to smoke in any of its restaurants. It's hard to imagine that as a big deal now but at the time, it was very forward thinking.

California Pizza Kitchen's frozen pizza line was accused of poisoning consumers

Trans fats are certainly a controversial figure in the food world. In fact, partially hydrogenated vegetable oil is a repeat offender in the legal system worldwide. In 2013, a California woman sued Nestle and California Pizza Kitchen, for "deliberately poisoning their consumers." In the case of this legal action, the term "poison" was referring to the partially hydrogenated vegetable oil contained in the frozen pizzas, which the women deemed a "toxic carcinogen." While trans fats had been banned from restaurants in the state of California, there were no laws regarding grocery store items. The plaintiff, Katie Simpson, filed a class action lawsuit for $5 million. 

The cusp of the issue, according to Simpson, was that since Nestle could make its trans fat laden pizzas cheaper (because it's a cheap ingredient), the more healthy, non-poisonous pizzas couldn't compete. Alas, a federal judge tossed the lawsuit, saying Simpson didn't provide enough hard core data to prove the potential dangers of trans fats. Meanwhile, Nestle and California Pizza Kitchen have continued to dole out their cheap frozen pizzas concocted with cheap trans fats (they use palm oil) — so consume at your own risk.

California Pizza Kitchen got a makeover in 2015

In the fall of 2015, California Pizza Kitchen got a serious facelift. Referring to it as its "Next Chapter," the chain decided to really shake things up a bit with new decor, all new table and seating options, and a revamped menu (with all of the signature menu items still intact, of course). The pizza haven also leveled up in the mixology department, coming up with a whole new line of signature cocktails, and an even happier happy hour, plus a bonus happy hour of sorts with lowered prices on certain beverages and meals from 8:30 p.m. to closing time. 

The overhaul was an effort to appeal to modern customers, who haven't been as enthusiastic about the concept of family-style chain as they used to be. In keeping with a lot of the more fast-casual successes of this century, the decor at California Pizza Kitchen became decidedly more rustic and airy. The signature yellow and black will probably always be how we envision California Pizza Kitchen but we're certainly supportive of its new look. Hey, whatever it takes to make you feel confident, California Pizza Kitchen. You do you.

There's a prime selection of non-alcoholic beverages at California Pizza Kitchen

If mocktails are more your jam than the hard stuff, California Pizza Kitchen is actually a really fun place to drink. In 2016, it received the VIBE Vista Award for Best Adult Alcohol Free Program for Chain Restaurants — that's how stellar the non-alcoholic menu is at California Pizza Kitchen. Lots of times, the non-alcoholic mixed drink options are usually chock full of sugar, but California Pizza Kitchen has some options that are seltzer-based and pretty low-cal. The chain claims it always tries to maintain a mocktail menu that utilizes seasonal, fresh fruit with a California flare. Non-booze beverages like the Strawberry Mango Cooler are hand shaken like the "real thing" and, of course, there are an array of soda choices too. 

If you're not a drinker, but still want to have something fun to sip while you wait for your pizza to arrive, California Pizza Kitchen is definitely ready to cater to you.

California Pizza Kitchen holds an annual "Best Pizza Chef" competition for its employees

Every year California Pizza Kitchen gives employees who've been through its pizza certification program a chance to compete in an Iron Chef-style contest. The intention is two-fold — it's a chance for some of its most talented chefs to put an extra $25K in their pocket, and a morale booster. It drives the pizza chefs to want to succeed, and therefore there's a lot of skill honing happening in California Pizza Kitchen restaurants across the country leading up to the competition rounds (it starts regional, then the finals are in Las Vegas). The pizza certification program keeps a lot of employees wanting to work for California Pizza Kitchen, resulting in a higher worker retention rate and continued success for the restaurant. 

When asked about the program, California Pizza Kitchen's VP of culinary innovation, Brian Sullivan, told FSR, "We want to make sure that they receive the best training possible so that they're successful in the job that they do each day, and that they feel a sense of pride and accomplishment each day as they make food." Both the training program and Best Pizza Chef competition incentivize the chefs to learn to craft a delicious, unique pizza so customers will actually want to enjoy the dine-in experience at California Pizza Kitchen, rather than relying on delivery or take-out from cheaper pizza establishments. The annual competition offers a plethora of benefits for everyone involved, including hungry diners who enjoy the fruits (or pizza) of the chefs' labor.

California Pizza Kitchen is now offering a "take and bake" option to combat a slump in sales

With the popularity of food delivery apps and fast-casual restaurants like Chipotle and Panera, less and less Americans are enjoying the lost art form of going out to eat at a family chain. California Pizza Kitchen is offering a solution to satisfy both the customer demand for grab-and-go services, and the slump in sales it has seen because of these new trends — customers can now come and grab one of California Pizza Kitchen's crafted California pizza creations at the restaurant, then take it home to bake it in their own oven, in close proximity to their couch and their Netflix, as God intended it. There's also an option to get them delivered! 

Customers can choose between any of the 20 pizzas available on California Pizza Kitchen's menu. An added bonus is that the take and bake pizzas are $10 less than they would be if you ate them in-house. The California Pizza Kitchen CEO Jim Hyatt explained to Restaurant Business that since "every pizza is best enjoyed fresh and hot from the oven," their take and bake option is the best alternative to dining in at one of their restaurants. This definitely seems like a viable solution to the conundrum of wanting a fresh, high quality pizza but not being able to bring yourself to put on something other than pajamas to eat it.

California Pizza Kitchen's frozen pizza is a healthy choice in comparison to other brands

When it comes to shaping up or losing weight, frozen pizza isn't exactly the first thing you picture. If you are trying to maintain certain healthy standards with a frozen pie though, California Pizza Kitchen isn't a terrible choice. Registered dietician Maggie Michalcyck weighed in on California Pizza Kitchen's frozen gluten-free margherita pizza to SHAPE, touting it as an excellent option. "The ingredients are totally recognizable, and the sugar and sodium are lower than what you would see in other pizzas," she said. And a team of nutritionists who consulted with Huffington Post ranked California Pizza Kitchen's five cheese and tomato pizza from the frozen aisle as one of the healthiest available in the genre. 

So again, while frozen pizza isn't a beacon of healthy cuisine, if you are comparing different brands in a lineup, California Pizza Kitchen seems to come out on top as slightly less unhealthy, which is a serious compliment in the world of frozen bread topped with cheese and meat.