California Pizza Kitchen CEO, GJ Hart, Unveils the “Next Chapter”

California Pizza Kitchen CEO, GJ Hart, Unveils the “Next Chapter”

By: Anita Jones-Mueller, President, Healthy Dining

Anita Jones-Mueller (AJM): G.J., California Pizza Kitchen is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. I know you have been at the helm for the last three plus years, and I am seeing a lot of exciting changes. You call it the “next chapter” for CPK. What’s in store for your guests?

G.J. Hart (G.J.): Yes, we are excited about our next chapter. At our core, CPK has always had the soul to be different and to be innovative, to be first in the market and to be at the forefront of our fresh California spirit. Our senior team has spent time reflecting on the heritage of CPK. We’ve looked at every piece of our business – our food, beverage selection, hospitality, and the ambiance of our restaurants. And we are now in a brand evolution – our next chapter at CPK.

AJM: I’ve experienced one of the newly renovated CPKs. The look and feel and ambiance are so nice!

G.J.: Yes, 22 of our locations have been transformed. Another 60 will be completed this year and then the rest by next year. We consider every one of our transformations as a quasi-new restaurant opening, with lots of training and momentum.

Quinoa---Arugula-Salad.jpgOur core guest is sophisticated; we have a lot of younger foodies. And so with our transformations, an upscale feel with sustainability elements were guiding factors. Our new and remodeled restaurants have many natural elements, like oak floors, table tops made from reclaimed wood, countertops of natural stone and artifacts from salvaged metal. Vibrant artwork features local landmarks giving each restaurant a unique personality and a hometown atmosphere. We still have the yellow and black, but those colors complement the overall warm, rustic décor.

AJM: And your menus have so many really great, creative Healthy Dining menu choices. Congratulations! Tell us more.

G.J.: We’ve always had somewhat of a healthy halo. We are now very focused on health and nutrition. Our executive chef, Brian Sullivan, is creating phenomenal, healthy flavors with high quality, fresh and seasonal ingredients. Ninety percent of our menu is made in our kitchens, from scratch. Our remodeled locations emphasize our healthy elements even further, like letting guests see the fresh vegetables above the prep stations, and our fresh herbs are growing in gardens near the host station.

We’re bringing our pizza ovens to the forefront– and we use them for a lot more than pizza. We have gone back to hand-tossing our pizza dough. That takes training!

AJM: I love CPK’s Cedar Plank Salmon, and I understand it is baked in your pizza oven. That must be your secret to bringing out the flavor. It is cooked just right. I also really love your Quinoa and Arugula Salad. It is so full of flavor and nutrients and Healthy Dining appeal.

Cedar-Plank-Salmon.pngG.J.: Our menu has certainly evolved. Our Moroccan salad is a great example with chicken, butternut squash, dates, avocado, red pepper and cranberries. Pizza is our middle name, and we do it really, really well. But we are not just about pizza –we have this breath of uniqueness because of what we do with fresh, seasonal, healthy, high quality ingredients. We are serving fabulous salads, seafood like salmon, halibut and mahi mahi, chicken and lots of vegetarian items. We encourage our guests to try something new and our guests have been really, really receptive.

AJM: You have so many great choices featured on HealthyDiningFinder, several which are Sodium Savvy, too!

G.J.: It’s important to us to watch the sodium in our nutrition profiles. We incorporate spices and herbs instead of salt. And use citrus – you can get a lot more flavor if you pan sear than if you use salt as a carrier.

AJM: I am always trying to get my family to choose whole grain crust when they order pizza, so I’m thrilled you offer it. Does the whole grain crust sell well?

G.J.: Yes, really well. And you know that we also offer gluten-free pizza?

AJM: I do. And a big applause to you! A lot of restaurants have a gluten-free menu but the items may not meet the FDA’s gluten-free definition because they do not protect against cross contact. I know from Healthy Dining’s dietitians that your selection of gluten-free pizzas are not only prepared with gluten-free ingredients, but as important, are also prepared with stringent protocol and training of your teams to ensure they are truly gluten-free. You are one of just a few who can say that.

G.J.: Yes, the credit goes to Brian.

AJM: Speaking of the FDA, what are your thoughts – and how are your restaurants getting ready for menu labeling?

G.J.: It’s a big year for that. We are getting ready. We work with Healthy Dining’s dietitians to make sure the information is highly accurate. And we will continue our excellent training with our teams. We want to be very cautious and make sure our vendor partners understand what our expectations are – to be highly accurate – and have quality controls in place to monitor that our product vendors are keeping their information accurate. Since the new federal rules are the first ever in the industry, all restaurant companies need to continue to learn and educate management and staff, and make sure we continue to challenge ourselves to provide the highest quality information – with the highest quality food and experience.

Our mission statement is we’re passionate people, committed to inspiring others, bringing California creativity to every meal.

AJM: So overall, your new chapter is a success?

G.J.: It’s been a phenomenal success to date. This is about a full transformation of a company. We have a great brand with fantastic people, who ultimately drive results as a company as a result of doing things the right way.

AJM: Congratulations, G.J., and your team! I’m looking forward to your Salmon and Arugula Salad again, very soon.

For more about G.J. Hart:
G.J. Hart Bio
NY Times Feature