Help me save California Pizza Kitchen (CPK)

One of my favorite “casual dining” restaurants announced today that they were looking at strategic alternatives for the company. They need an infusion of capital, but more importantly, they need a better handle on what their brand stands for.

Birthed in the early 1980’s as a mass-market extension of Wolfgang Puck’s famous Spago restaurant, California Pizza Kitchen has always offered an amazing menu with interesting food choices. They championed the wood-burning pizza ovens, and gave us a different dining experience. I’ve never been disappointed.

The problem today is that the brand is simply not memorable. In a crowded marketplace of restaurants offering everything from fast food to full-up fancy menus, CPK has lost that consumer hook. The in-restaurant experience is nice, but not memorable. The menu continues to have amazing food choices, but like a poorly written movie, once you leave the theatre, you really don’t remember much.

CPK should really look carefully at what it stands for, and then build an entire customer experience around that singular nugget. Today, there are so many competing messages in the CPK restaurant; attractive by non-committal interiors, the pizza oven pushed back too far for diners to really “get “ the original roots of their business (California-style pizzas), too big a menu with to many choices and a lost focus on pizza, etc.

When I read about the restructuring today, I ran down to my local CPK for lunch to be sure my impressions were right. By the book, everything was good. Great friendly service, interesting menu, very good food, well-prepared meal, attractive booth, even a nice goodbye from the hostess. To address the “New frugality” as Chris Farrell calls it in his new book The New Frugality, CPK has introduced a “Small Cravings” menu with some really excellent food ideas (I liked the sweet corn tamale ravioli). Yes, they have the rulebook down.

But what CPK continues to lack is a strong brand idea driving everything. They have become “fuzzy” and not as edgy as they once were. So CPK is not as memorable a dining brand and is still not in my frame of consideration.

Let’s save California Pizza Kitchen. Do you have any ideas that might help them become a much more meaningful dining destination? We need them.