California Pizza Kitchen delights customers by letting employees show their unique personalities while on the job

Amber Cox has never had a bad day working at California Pizza Kitchen. That doesn’t mean every day is free of stress or that she never faces situations that require her to step out of her comfort zone.

As a bartender at one of CPK’s new prototype restaurants that recently opened at Westfield Topanga Mall in Canoga Park, Calif., Cox often has to think fast to keep things moving.

“I have a regular who comes in quite often,” says Cox, who started bartending at the Topanga location in July and rapidly moved up to become the bar trainer. “When he does order, it’s usually on the complicated side. There was one occasion where he asked us to do something that we actually don’t do.”

Cox dashed back to the kitchen and found the expediter that night. She mentioned that this was a regular guest who brings lots of business to the restaurant and added that it was important to her personally that CPK find a way to take care of this guest and his request.

“The expediter was like, ‘No problem. What do you need?’” Cox says. “The guest was touched that the expediters, the managers and the servers were all rallying together to make sure he got exactly what it was that he needed. That kind of thing happens so often at this store and that’s why I love it.”


Let personality shine through

The experience between Cox and this particular patron is an example of the culture that G.J. Hart envisioned for CPK when he became CEO in August 2011. He wants employees who are more focused on guest satisfaction and less concerned about following a mental checklist each time a guest walks into the restaurant.

“Think about your favorite restaurant that you frequent often,” Hart says. “Why do you do that? Inevitably, the answer is not food first. It’s because they know who you are. It’s the old ‘Cheers’ model. They give you this great experience, it feels great, they know who you are and oh, by the way, the food is good.”

So how do you build a culture where employees are eager to find ways to satisfy your customers and can do it with a smile? It begins with letting people bring their natural personalities to work.

“We hire people because we like them, we like what they are saying and we like how we feel when we speak to them,” says Matthew Ross, an assistant general manager at the Topanga CPK. “When you hire them for that, and then you turn around and go into a service model where it’s, ‘Do these nine steps exactly this way,’ you’re contradicting the whole point. It’s a lot easier to say, ‘Hey, we really like you. Bring that to the table.’”

Lauren Rose, who works with Ross and Cox and has been with CPK for about three years, remembers what it was like before Hart arrived. She says the new way of doing things has made a big difference for everyone.

“It’s way less robotic,” Rose says. “We used to have a script that we would say when we went up to a table that included offering a specific starter, an alcoholic beverage and a non-alcoholic beverage. We’re supposed to move past that now and become more comfortable with the guests and really make them feel like they are getting their own personalized experience.”

The effort to make CPK more and more appealing with each visit stretches beyond the guest experience at the table. Rose says employees are engaged in all aspects of the way CPK does business.

“We’ve had new uniforms, improvements in our menu and one of the most recent changes of adding gluten-free pizza dough, which we highly anticipated,” Rose says. “The company is always evolving and does a great job of figuring out what interests people and how to keep them coming back. CPK is becoming way more modern and is reaching out to a younger demographic.”


Talk about what works

Building leaders in your organization comes down to the same principles, whether you’re a chain of pizza restaurants, a manufacturer, a marketing firm or any other kind of business.

“It’s really about wandering around your troops,” Ross says. “I like to wander around and go from group to group, table to table, or from the bar to the back of the house and to the dish area. I’m just wandering around to get a feel for what’s happening in the restaurant. The more you spend time with the staff and speak to them before their shift, during their shift and after, they’ll tell you more and more and share with you.”

Ross has identified a couple of people at his restaurant who have leadership potential just by the way they act when they are at work.

“Nobody has any idea that these two would want to move forward,” Ross says. “They don’t tell anyone anything about it. They don’t particularly coach others. But I can see it in them. I can see the light. That’s where the leadership of management comes in. You start to move in their direction and say, ‘How would you like to run the safety committee? How would you like to do a walk-through of the restaurant with me and see how things really operate?’ It’s that light that comes on in their eyes. You can see it right away.”

Another part of it is having open conversations with employees about what they are doing right and why it’s working so well.

“You just say, ‘Lauren, tell us how you sold so many desserts last Friday? How are you speaking to your guests to get so many compliments? Or Amber, how are you driving these repeat guests in a store that has only been open for four months?,’” Ross says. “That’s attributed to their happiness on the job and leads to their ability to teach others and they always jump at the chance to do that.”

CPK plans to continue to roll out its new “de-chained” restaurant model and Cox says she can’t wait to see what happens next.

“This is the first company that has made me stop and go, ‘Wow, I actually have a potential future here,’” Cox says. “All the managers I talk to love what they do and I haven’t had a single experience yet that has dissuaded me from wanting to further my career with this company. I’ve had nothing but encouragement from my management staff and all the other higher-ups I’ve had the opportunity to interact with.”

Execution has been and will continue to be the key, Ross says.

“The line of demarcation has been broken down,” Ross says. “G.J. invites our employees to have lunch with him and have meetings with the corporate teams. There is just this exchange of information, ideas and feelings that just was not there before. It’s a pleasure to see it unfold and see all the things they talk about happen.” 


How to reach: California Pizza Kitchen Inc., (310) 342-5000 or