G.J. Hart is working to make California Pizza Kitchen the best it’s ever been — for employees and customers alike

G.J. Hart was a big fan of California Pizza Kitchen before he took over as CEO in August 2011. One of the reasons he liked the restaurant chain so much was its willingness to be different from its competitors in the pizza industry.

“It was unique, a place that created a special experience for folks because it dared to be different,” Hart says. “You can’t rest on the status quo in any business, but in this business in particular. It just moves too fast.”

When he arrived at California Pizza Kitchen, Hart, who previously helped Texas Roadhouse grow from $63 million in 1999 to more than $1.2 billion in 2011, saw an organization that wasn’t quite as pioneering as it once was.

“CPK had gone through significant ups and downs, ownership changes and challenges,” Hart says. “It had just morphed to where the innovation wasn’t as forefront and top of mind as it was over the years.”

Hart wanted to get the company back to its innovative roots. He felt CPK and its 13,180 employees were at their best when they stepped out and tried new propositions instead of following a more conservative philosophy.

“I felt it was an iconic brand that had made its way in casual dining in a way that was unique and different than many others,” says Hart, who is also the company’s president and executive chairman.

When CPK opened its first restaurant in Beverly Hills in 1985, it used an open kitchen to prepare hearth-baked pizzas such as The Original BBQ Chicken, Thai Chicken and Jamaican Jerk Chicken. The company has expanded from California to more than 260 locations in more than 30 states and 11 countries, as well as in airports, concession stands at sporting events and the frozen food aisle of grocery stores.

“How do we effectively bring what was the best of CPK and CPK’s history forward and make it relevant today?” Hart says. “I like to say it’s brand evolution and not revolution, which is why we call our strategy the next chapter. It’s really getting people to be open-minded and to use their brains more than going through the motions because it’s worked over the years.”

 

Build your foundation

Hart’s initial goal at CPK was to talk to people at all levels of the organization. It involved speaking to thousands of employees, as well as managers and general managers in 40 cities over a period of four months. Hart wanted to share his thoughts, but he also wanted to hear what his employees thought about what CPK could be.

“They get to know you by the way you interact with them,” Hart says. “So for me, it’s seeking to understand where they are, where they want to go as individuals, where they feel like we are as an organization and truly listening to them and asking a lot of questions.”

As employees saw how curious Hart was in what they were telling him and how engaged he was, they began to share their feelings.

“As I ask the questions, they’ll sometimes think twice about how to answer,” Hart says. “That leads to the next part, which is, ‘OK, what would you do about this?’ It’s starting to build that collaborative spirit, which is done through communication. And it’s through communication that people start to build trust. Trust is earned over time, it develops and they start to feel more confident.”

In those first encounters, Hart was fully aware that people were trying to get a read on him just as much as he was trying to get to know them.

“There has been a lot written about my leadership beliefs,” Hart says. “Right or wrong, they are mine. I like to take ownership of them.”

When you can be transparent and confident in who you are and can get the people you lead to do the same, you begin to develop a framework to make things happen.

“They test you on that,” Hart says. “It’s like, ‘What are you doing when no one is looking?’ I always feel someone is looking, so the behavior needs to be real and genuine. Once they figure that out, you start to break down barriers and things start to come together.”

 

Understand what you do

During his first 15 months at the helm of CPK, a lot of time was spent on what Hart likes to call the “blocking and tackling” of the business.

“Are we doing the business fundamentals the correct way?” Hart says. “Are there ways that we need to address hospitality? There were many. Are there things we need to address with the menu and execution? There were many. Do we need to continue to work on being able to deliver guests the experience they deserve for their hard-earned money? There were a number of ways we looked at that.”

The dialogue was ongoing with back-of-the-house employees, front-of-the-house employees, dishwashers, hosts, etc. Summits and roundtables were held to get at the key factors that would separate CPK from its competitors.

One of the results was the creation of a mission statement, something that many organizations have, but don’t follow.

“Most mission statements tend to be too long and diluted,” Hart says. “Ours is pretty easy to understand and people really latched on to it. It talks about passion, being committed to inspire and California creativity. We got people aligned around that and then we started to develop a longer-term strategy based on those near-term needs that we learned.”

A critical component to any company in the restaurant industry is customer service. On paper, it seemed like CPK had an effective system that covered all the bases.

“We had a very structured approach to service,” Hart says. “There are nine steps you take to execute a guest experience once you arrive at a table as a server. ‘My name is so and so and I’ll be your server. Would you like a drink?’ And so on.

“That was great, but it had not evolved over time to have sensitivity for the overall guest. We were treating a couple with two screaming kids the same way we might be treating a couple that was on a date night. That sensitivity got lost because the structure wouldn’t allow it.”

Hart didn’t want CPK customers to get the service they expected. He wanted them to get service that went above and beyond expectation and would resonate with them — to the point that they would want to return and tell their friends and family to check out CPK.

“We started to focus on the overall experience of hospitality,” Hart says. “We went from a sequence of service to being much more sensitized to the guest’s needs. How do we wrap those needs around providing a model that gets them addressed, but still stays focused on the details that matter?”

When Hart talked to employees, he would discuss situations and ask whether a particular action taken in response made sense. It got them thinking. Then he introduced a scenario in which they had just met Hart and a group of his friends who made plans to visit that person’s house for dinner in the near future.

“Let’s go two weeks out and tell me what you might do to prepare for that dinner,” Hart says. “Then I’d go from two weeks to one week to the day of the experience. It wouldn’t take long until they’d say things like, ‘I would make sure I learned more about you and what you might like for dinner.’ I’d say, ‘Why would you want to do that?’ They would say, ‘I want to make you happy.’”

It would continue until employees began to think about what they could do to please customers and no longer think of just a checklist.

“The lights start to go off,” Hart says. “Let’s make it stimulating enough that they want to be part of the solution. When you do that, it starts to make sense and when it makes sense, it’s because you answered the ‘why,’ the ‘what’ and the ‘how.’”

 

Moving forward

As employees become engaged in more personal customer service, CPK has also started changing physically. The company has opened two new locations as part of its “de-chaining” strategy, which moves away from the “expected, shiny feel of a fast-casual restaurant” to a more local, earthy scheme that is “rustic, organic and relaxed.”

One new location opened in Canoga Park, Calif., another in Sawgrass, Fla., and more locations are in the works under this new model.

“It’s creating discipline and the systems in place to allow, or at least try to allow the voices to be heard,” Hart says. “We’re pretty good at that and we’re getting better over time. It will improve as this collaborative approach is really embraced and understood totally in this environment.” 

 

Takeaways:

  • Ask lots of questions.
  • Give some thought about what you do.
  • Let employees think.

 

The Hart File:

Name: G.J. Hart
Title: President, CEO and executive chairman
Company: California Pizza Kitchen Inc.

Born: Hilversum, the Netherlands

Education: Business management degree, James Madison University. In 2012, Hart was elected as a charter member of the JMU Hospitality Management Hall of Fame. About receiving the honor, Hart says, “It’s probably one of my proudest moments. You always think about your history and about growing up and I worked through college. It’s cool to be able to be recognized.”

What were some of your earliest jobs and what did you learn from them? I was a Little League umpire, a dishwasher at Howard Johnson’s and then a teller at Kmart. They taught me about being around people and being in the people business. More important than that, is hard work. I’ve never lost sight of the fact that what a lot of folks do every day to make their living is hard, hard work. You have to be willing to pay the price and earn it.

Who has had the biggest influence on you? A fellow who was my first major boss, and who has since passed away of Lou Gehrig’s disease, a big German guy named Jerry Steinpres. I worked for him when I was in the poultry business. He’s a very tough, hard-nosed guy. He was a mentor in a lot of ways because he cared about me and my development. I also learned what not to do.

What is your favorite menu item at CPK? I have lots of favorites, especially since I’m helping to develop some of them, but The Original BBQ Chicken pizza is still my favorite.

 

California Pizza Kitchen Social Media Links:

Facebook: www.facebook.com/californiapizzakitchen
Twitter: @calpizzakitchen

 

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

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