The classic brand continues to innovate and surprise guests, and it all begins with employees.

In a restaurant world where employee loyalty is a utopian goal, California Pizza Kitchen inspired someone to get down on one knee.

Six years ago, Francisco Rodriguez took home the casual chain’s first “Best Pizza Chef,” title, beating out three finalists and a field with 20-plus years of experience. In front of more than 600 people and a panel of celebrity judges, including Sopranos star Steve Schirripa, Rodriguez earned top marks in hand-tossing technique, baking, showmanship, creativity, and craveability. He picked up the $10,000 prize and, once crowned, proposed to his girlfriend, Rachel Nagler, a server at a CPK at Town Square in Las Vegas.

Today, the story still resonates for Brian Sullivan, CPK’s senior vice president of culinary innovation. The program has changed over the years—winners now garner $25,000—but the purpose hasn’t. “It shows as an organization, as a company, that we care,” he says. “We care about our employees when we hire them, and that says a lot.”

CPK’s annual “Best Pizza Chef” competition is open to all employees who have run through its pizza certification program. The finalists spend a few days at a resort and attend CPK’s general manager conference, getting to observe the business from the inside.

The Iron Chef-style event drives passion, Sullivan says, and it trickles down from the employee competing to the GM to team members pulling for their respective stores.

Once cooks meet qualifications, they post videos and recipes. Some uploads have thousands of views on YouTube years later. Certain pizzas have even made it into restaurants as LTOs.

The way it breaks down is through a regional structure. Twenty or so areas are split up and then face off before local VPs select their best. It results in two finalists from each coast—a 45-day vetting process that can change an employee’s life, Sullivan says. Runner-ups get $5,000 apiece as well.

“It’s a big deal,” he says. “For us, it’s like our Super Bowl, no doubt.”

While the program has nurtured energy throughout the organization, it’s also inspired retention. And that’s something 240-unit CPK’s total “pizza chef program” has aimed at since inception.

Cooks aren’t placed on the line until they pass the aforementioned certification courses. This includes video training and subsequent tests. Employees also face live trials in the restaurant. Accuracy measurements, speed, recipe creation, etc. “Things that happen not just through video training and paper training, but live in the station where it’s monitored by management and members of the culinary team,” Sullivan says.

“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,” he says.

And showcasing that skill in front of an audience, with $25,000 on the line, is a pretty compelling way for CPK to back up the point.

Sullivan believes engagement is one of the keys to keeping quality workers in today’s restaurant business—something that doesn’t always get the attention it deserves. Training might be one of the most misunderstood elements, too, and a powerful unlock at that.

California Pizza Kitchen’s employees are the heart of its differentiation.

There tends to be a generalization that workers, younger especially, want to coast and don’t welcome the burden of continued learning. Scheduling software platform 7shifts recently surveyed about 2,000 restaurant professionals and found the opposite to be true, more often than not at least. Restaurant employees ranked training a 4/5 on average as important to their workplace happiness. Thirty percent gave it a 5. The company also discovered the biggest difference between employees likely to quit and those sticking around is the amount of training they received. The employees ready to churn rated the training they got from management a 3. Those who said they weren’t going to quit gave it a 4. “At-risk” employees wanted hands-on training from managers (67 percent), to shadow senior employees (40 percent), and to take external courses (23 percent).

Sullivan says attending the GM conference is an example of showing employees there’s more to their jobs than clocking in and out. It has been well-received by finalists. They see the organization from an aspirational angle.

In 2015, CPK launched “PizzaWise,” a branded mobile app to help with development as it rolled iPads across restaurants. A previous case study said the app was opened more than 8.5 times per day, giving employees direct access to CPK’s proprietary recipes in the station, which boosted efficiency. The white-labeled solution also allowed restaurants to push updated materials and information instantaneously to locations, saving it considerable expense from what used to be a manual process. Previously, instructional guides and safety procedures, as well as training materials, were stored on DVDs and on paper in binders.

It was also a challenge considering many young workers were part-time and didn’t have a company email address. Non-corporate employees, those in the front of the house, didn’t have access to CPK’s Intranet, either. PizzaWise made the information easily accessible and also cut inefficient waste, like old-school tech and paper. It met employees where they are today—mobile as opposed to desktop.

Readily available training is critical for a multitude of reasons. One that can’t be discounted, though, is empowering workers so they feel comfortable and confident and take more pride in day-to-day tasks. The ability to access material beyond entry-level duties draws a clear career path to climb the ladder. A carrot to chase and stay invested. Not to mention, it’s in CPK’s interest not only to have engaged employees, but to also reward knowledgeable workers who can craft a pizza you can’t simply order from the plethora of discount-heavy, counter-service options available.

In 2018, the turnover rate in the restaurants-and-accommodations sector rose to a post-recession high of 74.9 percent.

Another point: In 7shifts’ study, engaged employees rated their happiness with management at a 4/5 and said one of the top reasons they stick around is recognition. Employees on the cusp of quitting rated recognition from supervisors a 3/5. A healthy monetary check isn’t a bad pat on the back.

Being in the pizza business, CPK knows all too well the power of retention and employee development. It has to curate an experience worthy of a four-wall visit in a category where traffic is shifting the other direction. Pizza Hut is in the process of replacing nearly 500 U.S. restaurants. The reason? The widening gap between its dine-in and take-out business. Of the Yum! Brands’ chain’s 7,449 restaurants at the end of Q2, 6,100 were traditional restaurants and 1,350 express locations. In that first pool, close to half were dine-in venues. Yet 90 percent of Pizza Hut’s current business is off-premises, and U.S. and international restaurants see roughly seven and six point differentials between the off-premises and dine-in, respectively (dine-in representing the lagged mix). In response, close to 90 percent of the company’s new units are built to its take-out and delivery-focused “Delco” model. And, as mentioned, Pizza Hut is trying to reconfigure its footprint to lean heavier into off-premises and lessen its “Red Roof” presence.

Programs like CPK’s pizza contest and certification training are essential to strengthening its sit-down model. With constant turnover, it becomes harder to deliver great customer service in-store.

In 2018, the turnover rate in the restaurants-and-accommodations sector rose to a post-recession high of 74.9 percent. It was the fourth straight year topping 70 percent, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. From 2015–2017, the rate for just restaurants averaged 81.9 percent. For comparison, it stood at 48.9 percent last year for all private sector workers.

Some industry estimates peg the figures even higher. Panera Bread CFO Michael Bufano told attendees at CNBC’s @Work Human Capital + Finance conference in July it was 130 percent, meaning brands turn over more than a full staff every year. Darden referenced the casual-dining figure at 120 percent recently.

So, for CPK, having plugged-in pizza aficionados is essential to its ability to differentiate in the marketplace. The same could be said for product innovation.

California Pizza Kitchen’s menu is vast, varied, and far from the common pizza joint.

Staying ahead of the pizza curve

At the end of September, CPK launched its most comprehensive marketing campaign to date, the company said. Along with agency Made, which specializes in brand transformation, CPK introduced “Mind Blown” across its channels. And it began with cauliflower pizza crust.

Sullivan says the ethos harkens back to 1985 when CPK started serving barbecue chicken pizza. The classic has barbecue sauce, smoked Gouda cheese, red onions, and fresh cilantro. “That was just unheard of then,” he says.

CPK said it was the first national restaurant brand to introduce cauliflower pizza crust when it hit stores in 2018. It was fitting then to curate an integrated ad campaign, including video, out-of-home, digital, and supporting media, around a product that reflected CPK’s history of innovation.

The ads feature brief vignettes in which people experience the pizza, resulting in a stalk of cauliflower that animates to explode in immersive fashion just above their heads. The videos were shot at a high frame so things could be slowed down to complement the animation, which was added in after.

Sullivan says CPK didn’t invent cauliflower crust. But he just felt the options available at the time were bland, cardboard-like, and unappealing. Some people order CPK’s version, he says, just for the taste. They’re not even focused on the health benefits. “The texture is great and it’s crispy on the bottom as well as light, and you don’t feel as though you’re eating a gluten-free type of crust,” he says. “For us, it’s really making sure we continue to develop around the flavor profile going forward.”

Having a robust menu is naturally an important lever for CPK to inspire visits and trial. Or to get customers to drop by when they’re at the mall. CPK offers a wide range of small plates you couldn’t find at a typical pizza joint, like Sticky Asian Cauliflower, White Corn Guacamole, and Crispy Mac ‘N’ Cheese. Appetizers go well beyond wings to Szechwan Chicken Dumplings and Avocado Club Egg Rolls. There’s five types of soups, eight salads, and a host of main plates that aren’t pizza, including Hearth-Roasted Halibut cooked on a cedar plank to Fire-Grilled Ribeye prepared with housemade Pinot Noir sea salt and topped with blue cheese compound butter. There’s six pastas (Kung Pao Spaghetti and Jambalaya Linguini Fini are two examples) and a line of “Power Bowls.” The latter have been around close to two years and are really an expansion on CPK’s salads, Sullivan says.

As you can see throughout, the brand is pushing global menu trends heavy and in ways local pizzerias couldn’t. And when you toss in 25 pizza options cooked in a 550-degree oven, CPK’s menu is about 70 items deep. That’s not including cocktails, mocktails, margaritas, five different types of sangria, and dessert.

Take And Bake Mushroom Pepperoni Sausage From California Pizza Kitchen

Take and Bake Mushroom Pepperoni Sausage pizza before it goes in the oven.

California Pizza Kitchen's Take And Bake Mushroom Pepperoni Sausage Pizza

And after.

Take and bake

However, even with a vast and varied menu (gluten-free crust can be ordered on any pizza as well), which inspires dine-in business, CPK isn’t sitting pat during the off-premises rush.

In August, the chain introduced CPK Take and Bake Pizzas for takeout and delivery nationwide. How it works is the brand’s pizza chefs cook the dough for about 30–40 seconds to let it set. They then cool it down, top it, and package the pizza in a plastic bag that’s placed on a cardboard circle to support it. It goes into a pizza box with cooking directions and handed to the customer or delivery driver.

Why it’s a big change from the norm, Sullivan says, is because guests get a piping hot pizza that mirrors the in-store experience more than any normal, previously cooked product could. It takes between 7–10 minutes to cook at home and comes out like you just got the item brought to the table. And the shelf life on these pizzas is up to 48 hours, which is a far cry from the rush-home-to-get-the-pizza-box-open method.

Recently, CPK conducted its third-annual “National Pizza Survey,” powered by The Harris Poll on behalf of the brand, and celebrated the results by giving away up to 10,000 Take and Bake Pizzas through Grubhub. Customers had to pick from one of the following options to participate: he Original BBQ Chicken Pizza, Pepperoni Pizza or Margherita Pizza.

Check out the results of the survey here

Sullivan says Take and Bake is one of the best off-premises experiences out there because of quality. He also thinks it could encourage some skeptics to try CPK for an off-premises occasion. Another possible attachment is in-store diners ordering one on their way out the door to enjoy later. It beats putting a once-hot pie in the refrigerator.

“It’s really a spectacular product,” he says. “It applies to all of our guests across the board.”

Casual Dining, Chain Restaurants, Delivery, Feature, Labor & Employees, Menu Innovations, California Pizza Kitchen