California Pizza Kitchen EVP Natalia Franco

Franco (Image: Coast PR)

California Pizza Kitchen celebrated 30 years in the restaurant business last March, and the brand rolled out the Next Chapter Initiative as a roadmap to its future. SmartBrief interviewed Executive Vice President and Chief Strategy and Brand Officer Natalia Franco on how the brand is innovating with an eye toward the future and what she’s learned as a leader in the food and beverage industry.

What is CPK’s Next Chapter initiative, and how does it set up the brand for future growth?

California Pizza Kitchen celebrated its 30th anniversary this past March and introduced its vision for its next 30 years, which we call our “next chapter.” CPK’s Next Chapter transformation takes the best of the company’s history and soul — grounded foremost in innovation — and makes it relevant to today’s consumer. This includes an elevated culinary experience through continuous food and beverage innovation, a world-class hospitality model and renovating CPK’s domestic locations with a fresh, contemporary look using natural elements and sustainable materials.

Our “Next Chapter” menu emphasizes the freshest ingredients, seasonality and premium mains beyond our signature artisan pizzas. Highlights include wild-caught Alaskan Halibut roasted in the pizza oven, a Fire-Grilled Ribeye with bleu cheese butter and housemade pinot noir sea salt, healthful grains like farro and quinoa, shareable flatbreads and seasonal dishes. Beverage innovation includes a new menu of hand-crafted cocktails and sangrias that feature premium alcohols, fresh fruits, juices, purees and herbs, an expanded wine list and local craft beers. The hearth oven and open kitchen are the center of our restaurant, where guests can watch their meals prepared from scratch, using the freshest ingredients.

CPK is reinvigorated and more relevant than ever to the consumer today. CPK’s transformation is fueling growth in sales and guest counts, and our perception scores are up on experience, quality, taste and value.

As of today half of our system has been transformed to feature our Next Chapter look and menu. Based on our success we are accelerating the Next Chapter menu roll-out to the remainder of the system, which will be complete March 31.

CPK’s first Next Chapter restaurant in Washington, D.C., incorporates two major restaurant trends with its more rustic atmosphere and focus on seasonal menu items. What are some of the ways consumers’ expectations about dining out have changed during your time in the industry, and how can restaurant brands ensure they change with the times and remain relevant?

Our guests have sophisticated palates, and they expect brands to cater to them on a personal, intimate level and to deliver a worthwhile experience through quality, unique food and exceptional service, at a cost-effective price. Restaurant brands need to be able to listen and adapt to evolving consumer expectations in order to remain relevant. For CPK, that meant going back to our roots and what made the brand so loved in the first place — a focus on innovative ingredients and flavor combinations served up with a relaxed, California feel — and updating our offerings on, and ahead of, trends. This includes hand-tossing our dough and using elevated ingredients like California olive oil and wild Greek oregano to finish our pizzas, offering premium proteins like wild-caught Alaskan halibut and salmon roasted on a cedar plank, developing multiple, delicious meal options under 650 calories, incorporating healthful grains like farro and quinoa, expanding our wine list and introducing hand-crafted cocktails using premium liquors, fresh fruits and herbs.

What is the most important leadership lesson you’ve learned while working in the restaurant industry?

CPK EVP, Chief Strategy and Brand Officer Natalia Franco

(Image: Recite.com)

A significant portion of my career was spent in consumer packaged goods. The restaurant business is different on many fronts, but especially in that the product — the dining experience — is produced seven days a week in a very fast-paced environment, with many contributing factors: the quality and uniqueness of the food and beverage offering, the hospitality experience, the setting, dining in, take out, ordering from a delivery partner and so on. Ensuring the success and strength of the brand and our offering to the consumer requires consistency in operation, execution and clear communication, and cross-functional alignment and leadership across all functions is critical.

 How has your leadership style evolved over the years?

Strategic vision as well as inclusion, recognition and empowerment are keys to successful leadership. Providing a clear vision and developing well-articulated strategies helps your teams to stay focused. An inclusive leadership style, empowerment and recognition I’ve found help to keep teams engaged and highly motivated.

What advice would you give to others looking to become leaders in the industry?

Think creatively, explore new avenues and stretch the thinking of those around you. Don’t be afraid to challenge the status quo. Explore the marketplace and understand your consumer and competition thoroughly. Learn from brands within and outside of your industry.

Work collaboratively among cross-functional teams, and bring your customers and vendors into the fold.

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