Wall Street Journal Interview with CEOs or California Pizza Kitchen

According to the Wall Street Journal, “in 1985, after a grueling trial ended in a hung jury, criminal-defense lawyers Larry Flax and Rick Rosenfield decided to call it quits. The long-time business partners, then in their 40s, embarked on a radically different second career: Selling California-style pizza with unusual toppings, such as smoked gouda, cilantro and barbecued chicken. The verdict? Delicious, according to customers who mobbed the first location in Beverly Hills and prompted the lawyers-turned-restaurateurs to expand throughout Southern California. Today, publicly traded California Pizza Kitchen operates more than 250 restaurants in 33 states and nine countries; sells frozen products through Kraft Foods Inc.; and reports annual revenue of $677 million. Flax, 67 years old, and Rosenfield, 65, serve as co-CEOs.”

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Edited interview excerpts from the Journal follow:

Q. Tell me about the transition from law to pizza.

Rosenfield: We met in 1970 as federal prosecutors, and formed our own practice in 1973, Flax & Rosenfield. As criminal defense attorneys, primarily doing white-collar work, we traveled around America [eating in different cities]. That sparked our interest. Plus we both like to cook. We always had restaurant ideas, but clients kept giving us big retainers – dashing our restaurant dreams for awhile! Ultimately, we found it stressful to be defense attorneys.

Q. How did you decide on pizza?

Rosenfield: It actually started as a pasta concept I’d seen in Chicago. We checked out a similar restaurant in Glendale, Calif., and saw not-particularly-good pizza going around. But half the people were having a slice. Literally, that day, we said: ‘Let’s scrap the pasta and make it pizza.’

Flax: At that time, everybody was used to pizza made in [electric] deck ovens. We thought, what if we put one of those open-hearth ovens in the middle of a casual-dining restaurant? We thought it could be really cool.

Rosenfield: This was when California pizza as a concept was just starting, with Alice Waters at Chez Panisse up in Berkeley, and Wolfgang Puck at Spago.

Q. Where did you get your start-up capital?

Rosenfield: We put in $250,000 from our law practice, and thought we’d borrow the rest. But everybody was saying, ‘Two lawyers going into the pizza business? That’s crazy.’ The bankers were mortified.

Flax: And we might point out that we way underestimated what the restaurant was going to cost us.

Rosenfeld: So we decided to see if we could entice any friends into this. Our lawyer suggested we make them limited partners. We made 23 calls to family and friends, got 22 yeses, and raised $300,000.