Over the years I've certainly set the tone for being less than a fan of corporate restaurants. Chain restaurants with their scripts, mass produced specials and cookie cutter designs have long been the bane of my existence. I've never been secretive or discreet about how I feel about unimaginative menu design and robotic service, usually accompanied by a hefty price tag.
The more you get to know the hard work and passion independent restaurant and bar owners put into their businesses, the less you will like corporate restaurants. There is nothing ground breaking about restaurants that don't allow someone with the title of Executive Chef to create and alter their own menus, or Bar Managers to customize cocktail lists.
Recently I was contacted by the corporate office at California Pizza Kitchen inviting me to a re-branding event they were having at their Arden Fair location. To say I wasn't interested would be the understatement of the century. However after going back and forth with them for a short while via email, I decided to take them up on their offer. While I told myself I was going into it with an open mind, I was in all sincerity looking for an opportunity to put them on blast.
We arrived for our reservation and the restaurant was packed, which we expected. We gave the hostess my name- it was on her list, but had no accompanying notes. Now, not only was I at a restaurant I really had no interest in visiting, but I was now picturing having to explain to a server, then a manager that I was invited there on a full comp. Delightful.
When a restaurant invites me in and offers to buy me dinner I am very clear on the fact my article will be based on the events that take place during the visit and not free food. I was already a tad apprehensive about the fact they knew we were coming. When I'm expected, all authenticity disappears and a raw, unrehearsed experience is compromised.
We sat at a large communal table after being relocated from a claustrophobic table for two by the window. The first thing we noticed was the décor. Much of the artwork reflects Sacramento. The restaurant has gone from carpets to wood floors and the bar is made from recycled wood from bars all across America. For anyone who had ever been to a CPK before, you know the bar concept itself is a new one as they recently were all beer and wine only.
We ordered some drinks and starters from our server Ashley who, for the record had a personality, knowledge of her surroundings and great timing. If I were to stop typing right now, I would at least have to let everyone know our experience with Ashley was nothing less than refreshing.
Like most other locals, when I think of CPK I think of the now defunct Midtown location which never really fit in. As a matter of fact, most of the community feels there is no place for a corporate restaurant in the downtown/midtown area and I don't disagree. Recently McCormick & Schmick's closed its doors at its downtown location and not one solitary member of the community has shed a tear. If the writing weren't already on the wall, apparently Claim Jumper has decided to roll the dice and open up a store at the old McCormick's locale. I see no reason to believe their fate will be any different from their predecessors.
This particular CPK at Arden Fair is one of only three in the country currently undergoing the re-branding process. The metamorphosis consists of changes to the aesthetics, menu, bar and almost everything else associated with the old concept. Originally CPK made its mark as the first restaurant to feature a barbeque chicken pizza. According to Regional Director Eric Stewart, (who actually sat with us for most of our visit) the restaurant is trying to get back to its roots. In 1985 California Pizza Kitchen opened up and quickly gained a reputation for being a hip, trendy place to get a good pizza. Most people will tell you the dream when you own a good restaurant is to have it replicated. Admittedly, CPK like many others lost its way in the massive growth process over the years.
On this night, I was supposed to order a few items and the kitchen was supposed to surprise me with some. After about 45 minutes I asked Ashley what was coming out next and something wonderful happened, she had no clue what I was talking about. Normally not knowing what the program was supposed to be would infuriate me but Ashley not “getting the memo” that I was coming in put the authenticity right back on the table. It means she's always “that” good of a server and the appetizers are always “that” delicious and had nothing to do with someone who was sitting there to write an article.
Some of the changes on the menu are the addition of flatbreads and items called “Lite Adventures”, consisting of items sitting at around 650 calories. The dough is new, the oven temps are higher and the sugar content on the menu is lower, the restaurant is also concentrating on fresher ingredients and an overall more sustainable product. The bar features a craft cocktail list, local micro brews and a wine list with wines that ALL come from California which are all served in the proper glassware. They are even among the few places in town serving wine on tap.
Other changes include the uniform because as of recent, there is none. Staff members are allowed to wear their own clothing which is almost never seen in chain environments. Probably the most notable fact in this entire article is that CPK relocated every employee at the location which closed down in Midtown Sacramento (with the exception of one who did not want to leave the downtown area). During a time when it is a documented fact corporate restaurants usually shut their doors with zero notice to employees, you have to admit it was very classy of this corporate restaurant to show its human side by placing their employees at other locations to ensure everyone had a job.
We tasted the Spicy Chicken Quesadilla, Pear Gorgonzola Pizza, Chicken Tequila Fettuccine and Sesame Ginger Chicken Dumplings. The flavors were all fresh and vibrant and the presentations well put together. All of the items which advertised being spicy were but were never over the top, nothing was drowned in sauce or salted to death. Truth be told, everything we had was delicious.
Have I changed my tune as far as corporate restaurants? No, I have not. If I could be turned around completely after one visit after stating my case with such conviction for so many years I would be nothing short of a hypocrite.
What I will say is, I am forever on the hunt for corporate restaurants that can change my mind. California Pizza Kitchen is the closest to get there. I can tell you that as a company, they are doing the right things, doing their homework and putting the pieces into place. I wish them luck on the long road ahead and would recommend they stay the course. There are good things coming out of the Arden Location which I can respect, and most importantly, everything I experienced during my visit was sincere, nothing cookie cutter about it.