California Pizza Kitchen Tries the Frozen Food Aisle

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In a 30-second television commercial filmed on the beach in Santa Monica, casually dressed California Pizza Kitchen co-founders Larry Flax and Rick Rosenfield mug for the cameras in a fast-paced spot touting their new line of frozen gourmet pizzas.

The pizzas, which made their debut Monday in Southern California supermarkets, will be promoted by a print and TV campaign that starts Nov. 1 and puts the outgoing duo back in the spotlight for the first time since they appeared in an American Express commercial nationwide five years ago.

Flax, Rosenfield and CPK were last in the national limelight in 1997, and then only briefly, when soft-drink giant PepsiCo Inc. sold its 67% stake in Los Angeles-based CPK to the New York investment firm of Bruckmann, Rosser, Sherrill & Co. Flax and Rosenfield own 24% of the company and are board co-chairmen.

The pair will be the focal point of the upcoming advertising campaign, which, as with the manufacturer of the pizza, is being handled by a unit of giant Kraft Foods Inc.

"The restaurant is clearly the personalities of both Rick and Larry," said Carlos Abrams-Rivera, senior brand manager for Illinois-based Kraft Pizza Co. "They have such passion in what they do and such a belief in their product that I think it is contagious, and it is easy for people to be attracted to that."

The television spot, developed with the Chicago advertising firm Foote, Cone & Belding, will run on cable TV in Southern California until at least early next year. The spot is hip and fast-paced, with the theme "Cool New Way to Pizza." Kraft wouldn't say how much it's spending on the campaign.

The introduction of the frozen pizza line, of which there are seven varieties, each selling for $4.99 at most major Southland grocery chains, faces strong competition from items from Los Angeles celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck. Puck introduced his line of frozen gourmet pizzas more than a decade ago, and his name is synonymous with trendy California cuisine.

Flax and Rosenfield are hoping to overcome any disadvantage by teaming with Kraft, the nation's largest maker of frozen pizzas, with 37% of the $2-billion market. Kraft "has fantastic sales distribution capability versus the way Wolfgang has tried to do it, which is pretty much on his own," said Ronald Paul, president of Technomic, a Chicago-based food industry consultant.

Kraft is making the pizzas under a licensing deal with CPK, which will get a small percentage of the pizzas' sales. CPK joins a parade of restaurants that are already selling their fare in supermarkets, including Puck's; Orange-based Marie Callender's; and Claim Jumper, El Torito and Taco Bell, all based in Irvine.

Officials at Santa Monica-based Wolfgang Puck Food Co., which produces 11 varieties of frozen gourmet pizzas, declined to comment on CPK's foray into supermarkets.

For Kraft, CPK will be the fourth brand of frozen pizza that the company makes and markets. The others are Tombstone, DiGiorno and Jack's Pizza, which is a regional brand sold in the Midwest.

Kevin Scott, general manager of Kraft Pizza Co., said he doesn't expect CPK to take away from the company's best-selling DiGiorno and Tombstone brands because the gourmet pizzas have vastly different toppings than the traditional pepperoni and sausage. "We think of ourselves as trying to [expand] the category," Scott said.

CPK's entry to the freezer aisle will mark the third time Kraft Foods has distributed the product of an established restaurant or coffee brand in supermarkets. The company markets a line of Mexican foods for Taco Bell and coffee for Seattle-based Starbucks Corp.

Among other things, Flax and Rosenfield are betting that the line will help boost sales at CPK restaurants, which saw sales at stores open at least a year--a key measure of growth--rise 6% last year.

In San Francisco, Sacramento and Atlanta, where the frozen pizzas were test marketed, sales at CPK restaurants grew an additional 2% to 3%, said Fred Hipp, CPK's chief executive.

CPK might be the newcomer in the grocery aisles, but its restaurant operations dwarf Puck's Wolfgang Puck Cafes, which include 11 in Southern California, 20 overall and annual sales estimated by Technomic at $52.8 million in 1998. CPK, by comparison, has 30 Southland eateries, 94 restaurants in 20 states and annual sales of $193 million, which includes franchises. Both Puck and CPK are privately owned and do not disclose profits.

Flax and Rosenfield, both former federal prosecutors who later went into private practice together, exchanged their briefcases for pizza dough and opened their first CPK in 1984 in Beverly Hills.

Since the 1997 sale of the company, Flax and Rosenfield have added 22 new restaurants and plan to add increase that number by about 20% annually, primarily in markets CPK has proved popular.

Notes

Interpublic Group of Cos. said it has settled a lawsuit lodged by former Western Initiative Media executive Michael Kassan, who sued the media giant in July, alleging breach of contract and defamation of character. Interpublic, the parent company of Western Initiative, and Kassan, formerly Western's president of U.S. operations, declined to comment on terms of the settlement. However, Interpublic said it had completed a regularly scheduled audit of the financial operations of Western and was satisfied with the results. Kassan earlier had alleged that the company was using the audit to look for evidence of wrongdoing that could be used to negate a long-term contract Kassan recently had signed. Kassan had sought $63.5 million in damages in two legal actions brought against Interpublic. (Greg Johnson)

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