California Pizza Kitchen opened a unit of its new prototype Wednesday in a Canoga Park, Calif., mall, part of the casual-dining chain’s continuing evolution.

The Westfield Topanga Mall restaurant features a new design that aims for a relaxed atmosphere and features a prominent bar area and updated menu.

The new location marks a step forward for the once-struggling casual-dining chain, which went private in 2011 after an acquisition by private-equity firm Golden Gate Capital for $470 million.

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The new unit is actually a relocation. CPK had a unit for 20 years outside a part of the mall that is under redevelopment. Rather than close and wait to go into a lifestyle center planned by Westfield next door, California Pizza Kitchen Inc. chief executive G. J. Hart said the company decided to experiment with the new look inside the mall in a sunlit atrium near a busy Apple store.

“Typically Apple stores generate a lot of traffic, and that’s our kind of guest profile, so it seems to make sense,” said Hart.

The new design debuted in December 2012 at a new flagship location in Sunrise, Fla., at the Sawgrass Mills mall. Hart said that unit has surpassed initial highs. “We’re very, very happy with it,” said Hart. “Sales are trending higher than our average unit volumes, even considering the typical honeymoon curve.”

Though CPK is still tweaking elements of the new look, Hart said the company is moving forward with a remodeling plan to bring the fresh design to existing restaurants. About 13 restaurants will be remodeled this year, and Hart said slow growth is planned for the 270-unit chain, likely starting in 2014 with “a handful” of new units.

Like many casual-dining brands, CPK was hit hard during the recession, partly because about 70 percent of its restaurants are located in and around malls, which saw shopping traffic dramatically decline. Going forward, Hart said CPK will look for a mix of locations between malls, lifestyle centers and some freestanding restaurants.

The new restaurant is about 5,400 square feet, which is typical for the chain. Hart said down the road the chain will look at developing smaller 4,000- to 5,000-square-foot restaurants that could open up more real estate options.

“We haven’t historically gone into what I would call second-tier markets. We’re typically in big urban markets,” he said. “But we may go into those second-tier markets and give it a shot with a smaller box. That’s yet to be determined.”

Aiming to build bar sales

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The new restaurant is the first to offer a separate bar located in the mall’s interior corridor, outside the unit entrance. The move is an experiment that company officials hope will enhance efforts to build bar sales.

With the new look, CPK will create bar areas that are separate from the dining room, Hart said.

Historically, CPK’s bar sales have been lackluster, in single digits, offering an opportunity, Hart said. “We don’t want to alienate our core family guests, but we do want to provide an environment for you to come in for a glass of wine and some meatballs if you’re out and about. That goes back to that California mindset, the relaxed atmosphere.”

In Canoga Park, CPK is also testing a bar menu that includes new flatbreads and other small-plate items, like a spicy chicken tinga quesadilla, housemade fennel-sausage meatballs served with grilled ciabatta bread, and white corn guacamole and chips.

The chain is rolling out other enhancements to its beverage menu, including a shift from Pepsi to Coca-Cola as the soda supplier, the addition of craft beers, new wine flight options, signature cocktails and a sangria platform that Hart said is “off the charts” in sales.

“What that tells us is that people want something different from us that’s fresh,” Hart said. “Our sales for sangria are up more than significantly, so we know we have that potential.

A focus on better ingredients

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With the opening, the Los Angeles-based company revealed a planned rollout of new menu items, including flatbreads and upgraded artisan-style pizzas. And by mid-August, all locations will return to hand-tossed pizzas after years of serving pies made from mechanically pressed dough.

Last year, the company streamlined its core menu, removing about 25 items from the 100 on the lineup. A renewed focus on pizza is key to the menu revamp.

With the redesign, the pizza bars are more prominent, allowing guests to sit at the counter and watch chefs stretch and toss the dough before baking.

The crust recipe has been reworked, said Brian Sullivan, CPK’s senior vice president of culinary innovation. “The new dough is slightly less sweet and more light, crispy and airy,” he said.

Guests can choose between traditional, thin crust and a honey-whole wheat version. Soon, CPK will offer a celiac-safe gluten-free crust, he said.

In addition to new seasonal pizzas, like one with bacon and Brussels sprouts, existing pizzas are getting an upgrade.

The new-and-improved pepperoni, for example, will include two types of meat — a thin, hand-torn Caprese-style, along with a thicker-cut traditional version — both fresh and traditional mozzarella, and a sprinkle of organic dried Greek oregano. Guests can request a drizzle of white truffle oil for $1.50 more.

Hart said the chain is also testing a new lobster pizza. “We’re doing lots of things around pizza to get out front and creative,” he said.

In addition to the menu changes, CPK has switched to heavier flatware and higher-end wine glasses, along with “tree-free” napkins made from sugar cane — all elements that elevate the experience, said Hart. “We’ve always done a great job round food, but we want to step it up a bit,” he said.

The chain also launched a new loyalty program in April with a mobile app that lets guests check in at the restaurant, earn rewards and check account balances. Hart said the company will test a mobile payment system and other technologies.

The chain is developing a comprehensive marketing plan to communicate the changes, but Hart isn’t ready to start bragging just yet.

“We want to have done some of this before we start talking about it,” Hart said. “With this many restaurants and this much change, it takes a while to get it done. You don’t want to disappoint people by thinking they’re coming into a new look when it’s the existing look.”

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