CPK’s founders enjoy continued success 26 years after opening their first restaurant.
Best friends for four decades, Larry Flax and Rick Rosenfield successfully partnered in both a high-end law practice and an innovative restaurant chain.
The pair met at the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Los Angeles in the early 1970s. Flax, who had earned his JD and master’s in criminal law from the University of Southern California, was chief of the Civil Rights Division. Rosenfield, a DePaul University College of Law grad who began his career at the Department of Justice in Washington, D.C., prosecuted special fraud cases.
Before too long, they opened a private practice—Flax and Rosenfield, Inc.—specializing in federal criminal defense. Landing most of their clients through referrals from other lawyers, Flax and Rosenfield traveled nationwide trying cases.
“We both liked the law; we had an exciting practice,” Rosenfield recalls. “We also both loved to cook and always wanted to open a restaurant; but we kept getting interrupted by clients with big retainers.”
Often in Miami for work, the pair befriended a hotel owner who asked Flax and Rosenfield for help creating menu items. “He was a motivating force” in inspiring the duo to get serious about the restaurant business, Rosenfield says.
In 1984, the lawyers tried a multi-month case in San Francisco, keeping Rosenfield away from his young daughter and furthering his desire for a career change. Meanwhile, he visited a pasta cafeteria in Chicago, proving that modernizing traditional foods was an emerging trend. That year, Flax and Rosenfield shuttered their law practice and opened California Pizza Kitchen (CPK) in Beverly Hills.
“We took a foot off first before we could steal second,” Rosenfield says. “Once we opened CPK, we never got another client referral. Luckily, the restaurant was an instant success.”
Innovative combinations like Thai and BLT pizzas fueled the frenzy. And CPK’s hearth baking produces a unique crust, akin to artisan bread, with a smokiness that permeates unexpected toppings like pears, bean sprouts, and BBQ chicken.
According to Rosenfield, CPK’s success was due in no small part to the pair’s legal past. “We had credibility, reasoning skills, and an ability to raise money from people who trusted us.” Being trial lawyers, especially, helped: “We were skilled at the decision-making process; we could see both sides.”
For his part, Flax says their training provided a valuable “futuristic” view of the world: “Being able to see cause and effect enables you to make better decisions earlier.” Plus, thanks to their experience handling rogue witnesses on the stand, they learned to be “very unreadable,” which has aided them in business negotiations.
Twenty-six years after opening, CPK now has 15,000 employees and 268 locations, including places like Indonesia and United Arab Emirates. Not surprisingly, “legal issues come up every day,” Rosenfield says. “We sure can cut it with the lawyers.”
For example, in the early 1990s, restaurant non-smoking sections were hotly debated. “Our legal training provided us an understanding of where it was all going,” Flax recalls. “We realized that it was not about customers but about employees, and it proved true. We made national news by becoming the first national restaurant chain to ban smoking altogether.”
When asked whether they are still involved in the law, Rosenfield quips, “Yeah, we try to keep the lawyers at bay.” Legal fees aside, dropping the law for the restaurant biz, he says, was “definitely a lucrative decision.”