March 13, 2000 12:00 PM

Larry Flax couldn’t wait to sink his teeth into a bacon, lettuce and tomato pizza. But when he and wife Joni were shown to their table a mere 20 minutes after arriving at the California Pizza Kitchen in the San Fernando Valley one recent evening, he wasn’t entirely pleased. “I had hoped,” he says, “that I’d have to wait an hour.”

Flax is no masochist. One of two former defense lawyers who founded the 97-restaurant California Pizza Kitchen chain in 1985, he simply likes to see proof that his joints are jumping. Since Flax and Rick Rosenfield, his partner and best pal, gave up the legal life to make their anything-goes creations (toppings include barbecue chicken and grilled garlic shrimp), business has expanded to 20 states plus Washington, D.C., and to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia; Manila; and Singapore. The pair hope to take the company public soon. “Our goal was to make gourmet-style pizza for everyone,” says Rosenfield. “I think we’ve made good inroads.”

Not to mention incomes. Rosenfield, 53, shares houses in tony Brentwood and Palm Desert, Calif., with his wife of 22 years, Esther, 50, a former flight attendant, and daughters Nicole, 18, and Dana, 13. “In this age of Internet billionaires, I can’t say we’re enormously rich,” he insists—but CPK does gross $200 million annually. (Pepsico bought 67 percent of the company for $100 million in 1992, then sold out to a New York investment firm in 1997; Flax and Rosenfield own 24 percent.) More important, says Flax, 56, who occupies a $6 million Beverly Hills mansion with Joni, 58, a decorator, “we’re having fun.”

Both money and fun were a long time coming. The future piecoons met in 1970, when Flax, the Los Angeles-raised son of an advertising executive and a sometime actress, was putting his University of Southern California law degree to use in an $8,500-a-year job as a prosecutor in the U.S. attorney’s office in L.A. The son of a lawyer and a homemaker, Rosenfield—who grew up in Chicago and graduated from DePaul University Law School—had just joined the office. “We were living very low on the hog,” says Flax with a grin. “We would go to bars after work, nurse one drink each and talk about opening a restaurant.”

The avid cooks opted for a surer bet first, opening a law practice together in 1973. More than a decade later, fed up with the profession’s long hours and inspired by the rage for Wolfgang Puck’s gourmet pizzas at celeb hot-spot Spago, Flax and Rosenfield decided to fold their practice and give the pies a try. Banks were wary, but the pair wangled a $200,000 loan and $300,000 more from investors. “Ten minutes after we opened, the place was full,” Rosenfield says. Knowing the right people didn’t hurt: Actress Jane Seymour, a friend and investor, waited tables opening night, and Shirley MacLaine was their first customer.

Yet it’s not star power that the two—who maintain a strict no-reservations policy—credit with their success. With the exception of Bill Clinton, who jumped to the head of the line when he dropped into the D.C. restaurant for a tandoori-chicken pizza in 1995, celebs get no special treatment. “I stand in line,” says Jane Seymour, who favors Thai-chicken pie. Says Flax: “Dustin Hoffman came two hours early to hold tables for his son’s birthday party.”

The founders say the food itself—priced at a family-friendly $8.99 for the typical large pie—is the secret. “When we create, say, a Philly cheese-steak topping, we’re trying to nail [the flavors] you already have in your head,” explains Flax, who collaborates with Rosenfield on every combo. (Their menu offers 25.) “We look for food Americans really want to eat.” Not that they’re always on the money. The egg-salad pizza “didn’t last,” says Rosenfield, and Flax’s cheeseburger topping never made it after Rosenfield decided “it made you want to go get a cheeseburger,” Flax says. Adds Rosenfield: “Larry loves creating. I’m good at telling him what will work.”

But both are good at golf, which they play together every week or two. “We never get sick of each other,” Rosenfield says. They would, however, tire of resting on their laurels. “We could be sitting in a California Pizza Kitchen in Rome in five years,” muses Flax. “When we have the guts to sell pizza to Italy—that’s when we’ll really know we made it.”

Kim Hubbard

John Hannah in Los Angeles

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