By Taryn Sauer
When Chef Andrew Gruel left the East Coast for the West, he always had plans to go back. But once his time ended at Seafood for the Future – a two-year grant project, which raised
awareness of well-managed seafood – life, again, anchored him on the Pacific.
He had a food truck business in the making and his current Chef/Partner Jesse manned the wheel — a venture that would prove to be very
Slapfish was one of the first fast casual concepts to offer a solely seafood menu to Southern California. It was also part of the first wave of food trucks to hit the streets, forever changing the way we see fast-casual cuisine.
“When we started the truck…it was a lot more cultish and we didn’t know what to expect,” Chef Andrew said. “We had real culinarians running the food truck. It was kind of unique that we were pulling this off in a food truck.”
One truck became another, and within a year, Slapfish got its first brick-and-mortar location in Huntington Beach. But getting there wasn’t without its fair share of challenges. Profit yields were slow to grow, often breaking even; maintaining the same number of trucks was difficult; and the first lease fell through. Still, they continued to serve seafood under the same ethics of sustainability, never compromising quality and always delivering new and approachable menu items.
Since 2012, Slapfish has grown to include eight franchises spanning from California to Texas with plans to nearly double by the end of 2017. By next year, Slapfish plans to service 40 plus locations across the UK and South Korea.
Even so, Chef Andrew won’t claim the role of ground-breaker — though it can’t be denied that he played a part in changing the game for the way restaurants and consumers approach fish in Orange County. With the fast-casual market completely saturated by burgers and the like, providing high-caliber seafood in a cost-friendly style filled a niche market that needed to be permeated. Slapfish’s growth speaks to his strategic and opportunistic sensibilities, but he still declares himself a dishwasher.
“I’m not kidding,” he said. “Regarding growth and all that, that’s the team. I’ve surrounded
myself with a lot of people who are smarter than I (I know that’s a cliché, but it’s true). When it comes to the dishwashing element, that’s legit and let me tell you why: when you’re in my role, you’re putting out fires [so you may have to move à la minute. The dish pit] is the best mobile office — it’s the car dashboard.”
No matter the title, Chef Andrew’s business mind frame has yielded an international franchise and two new concepts, Two Birds and Butterleaf, that are soon to go global as well. His approach to each concept is specialization. Two Birds brings high-quality and responsibly-raised, fried chicken to the fast-casual scene; as does Butterleaf, which elevates vegetarian cuisine, packing it full of flavor, uniting veggie and meat-lovers alike.
As for the future, he wants to get into the burger industry as well, saying that chefs like to
try their hand at everything. He already has a notyet- launched concept in the works — Roll in the Wall — a no-seating, window operation serving a fresh take on the lobster roll, with only shrimp, crab and lobster on the menu.
Although still based on California’s West Coast, Chef Andrew’s culinary adventures spread
eastward, across the Atlantic and further west across the Pacific. These concepts will
undoubtedly stir up even more menu variations and Orange County will be lucky enough to call itself home to more specialized cuisines that mix quality, value and sustainability with comfort.
From the Chef’s Mouth
KITCHEN GADGET OR TOOL Garlic Press
KITCHEN APPLIANCE Coffee Grinder
SPICE Chinese Long Pepper
DISH TO EAT Bear Flag Poke
JUNK FOOD BBQ Potato Chips
RAW INGREDIENT Broccoli
FAST FOOD Taqueria Mexico
HOURS YOU WORK IN A WEEK 80
FIRST JOB Washing dishes
FIRST INTEREST IN THE HOSPITALITY
INDUSTRY My bottomless stomach
YEARS OF CULINARY EDUCATION 2
BIGGEST MYTH ABOUT WORKING IN THE
KITCHEN We eat a lot
FAMOUS CHEFS YOU’VE MET All chefs are famous
CULINARY HEROES & WHY Pastry Chefs – Its
much harder work than people think.
BIGGEST CULINARY INFLUENCE & WHY All my cooks. They always teach me to be a better line cook and that is real cooking.
3 WORDS THAT BEST DESCRIBE YOUR CULINARY STYLE Simple, Clean, Spicy
3 WORDS THAT BEST DESCRIBE YOUR MANAGEMENT STYLE Watch, Listen, Learn
BEST ADVICE FOR STUDENTS INTERESTED IN THE HOSPITALITY AND CULINARY INDUSTRY Get a job cooking or washing dishes before school
PLACES TRAVELED TO EXPLORE & LEARN ADDITIONAL CUISINES Croatia, Turkey, Ukraine, Bulgaria, Italy, Germany
CHEF ANDREW GRUEL