As part of my series about “How Business Leaders Plan To Rebuild In The Post COVID Economy,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Andrew Gruel, CEO and Founder of Huntington Beach, CA-based Slapfish Restaurant Group.
Known as a chef-driven modern seafood shack with fresh, sustainable seafood served in a casual setting, Slapfish has 26 locations in 10 states. Gruel has appeared on multiple television series including as a judge on Food Network’s “Chopped Junior” and “Food Truck Face Off.” In 2016 and 2017, he was named Top 25 Business Executives for Fast Casual magazine as well as featured in Nation’s Restaurant News’ 2017, 2018, 2019 Power List. Gruel is a husband and father of three.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
After graduating from Johnson & Wales University, I worked in finer dining, markets and upscale hotels for 10 years. My love of the ocean lead to directing a non-profit project at The Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, CA called “Seafood for the Future”. There, I worked with hundreds of chefs, fishermen and like-minded organizations establishing a national culinary awareness for the sustainable seafood movement, which later became the inspiration of Slapfish. What started as a whimsical food truck offering sustainable seafood from simple grilled fish to a decadent lobster roll, quickly drew a loyal following and was recognized with awards, then took off to opening brick and mortar restaurants.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
It feels like everything I did when I was first starting was a mistake, albeit not always funny. The one I remember most would have to be running out of gas in the carpool lane of the 405 Freeway when we still had a food truck. The lesson learned is not to let the details make you forget the basics. Side Note: this was great exposure for us, having shut down 5pm traffic on one of Southern California’s busiest freeways.
Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to, that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
Yes, I loved Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, by Chip and Dan Heath. This is a great book on marketing that has helped drive many of my business decisions, and I’ve referred to it over the years.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven business” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
My vision was the same when I began as it is today — get people to eat more of the right types of seafood. We are here to spread awareness about sustainable seafood and promote its health benefits, while also running a viable business.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
Nothing lasts forever. We can get so caught up in the moment sometimes — like right now with the pandemic — that we lose sight of the big picture and opportunities in front of us.
Thank you for all that. The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. For the benefit of empowering our readers, can you share with our readers a few of the personal and family related challenges you faced during this crisis? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
The challenges are real — we’re trying to keep the business afloat, and retain employees, all while homeschooling and adjusting our family and three kids to living in a Covid-world.
Can you share a few of the biggest work-related challenges you are facing during this pandemic? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
The biggest work challenge is continuing to drive revenue to keep people employed and keep the lights on. In the midst of any crisis, the instinct is to scale down and become as lean as possible. This is a slippery slope because the act of doing so can actually affect your business model, brand positioning, etc, and thus lead to a steeper downward spiral.
Some of my strategies to address these challenges have included being flexible with the business model, cross-training employees, focusing on all social promotion, partnering with other businesses, and simply staying real and authentic to the Slapfish brand.
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. What are a few ideas that you have used to offer support to your family and loved ones who were feeling anxious? Can you explain?
I tell people to limit how much they watch the news, get outside as often as possible for exercise and fresh air, and don’t get into fights on social media. The likelihood of changing people’s minds or winning an argument on social is probably 0%. The likelihood of getting anxiety trying to do so is 100%. Those aren’t great odds.
Obviously, we can’t know for certain what the Post-Covid economy will look like. But we can of course try our best to be prepared. We can reasonably assume that the Post-Covid economy will be a trying time for many people across the globe. Yet at the same time the Post-Covid growth can be a time of opportunity. Can you share a few of the opportunities that you anticipate in the Post-Covid economy?
I think there will be a decrease in real-estate prices, both commercial and residential. I also think we’ll see more cross-training of team members in the restaurant space, so the staff is more nimble and flexible moving forward. We’ll see more synergy across businesses, including cross-promotions and creative partnerships, as companies that aren’t in the same space form strategic alliances.
How do you think the COVID pandemic might permanently change the way we behave, act or live?
Hopefully this has forever removed business hugs, handshakes, standing too close to people, being lazy about hand washing, and being frivolous with money. This is causing a re-evaluation and re-adjustment of priorities for many people and businesses.
Considering the potential challenges and opportunities in the Post-Covid economy, what do you personally plan to do to rebuild and grow your business or organization in the Post-Covid Economy?
For Slapfish, it’s too soon to tell. Now is the time for us to stick to the initial business model, react with flexibility and get scrappy with expenses.
Similarly, what would you encourage others to do?
I’d suggest others do the same as we’re doing at Slapfish Restaurant Group; regardless of their size, businesses need to be flexible while remaining authentic and true to who they are, and remembering their original business model and goals.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Inside every challenge a is major opportunity. It’s up to “you” to find it and capitalize on it. The pandemic has been a textbook example of this. Companies of all sizes and industries have had to navigate the changing guidelines, and be nimble with employees and customers, all while facing various personal and professional challenges. We have to look for the opportunities and keep moving.
How can our readers further follow your work?
I’m active on social media and would love for readers to follow me on Twitter at @Chefgruel; on Instagram at @Andrewgruel and @slapfish; and on Facebook at @ChefAndrewGruel and @Slapfish.