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Slapfish touts boat-to-plate cuisine


Andrew Gruel, Food Network fame

Chef Andrew Gruel, top left, is putting his Food Network fame and sustainable fishing know-how behind the Slapfish chain.

You’ve heard of farm-to-table, but a new franchised seafood player has coined the term “boat-to-plate” to describe its responsibly sourced, seasonally shifting menu that’s designed to get Americans eating more seafood without harming global fisheries.

At Slapfish, a Huntington Beach, California-based upstart that began in 2011, the menu includes lobster fries, fish tacos, shrimp rolls and “clobster” grilled cheese—tomato, muenster, cucumber, crab, lobster and cabbage on sourdough—but don’t pay too much attention to the exact variety of fish that’s being served.

After an appearance on Food Network’s Food Truck Face Off, Chef Andrew Gruel rode a tidal wave of fame that allowed him to open his first brick-and-mortar location. With celebrity name recognition, food truck roots and an on-trend message about  seafood sustainability, Slapfish is hitting America’s food trends right in the butter-drenched gills.

“I still haven’t gotten out of that mentality of being a small bootstrap food truck-oriented startup,” Gruel says of the brand’s early success. “We’re popping out locations relatively quickly and there’s a lot in the pipeline, but we’re still very, very homegrown.”

Six years after launching the concept, Slapfish is up to eight locations, with plans to quickly expand across the West, in addition to planned units in the UK and South Korea.

As a child, Gruel watched PBS cooking shows like Yan Can Cook, Julia Child, Jacques Pépin and America’s Test Kitchen. Asked why seafood was a natural fit for the fast-casual space, he said the goal is getting more people eating the right types of seafood—an improvement for their health and aquatic ecosystems alike.

“I noticed there was a massive deficiency in the American diet when it comes to seafood,” he said. “I always had this passion project for seafood, the ocean, all of that, getting to know fishermen and the different species that were on the menu.”

In addition to restaurant experience, Gruel worked as a director for Seafood for the Future, a nonprofit based in Long Beach, California, where he educated chefs and consumers about healthier and more environmentally friendly seafood.

That experience proved many consumers couldn’t tell the difference between over-fished fish species and more sustainable alternatives. It was a “lightbulb moment,” he said, leading to the creation of the Slapfish concept.

Alluding to his time in the fine dining world, with a stint cooking at the Ritz Carlton in Boston, Slapfish’s menu includes shrimp ceviche, street tacos with “awesome sauce,” rice bowls, lobster and beef burgers that all appear to be a solid step above your local $9.99 seafood special.

It opened a unit in Terminal 2 of the Los Angeles International Airport in 2015, and hopes to replicate that success in similar locations like transit centers and universities.
“I developed the menu on a foundation of choose the fish, not the dish,” he said. “They’re not coming to eat a salmon taco in particular … the fish on the taco can change.”

As Slapfish moves to international markets, its menus will reflect what’s available and sustainable in those markets, while shifting with the seasons and ever-changing fish stocks like its existing locations in the U.S.

After his first foray into the Middle East with a location in Dubai that has since closed, Gruel says he’s learned more about franchising, international expansion and that market, in particular, so he feels more confident about his next round of overseas units.

In the U.S. he’s eyeing top-tier markets like Chicago, New York, LA and Miami, but also smaller markets like Minneapolis or Cleveland. A recently signed deal in Utah may eventually expand to include six states in the region. Adding it all up, Gruel expects to finish up 2017 with a total of 20 locations in three states and three countries.

While he doesn’t want Slapfish to be compared with Long John Silver’s, Gruel listed Shake Shack, Bluewater Grill and Tender Greens as some of the brand’s most notable competitors.

Gruel said the difference between his concept and a lot of others is that he “bootstrapped it” by maxing out his credit card to lease the first food truck that got Slapfish rolling.

“There’s a void in the market for good, high quality seafood that has a story behind it,” he said. “It fortifies the brand and makes us that much stronger.”

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