Andrew Gruel’s mission is to redefine the seafood dining experience.

The co-founder and executive chef of Slapfish, a fast-casual restaurant with two locations in Orange County, Calif., one in Dubai and more to come, started with a food truck in 2010, gradually expanded to four trucks and then opened the first Slapfish in Huntington Beach, Calif., a year later.

A native of New Jersey, Gruel went to college in Maine and worked as a lobsterman to make money. He was drawn to restaurants, studied at Johnson & Wales University’s Denver campus and worked at seafood restaurants ranging from beach-side shacks to the Ritz-Carlton in Boston before heading to Southern California. Now he runs Slapfish, as well as Slapfish Trading, which buys and processes seafood.

As Gruel prepares to expand his business, he discussed his plans and upcoming seafood trends with Nation’s Restaurant News.

You say you’re trying to bring seafood to the masses in a whole new way. What’s unique about what you’re doing?

In my opinion, the seafood dining experience is kind of bland and boring, especially in the fast-casual world. We see the burger concepts are hot, pizza concepts, chicken concepts, but there’s really nothing for seafood except for your kind of greasy, uninspired seafood. We said, ‘Look, let’s make seafood sexy again — really do an approachable, affordable seafood,’ and the way we can do that is to buy either directly from the source or as close to that as possible. So we lumped in a trading company into the business model so we can cut out the middleman and have the right prices for the right quality as well.



Then you get [into] the whole sustainability conversation. That’s big with what we do, working with a lot of local aquariums. I previously started a sustainable seafood program with the Aquarium of the Pacific [in Long Beach, Calif.], the third largest aquarium in the country. We started that program in 2008, got a grant to do that, and that’s how I kind of morphed into this. We started as a food truck, actually, because raising money for a restaurant in 2010 was laughable.

At that time there were about eight gourmet food trucks in Orange County. We bought an old taco truck. Day one, the truck breaks down on the 405 and we’re in the carpool lane, where we shouldn’t have been, at 5 p.m.

But I think that was good, at least for brand awareness and positioning. It completely took off. We went from one truck to four trucks, including one for catering and one in L.A. Ultimately they all broke down in a four- to five-month period and we bought an old bagel shop. We started with only like six items on the menu and four tables, and gradually expanded as we could afford to.

Describe your approach to the menu.

We do our own unique twists on comfortable dishes. We have a from-scratch made lobster hot dog. We wrap it in bacon, smother it in peppers and onions. We do a chowder fry, which is our version of a poutine. We do lobster grilled cheese, [and we] make all of our own tater tots from scratch. We work with [Huntington Beach High School]; the students grow a lot of our vegetables, and we just started an aquaponics program with them. It’s a fully integrated system: We grow tilapia and all the effluent goes back in the beds to fertilize the vegetables. So we’ve got 16-, 17- and 18-year-olds doing that for us. We’ll process the fish, serve it in our restaurants and let that system grow as much as we possibly can. We haven’t harvested yet. We’ll harvest in about four months.

How long does it take to raise tilapia?

Four to six months. We’re also considering doing carp. Mark my words, you’re going to see blue carp on menus soon. That’s going to be the new hot fish.

Why?

It’s incredibly invasive. It’s taking over the Chesapeake Bay right now. You’re seeing a lot of that in different fisheries in the U.S., where these invasive species are taking over and the National Marine Fisheries are putting like a bounty out for chefs to serve these fish. Lion fish, too.

That’s great. You feel morally good by eating this fish that doesn’t belong where it is.

Exactly.