Slapfish founder Andrew Gruel is leveraging his growing online presence to help restaurant industry workers—and to fill a void in what he’s provocatively called the absence of a functioning government.
The chef and restaurateur owns the Huntington Beach-based sustainably-minded seafood restaurant Slapfish, now at 27 locations.
He is also founder of two food-hall focused concepts, Big Parm in Tustin’s Mess Hall and Two Birds in Irvine’s Trade.
Gruel has also reached influencer status, with a Twitter following of 60,500 and some 46,700 followers on Instagram as of last week, giving him powerful platforms to be heard.
On Dec. 10, he started a GoFundMe campaign, promoting it online with an initial goal of raising $5,000 to $10,000 for out-of-work restaurant employees.
He and his wife, Lauren Gruel, have already surpassed that, raising over $227,000 as of early last week with a revised goal now of $1 million.
They’ve gotten some big donations in the short amount of time the fundraiser’s been open, including $25,000 from serial entrepreneur and host of reality TV show “The Profit” Marcus Lemonis, former Major League Baseball player Kevin Youkilis and Florida Representative Anthony Sabatini.
“My wife and I have always given to people in the industry,” Gruel said. “Owning multiple restaurants, workers become family and we’ve leant a helping hand. Many times, it’s been through the business and other times personally just us. It wasn’t until the coronavirus and the effects it’s had on the restaurant and bar industry specifically is where we galvanized this idea.”
The couple, in dispersing the funds from the GoFundMe campaign, has already funneled money to over 200 people totaling north of six figures, Gruel said. The funds are being given in amounts ranging from $500 to $1,000 to help out-of-work restaurant employees with rent, medical payments, childcare and other expenses.
Gruel’s got longer term plans, too.
He intends to start a nonprofit organization. He initially looked to call it the 601 Project—a tongue-in-cheek name he said was a critique of the $600 stimulus Congress approved last month.
However, he said the organization’s name is likely to be 86 Restaurants Struggle, the 86 being code in the industry for when something’s run out.
The GoFundMe’s aim, Gruel said, will eventually be transitioned into this formal 501(c)(3).
“The objective [of the nonprofit] will be the same,” he said. “Let’s be honest, this is also an ongoing issue, right? Especially in California where you have a lot of workers, and I don’t want to press on a political issue, but when you have workers who maybe are afraid to go to the government and file for unemployment benefits. Sometimes they don’t have anywhere to go. So, we want to help people who need a little bit of a leg up, but also if they need assistance navigating through the unemployment system, too. We want to be a real non-governmental agency that can help people to just get to the next step when they’re in crisis.”
Issues With Politicians
The business owner first made waves in December with strong words for Gov. Gavin Newsom and other politicians after some elected officials were caught dining out, going in conflict with their own policies.
A tweet by Gruel saying he would actively defy the order went viral and also got him heavy media coverage that continues.
He said he’s not talking as much about that, saying it was never his intent for that to get as many views, forwards and likes as it did.
“I probably shouldn’t have been so emotional about that in the beginning,” he said in retrospect. “I’ve decided to just shut up and, really, all of my energy and focus is going into this [fundraiser].”
He said if he had a chance to speak with the governor, he’d suggest a phone call in hopes of talking through a plan he has on how to get the restaurant industry back on its feet.
“I think it’s a little bit of everything; it’s a comprehensive approach,” he said. “Local agencies should start acting like consultants and not like police. The OC Health Department could work with us, whether it’s a weekly email to restaurants communicating ‘Here’s what we saw. Here’s what we suggest.’ I wish the city agencies were working with us. It feels a lot more like they’re policing now and there’s a division that I don’t think is helpful for anybody on either side. I think we need a lot more assistance financially.”
He also, like others, critiqued the current delivery infrastructure for the restaurant industry, which shaves off already slim margins for operators. If municipalities, he said, could come together for a commission-free delivery platform that would help.
For Gruel’s businesses, he said he was able to bring all of his workers back with the creation of new dishes or promotions, such as kids eat free at Slapfish, which may not create sales but does generate work for employees.
“We’ve been pounding the pavement on just marketing,” he said.
Gruel and his wife have largely handled marketing for Slapfish from Day One, mostly relying on social media to build the brand.
They continue to do that now with the fundraiser and a soon-to-be launching website for the nonprofit that will include all of the stories of workers that have applied for help through the GoFundMe page.
“It’s important that people hear these stories,” Gruel said. “We’re forgetting that behind a lot of this data, there’s a lot of people.”