Nearly a year after selling their stake in Slapfish, the fast-casual seafood restaurant chain that emphasized sustainable seafood, restaurateurs Andrew and Lauren Gruel are wrapped up in their newest concept, Calico Fish House.
The couple’s latest venture currently counts a single location in Sunset Beach, which opened in February, though expansion is in the cards.
The couple’s seen prior success in building a chain, having opened 22 quick-service Slapfish restaurants since its founding in 2011—there are currently 18 still open. The business reported around $21 million in 2022 sales, according to Technomic data.
Andrew Gruel once described his expansion plans for Slapfish as wanting “to run the Chipotle of seafood.”
The Gruels also own four other restaurant concepts under the Tustin-based American Gravy Restaurant Group umbrella—Big Parm pizza, Two Birds, ButterLeaf and Lolo’s Tacos.
Sunset Beach Call
Calico Fish House took the spot of the former Fish Camp location on Pacific Coast Highway, and the concept was born only about a day after Gruel announced his departure from Slapfish.
That wasn’t the initial plan.
“When exiting Slapfish, the plan was to take a year and figure out the next move,” Gruel told the Business Journal. “We have other concepts and things on the backburner that are always percolating.”
The Gruels sold their interest in Slapfish last July to investor Mac Haik Enterprises, a Houston-based firm that first got involved through its restaurant division in 2019. Terms of the sale were undisclosed.
Around the same time, a call came from Fish Camp’s landlord, searching for a local restauranteur to take over the 4,500-square-foot space. Gruel and his family soon found their next business.
Calico Fish House features a menu of local seafood, meat and produce with a capacity of around 150 people, including indoor and outdoor space.
The Gruels knew that whichever dining concept they opened next, it would be a full-service seafood restaurant designed to grow beyond its current flagship.
“From the beginning we thought, we’re going to build this to scale so that ultimately we can take this concept and pop it in other cities,” Gruel said.
However, the couple isn’t focused on big cities like Los Angeles or New York. Future restaurants will be in touch with local communities in smaller coastal regions, similar to the Sunset Beach flagship, Lauren Gruel said.
Gruel said he learned from local consumers the difference between Sunset Beach, only a 1-mile stretch of land, and Huntington Beach when opening the fish house.
“It’s emblematic of the way we’re looking at growing in other cities,” he said.
Gruel added he learned this strategy from his time at Slapfish.
“You can forge a path and write a plan and start plotting points on a map, but that’s not how it always works,” Gruel said.
He noted that the best-performing Slapfish was in Indiana. It did two to three times more in both the top and bottom lines than any other location.
Catch of the Day
Gruel said that he wanted to diversify the menu and level up from Slapfish, but keep the same culinary principles.
“It’s the opportunity to be able to constantly change the menu and play with ingredients and now in a full-service environment,” he said of creating flexibly versus being held to a more corporate standard.
With the fast-casual model, Gruel said that the process ultimately became focused on driving sales over passion behind the menu.
“He’s been having a lot of fun in the kitchen,” Lauren Gruel added. She came up with the name Calico and also led the design process.
Calico’s menu features sandwiches, burgers and burritos with a variety of protein choices.
Keeping true to the Gruels’ business model of sustainable eating and produce, the fish house works close with local fishermen to bring in the daily catch to change up the menu every day.
The seafood offering is different each time, according to Gruel.
“At the end of the day, our goal is to get people to eat more [sustainable] seafood,” he added.
The Sunset Beach restaurant currently employs 40 people, but the couple anticipates tripling that figure to well over 100 during the peak of summer.