The following is an excerpt from a recent New Guard interview with Chef Andrew Gruel. Chef Gruel is the founder and owner of Slapfish Restaurants, a restaurant chain focused on sustainable seafood for the future. In 2013, he was named a “top 40 under 40 entrepreneur” in Orange County, California. Chef Gruel has raised more than $310,000 for small business owners and employees affected by the government lockdowns.
YAF: Can you tell us about your restaurant? How was it doing before the pandemic?
Gruel: Our fish is so fresh it’ll slap you! The focus of our restaurant, Slapfish, is serving sustainable, well-managed seafood with the quality of fine dining at the cost and convenience of faster food. I first ran Slapfish as a food truck in 2011. We’ve scaled up since then, and we now have six locations in Southern California.
YAF: When the pandemic hit, restaurants were shut down. How have you adjusted?
Gruel: From an operational perspective, we’ve changed the ways we schedule staff so that there are fewer bodies in the kitchen at one time. We are continuing to serve people in a safe and socially-distant manner outdoors at all of our locations. That has given us a little bit of a sales boost, but California is certainly in full-fledged lockdown mode right now.
YAF: How has the shift to food delivery affected your restaurants?
Gruel: Average margins for a successful restaurant are probably only five percent. Additionally, there are costs related to purchasing personal protective equipment, which includes gloves, masks, and extra cleaning materials. These costs cut at least one to two percent across the board, and any margins we have are pretty much wiped out. If we also add 30 cents on the dollar for food deliveries carried out by third-party providers—which now make up 40 to 50 percent of sales—we lose 25 or 30 percent of revenues on every delivery sale. This is not sustainable.
YAF: Are many of the policies created in response to the pandemic particularly unfriendly to small business owners because most elected officials aren’t small business owners themselves?
Gruel: Of course. These laws are being written by large government agencies that are working in tandem with some of the biggest businesses in America. So they are going to favor large business. At the very least, the rubric by which governments create these laws is going to fit a big-business calculus. It’s easier for large businesses to take on some of these costs. The small businesses on Main Street are the ones that are getting totally crushed.
YAF: Do you believe that government action is one of the major reasons that we have seen a major shift from small business to large business in the past year?
Gruel: One hundred percent. Governments have paved the road so you can drive in the carpool lane if you are a big business, and you are caught in crazy traffic in the right lane if you are a small business owner.
Just a reminder: Restaurants have been closed in California for almost 8 weeks now and there has been NO positive effect on covid cases. This confirms my original thesis, the outdoor dining ban would lead to a spike in cases as people are driven indoors. Apologies accepted.— Chef Andrew Gruel (@ChefGruel) January 17, 2021
YAF: How can Americans help small businesses and their workers who are struggling?
Gruel: It’s up to We the People to help our fellow citizens. My wife and I set up our GoFundMe page to help struggling restaurant workers. We have raised over $280,000 already.
YAF: Do you have any advice for high school or college students who are looking to start their own business?
Gruel: Now is the time. If you are in college or high school and you want to start your own business, there is a ton of opportunity out there. You can pivot to a business opportunity to help many people during this pandemic. So strike while the iron is hot.