Slapfish franchise transforms from California food truck to international fast-casual powerhouse

Published on
December 12, 2016

Even from its modest beginnings, selling lobster tails on sticks and fish tacos from the cozy parameters of a Newport Beach, California food truck, there was something about the fast-casual seafood concept driving Slapfish restaurants that resonated with consumers and chefs alike.

Andrew Gruel, founder and CEO of Slapfish, recalled to SeafoodSource the fast-casual seafood franchise’s very first day back in 2011, when its menu, which featured only two items, may not have been “revolutionary…or too exciting,” but still managed to sell out in approximately 25 minutes. It’s been a wild ride ever since, Gruel said – one that’s led the franchise to expand beyond its now solely brick-and-mortar presence in the United States to South Korea, with plans for a Seoul-based Slapfish to open in early 2017, according to a company news release.

Given the seafood consumption habits of the South Korean market – consumers in the region eat over 100 pounds of seafood per person per year on average, the company found – Gruel said it was a no-brainer to take the chef-driven franchise and apply it to the country’s marketplace.

“South Koreans will soon discover Slapfish is the answer to all their crave-worthy seafood wishes. With our menu of seasonally-rotating, gourmet dishes in a fast-casual setting, guests experience the quality of fine dining with the cost and convenience of fast food, " Gruel said. "Also setting us apart is the fact that we only serve the freshest fish and shellfish sourced from well-managed, responsible suppliers of sustainable seafood.”

The company has high hopes for its pending East Asian presence.

“Not only will our entry into South Korea accelerate our ability to scale domestically, we will also use it as a springboard to quicken our growth into neighboring countries,” Gruel added. “Slapfish is an incredible concept with unlimited growth potential, and we look forward to making sustainable seafood an international staple as we continue to expand across the world.”

Slapfish already has seven brick-and-mortar locations open in Orange County and Los Angeles, California, and has inked agreements to open new restaurants in Utah, Idaho, Arizona, Nevada, Colorado and Texas, as well as in the United Kingdom, in 2017. Even in the U.S. market, where seafood consumption averages just less than 16 pounds per person per year, “People want to eat more seafood,” emphasized Gruel.

“I feel that our per capita consumption of seafood in the United States does not reflect our desire and demand for seafood,” he said.

The concept of Slapfish plays into that one, basic desire – people may want to eat more seafood, but they want to do it in a way that is delicious, and familiar. That’s why Slapfish focuses on marketing its recipes, and the dish, before the fish, according to Gruel.

“We’re trying to serve fish that people have never heard of. Our entire principle is based on choosing the dish and not the fish,” said Gruel. “Customers don’t come because we have a salmon taco. They don’t come for the shrimp taco. They don’t come for the ahi tuna taco. They come for the taco.”

With seafood, its biggest strength has also been one of its highest hurdles, Gruel said. To build a successful restaurant business around seafood as a protein, one needs to know how to channel and harness variety in a lucrative way that’s comfortable for consumers.

“People are confused,” said Gruel, “because beef is beef, chicken is chicken, lamb is lamb. Seafood, that’s not the case. There’s so many different species that come from so many different areas. It can scare people away from seafood, but on the other hand, this is why we should celebrate this protein. We have the opportunity to use so many different types of seafood – shellfish, farmed, wild. You could be a seafood lover and eat something different every single day for five years straight.”

Slapfish uses a chef-focused strategy to ease consumers into the world of seafood. New recipes are being created for the restaurant on a fairly rapid and continuous basis, and are shared across franchises via a technological cloud-based system accessed by iPad tablets, said Gruel. Chefs serve as important educators and conduits in the story of seafood, noted the CEO – not just for consumers, but for all figures stationed along the seafood supply chain.

Gruel, who has 18 years of restaurant experience and served as the previous director of a national sustainable seafood program with Aquarium of the Pacific, has always intended, through his work, “to increase chef’s awareness of sustainable, well-managed seafood, and to connect chefs to fishermen and to also connect chefs to great aquaculture operations.” Wanting to “introduce people to this new brand of seafood that’s about education and fun,” was what inspired the Chipotle-esque Slapfish, which moved from a food truck fleet selling seafood boat-to-plate, to the purely brick-and-mortar international chain it is today.

“On one end of the spectrum, you have your white table cloth, fine dining seafood restaurants. And on the other end of the spectrum, you’ve got greasy, fried seafood. There was nothing really in between, so we started seeing this emergence of fast-casual food, like Chipotle and these fast-casual pizza concepts within that genre that’s a step down from fine dining, but still a step up and a little more chef-driven,” Gruel explained.

Millennials are in part to thank for Slapfish’s current success, as well as modern upticks in seafood consumption, according to Gruel.

“I think it’s [modern seafood consumption] entirely driven by millennials, who use social media, which makes it contagious across multiple demographics," he said. "Millennials will create the trend and then they’ll blast it all over social media, and then demographics like Baby Boomers will see it on Facebook or what have you, and say ‘well, I’m going to do that, too.’”

Gruel imagines millennials and other generations will take well to invasive species such as lionfish and Chesapeake blue catfish, as well as less familiar species to them, such as abalone and barramundi – all of which stand to gain popularity entering into 2017, said Gruel.

With inventive dishes like the Clobster Grilled Cheese, containing crab and lobster, and Chowder Fries, Slapfish “has created a niche in the marketplace, serving up fresh, sustainable seafood in a fast-casual setting,” said the company.

“Gruel and his team are dedicated to raising awareness of sustainable seafood, and work to educate consumers about making smart dining choices," it said. "As it expands worldwide, Slapfish aims to keep the oceans thriving, while spreading the word that sustainable tastes better."

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