Last December, Andrew Gruel had finally had enough. He's the founder and owner of Slapfish, a growing seafood chain based in Huntington Beach, California, with restaurants in 10 states and the United Kingdom. The past eight months had been so brutal for business that he and his wife set up a fund to pay laid-off food workers, which had already disbursed hundreds of thousands of dollars. Outdoor and even some indoor dining had come back over the summer, but represented only a fraction of the volume from before COVID-19 darkened everyone's doors.
Then, right after Thanksgiving, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced a new lockdown prohibiting outdoor dining in most of the Golden State's restaurants. A regular on the Food Network and other cooking channels, Gruel uncorked an inspired video rant that went viral on social media.
"I can go into Walmart, I don't even have to wear pants, nobody wears a mask at Walmart, I can go get a pink cockatoo for my Christmas tree, but I can't go and dine outdoors at a restaurant," he said, listing all sorts of arbitrary rules that had been put into place during the pandemic. He noted that Newsom didn't even make the case that food establishments weren't complying with mask mandates and that public health officials agreed that outdoor dining wasn't a big spreader of COVID-19.
"I can go to Target, Amazon's making tons of money, big business is getting rich," he said, before concluding: "Outdoor dining doesn't lead to any of that. Okay, screw that…we're staying open outdoors. It's that simple. I'm not an asshole. The governor is."
Nick Gillespie sat down to talk with the 40-year-old Gruel about what it's been like to run a business with government at all levels arbitrarily flipping the on-off switch, why innovation is central to both capitalism and cuisine, and why he'll never open another franchise in California due to the tax-and-regulatory climate. They also discuss Gruel's culinary journey that started at the Jersey Shore, the country's rising sophistication when it comes to food, and his commitment to innovative, open-ocean aquaculture that he says will save at-risk fisheries while improving the diet of the typical American.
Interview by Nick Gillespie; edited by Zach Weissmueller; camera by Ben Gaskell; additional graphics by Meredith Bragg.
Photo credits: Keith Birmingham/ZUMAPRESS/Newscom; Cindy Yamanaka, Cindy Yamanaka/ZUMA Press/Newscom; Cindy Yamanaka/ZUMAPRESS/Newscom; Watchara Phomicinda/ZUMAPRESS/Newscom