The Two-Handed Fish Sandwich at Calico Fish House./Photo courtesy of American Gravy Restaurant Group.
Andrew Gruel is a fast-casual guy, and he plans to remain a fast-casual guy.
But when an opportunity came up for a waterfront property on the Southern California coast with a huge patio about 24 hours after he exited from the fast-casual Slapfish concept he founded in 2011, it was clearly time to give full-service a spin, he said.
Enter Calico Fish House, which Gruel and his wife Lauren Gruel opened earlier this month in Sunset Beach, Calif.
It’s a seafood chophouse with an emphasis on sustainable (certified by the Aquaculture Stewardship Council) fish and a full bar. The menu changes daily, based on what’s in season and available, and guests can choose their main and sides, like a steakhouse. Sides are more creative than the typical creamed spinach or sauteed asparagus, and might include dishes like a lobster-stuffed baked potato, for example, or pretzel-crusted crab tots.
Calico has a full raw bar and simply grilled options, but also handheld sandwiches and burgers, for those looking for a quicker bite. The roughly 4,500-square foot venue has about 80 seats indoors and another 90-100 on the patio, and counter ordering to-go is also available.
It’s designed to be a flagship for Gruel’s American Gravy Restaurant Group, which includes a growing portfolio of brands the chef plans to scale—including Calico.
A spinoff of the full-service brand called Calico Mini is scheduled to open in a new Kitchen United Mix outlet in Santa Monica, Calif., this month. Calico Mini will focus more on Lobster Rolls and chowder.
Also at the Mix food hall will be two more Gruel-created brands: 101 Burger and Lolo’s Tacos. Joining them a bit later will be his Two Birds (chicken sandwiches) and Butterleaf (vegetables with no “fake meat”), two more fast-casual concepts that are currently operating in a food hall in nearby Irvine, Calif.
American Gravy’s portfolio also includes Big Parm Pizza (New Jersey-style pizza, salads, sandwiches), which is in a food hall in Tustin, Calif.
Gruel plans to register all of the concepts for franchising this year, including the full-service Calico.
And he is developing another full-service concept: A Mediterranean brand that he can’t yet name. The lease hasn’t been finalized, but he’s looking at a 300- to 400-seat location in Southern California with a full bar.
As Gruel looks to scale the family of brands he has created, he said the key is co-tenancy, and building the fast-casual brands with a very-focused menu of one or two items.
He is also a believer in creating scalable concepts that don’t require a hood—and not because of the debate about the regulation of gas stoves.
Fundamentally, “The cost of putting gas into a restaurant is really the prohibitive element because of the hood,” he said. “People lose a million dollars on a restaurant in six months, and then they flip it over and they can’t get pennies on the dollar for it because you build out that infrastructure for the mechanical and all the hood stuff, it’s like $250,000.”
For Calico Mini, for example, breads can be toasted on an electric griddle, soups can be made in a commissary and Gruel is exploring the use of electric hoodless fryers.
The full-service concepts, however, allow Gruel room to play with the menu and diversify.
“I just saw with fast casual that prices are increasing so much and that the margins are so thin with what we want to be able to pay when it comes to labor and a living wage and all that, that we would fare a lot better in a larger footprint with a full bar and the opportunity to have people sit down,” he said.
Gruel said his company’s turnover is very low, in part because they pay well. Hourly workers can make $25 to $30 per hour, for example, but those higher labor costs are offset by higher retention rates.
American Gravy is also a big supporter of veterans, who get a blanket 50% discount, and guests can round up their checks to support Save the Brave, a program designed to prevent suicide that provides fishing trips to veterans dealing with post-traumatic stress.
Gruel and his wife also founded the nonprofit 86 Restaurant Struggle during the pandemic to help restaurant employees in need by providing free meals.
These are things that can scare off investors, Gruel said, which is why he is “bootstrapping” growth with the help of friends and family for now.
“My wife and I want to do as much as we can ourselves, at least in the beginning, so we can stick to the roots of what we’re doing,” he said. “We’re taking it one day at a time, and what works, works.”
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