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Huntington Beach chef Andrew Gruel raising money for restaurant employees

Slapfish founder and CEO Andrew Gruel in his Huntington Beach location.
Slapfish founder and CEO Andrew Gruel in his Huntington Beach location. Gruel, a celebrity chef, has launched “86 Restaurant Struggle,” an aid program to help unemployed restaurant workers during the pandemic.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

The “Community Burger” is a hearty half-pound cheeseburger now available at Slapfish in Huntington Beach.

The cost? Whatever the customer wants to pay. And those who have lost their job during the coronavirus pandemic get it for free.

Craig Nickoloff, the Claim Jumper founder who owns West Coast Prime Meats, is donating the meat for the burgers.

“It’s just a way of engaging people more with food, and not just saying, ‘Hey, give me some money,’” said Chef Andrew Gruel, owner and CEO of Slapfish. “I pulled the numbers [Thursday] and the average donation for the burger is $27. That’s unbelievable. I was expecting like $4. It’s such a different model.”

Money raised goes toward Gruel’s efforts to aid restaurant workers during the pandemic, which have already gone a long way since he, his wife Lauren and Slapfish vice president of operations Brad Hall launched a GoFundMe in December.

As of Saturday afternoon, the GoFundMe had raised more than $328,000 for restaurant workers. The Gruels largely run the program, called “86 Restaurant Struggle,” themselves. They take applications from workers or restaurants, screening them and then delivering money as soon as possible.

Andrew Gruel, 40, who lives in Huntington Beach and also has Slapfish seafood locations in Laguna Beach and Irvine as part of 27 locations, called the program a “little bridge” for people who need it.

“They’re either awaiting benefits or have lost their job and were trying to figure out what their next step was going to be and they didn’t know what to do,” Gruel said.

“Especially in December, when it was like going into the holidays. A lot of parents, suddenly you lose your job and then you use your Christmas money for the kids to put food on the table and you can’t buy your kids gifts. That was really the time where we said, we’ve got to do something here.”

The goal, which Gruel admitted is a bit arbitrary, is to raise more than $1 million for restaurant workers. Gruel, who said more than one million restaurant workers in California alone have lost their jobs during COVID-19, nevertheless believes the program can get there.

When a guest donates to the 86 Restaurant Struggle, they can get the half-pound Community Cheeseburger.
When a guest donates to the 86 Restaurant Struggle, they can get the half-pound Community Cheeseburger which has become a popular item at Slapfish in Huntington Beach.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

Ika Taft is co-owner of More Than Waffles, a breakfast and lunch restaurant in Encino. She said she had to temporarily lay off most of her staff of around 50 employees during the pandemic, and the restaurant hours were cut to Saturdays and Sundays only for takeout after the California stay-at-home order was issued in December.

Taft reached out to Gruel, and several of her employees applied for funds through the program in early January.

“The next day, I got an envelope via FedEx to my house, with 16 checks of $1,200 each,” Taft said. “I have goosebumps now when I talk about it. I could not believe that. I took a picture of it, and I posted it on our group [chat]. What a great thing to do for the employees. No one has done anything like this before. They’re always doing funds for restaurants, but not for the employees.

“The guys were crying. They couldn’t believe it when I handed them the checks. And it saved them. It gave them a little lifeline, thank God.”

More Than Waffles reopened Saturday for outdoor dining, Taft said, and all of the workers are back on the payroll.

Gruel made headlines by keeping Slapfish’s patio open at the Huntington Beach location recently. After Gov. Gavin Newsom made the stay-at-home order that banned outdoor dining, he posted a defiant video on social media.

He said since Slapfish offers counter service only, the restaurant doesn’t control what customers do when they exit the front door. Outdoor dining has been allowed again in Orange County as of Monday, when the stay-at-home order was lifted.

“That’s a bit of a gray area, of course,” Gruel said of Slapfish’s policy during the order. “Everybody will say I’m in defiance of the order, but I guess my question is, why is that? Why am I defying it? Because they’re dining outdoors? But they’re allowed to. Technically, they can eat wherever they want.”

There is no gray area for 86 Restaurant Struggle. Gruel has made it as direct as possible.

Many are even enjoying a Community Burger while they donate. At his Big Parm pizza restaurant in Tustin, Gruel’s also offering a “Pandemic Pizza,” which is similarly priced at whatever the customer wishes to play.

“We’re filing a 501c3, so we want to formalize this into a more substantial nonprofit,” he said. “Even beyond the pandemic, we’ve realized that this could be an opportunity for us to just help in general within the industry.”

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