Growth proves slow but business leaders have hope

The business sector slowly improved in Huntington Beach in 2013, and some in the community are optimistic about the opportunities the new year will bring.

Chamber of Commerce President Jerry Wheeler categorized last year as a "mild success" because despite new businesses coming into the city, he hasn't seen residents spending much money.

"To me, it was an OK year, but it certainly could have been a whole lot worse," he said, adding that the economic conferences he's been to indicate a slow improvement. "We're not growing as fast as Wall Street says the economy should be growing."

Kelly Miller, president of the Huntington Beach Marketing and Visitors Bureau, said he's expecting that growth to kick in this year.

"A part of this growth is being driven by boomers," he said. "About 10,000 new baby boomers a day are being crowned, and they drive a tremendous percentage of consumer spending."

Wheeler said chamber membership has remained steady at around 700 businesses. He notes that he has also been to numerous ribbon-cuttings in 2013, with businesses like Bruxie, Nektar, The Longboard Restaurant and Pub and Coaches expanding their reach throughout the city and the county.

The company that the chamber president has been particularly impressed with is Slapfish, a seafood restaurant in the Newland Shopping Center, at Beach Boulevard and Adams Avenue.

The business started in 2011 as a few food trucks roaming Los Angeles and Orange counties. It proved to be a hit, so the owners sold off their trucks and established their brick-and-mortar restaurant in Huntington Beach in 2012.

According to Slapfish co-founder Andrew Gruel, the company has recently signed a deal to open 75 franchises in six countries in the Middle East over the next 10 years.

Gruel and his business partner, Jethro Naude, expect to open their next company store in Laguna Beach by early April.

"It was genius when you think about it," Wheeler said about Slapfish's strategy of building its reputation and capital with food trucks and then setting up shop in a fixed location. "It only works if the food's good. And their food's good."

Other businesses in Huntington Beach, however, haven't seen the success that Gruel and Naude are experiencing. In March 2013, a community favoriate, the Rathskeller pub in Old World Village, closed its doors after another company bought the property with plans to convert it to office space.

Wheeler said he has hopes that 2014 will be better for businesses in the city, but he approaches the year with "cautious optimism."

"I think 2014 has the potential to become a breakout year," he said. "If the economy keeps moving, then 2015 could be a real breakout year."

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