Californian Restaurateur Standing Strong After Pushing Back Against COVID-19 Constraints

AVFC Chef Andrew Gruel


“In a time of deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.”


~ George Orwell, English novelist, essayist, journalist, and critic


By Rick Rydell


Andrew Gruel is a man known for his ironies.


There’s his last name, for starters. “Gruel” has long been a staple of peasants, a bland, tasteless mash of grains that keeps people alive but does little else. Funny then, that Gruel the man, grew up to be a nationally-known chef and restaurateur, famous for his mouth-watering dishes.


Next, see how the New Jersey native, raised far from the laid back surfer vibes of Southern California, has become inextricably linked with plenty of Golden State eateries, including Slapfish, Big Parm, Two Birds, Butterleaf, and Calico Fish House.


Then there’s the fact that in a state known for its monolithic political thinking, Gruel has publicly spoken out against everything from COVID-19-era restaurant rules in California, to the recent proposal to ban plastic gift cards.


Chef Gruel graciously agreed to be interviewed about the last three years for this story:


“Too often, we see people speak out, and then they quickly retract their statements. Or they try, and [eventually] succumb to the peer pressure and fold to the mob,” Gruel says. “We just didn't fully understand [back then] the wrath of what theoretically could be coming when you speak out against not just institutions, but really the institutional deputies that are weaponized to some degree, especially through social media, to try and scare people away from actually speaking their opinions.”


Nothing, however, is going to scare Gruel now. And he wants you to feel the same: fully armed with scientific truth and common sense, and unafraid to use it.


Kid Cook

Gruel grew up on the East Coast, and loved the kitchen from a young age, often faking illness to skip school and watch cooking shows. He made his television debut in 2007, appearing on the PBS/BBC show, “The Endless Feast.” From there, his star quickly rose.


Today, his miles-long list and food- and media-related accomplishments include starting Slapfish Restaurant Group (27 locations), serving as the CEO and founder of American Gravy Restaurant Group (including Calico Fishhouse, Big Parm Pizza, Two Birds Chicken, Butterleaf, Lolo’s Tacos, and 101 Burger), and working as a judge on Food Network’s “Chopped Junior,” with Megan Markle.


You may have seen him elsewhere, including the FYI Series, “Say It To My Face,” the Food Network’s “Food Truck Face Off,” the TODAY show, Fox News, CNN, NBC Nightly News, PBS, Cooking Channel, The Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Men’s Health, Food & Wine magazine, USA Today, Entrepreneur, and Nation’s Restaurant News.


And one more thing: He and his wife, Lauren, were named “Pandemic Heroes” by Restaurant Business Magazine, alongside Guy Fieri and Jose Andres. Why? Certainly because the couple raised over $500k for out-of-work restaurant workers in December 2020. In addition, his heroism has shown up in other ways; Gruel publicly aired his thoughts on topics such as Governor Gavin Newsom’s infamous French Laundry hypocrisy, and restaurant rules that seemingly came out of left field:

“When the pandemic hit early on, it seemed like there was all this confusion about what we should do and what we shouldn't do. And from a restaurateur's perspective, it's inherent in our business model to understand public health and the ways in which food and the interaction of people and food can potentially spread viruses, disease, etc.,” he said. “So, early on I started to see that what we were being told didn't seem to just make sense rationally. They kept changing the advice, and then the science kept changing.”


“Science,” of course, is ever-evolving. Yet what Andrew and Lauren witnessed was not a reflection of that evolving nature, but instead, a piecemeal approach to benevolent tyranny that seemed to benefit only the rule-makers.


Take the entirety of the Golden State restaurant scene. Pre-lockdown, California boasted more than 76,000 places to eat, with those establishments employing 1.8 million people, according to the California Restaurant Association. But when Newsom decided that the simple act of eating in public, including outdoor dining, was far too dangerous for everyone except himself and his buddies, it upended millions of lives. Not even halfway through 2021, almost one in three California restaurants had permanently closed. Two in three workers, meanwhile, at least temporarily lost their jobs.


Gruel and his co-workers were initially told that surface-to-surface spread was a huge factor in COVID-19 contagion, for instance. Diligently keeping all surfaces clean, therefore, was paramount, leading to a shortage of bleach and disinfectants.


“But then, the CDC slipped in that, ‘Oh, it doesn't spread via surface to surface,’ but that never hit public messaging,” Gruel expressed. “It was just kind of quietly printed on a Friday afternoon in their guidelines. At that point, I realized, okay, something's not right here.”


Restaurant Rebel

Nonetheless, Gruel kept his restaurants open, not only paying his team members as per normal, but also cooking for first responders. Reason magazine called him “the patron saint of restaurateurs, small business owners, and service workers during the pandemic.” He didn’t stay quiet about his thoughts on what was happening around California, either; if he was a saint, his saintliness certainly was not the vow-of-silence variety.


At one point, pregnant with the couple’s fourth child, Lauren wondered aloud if the current environment was the right time to be so vocal about the government’s heavy handedness. But Gruel was undeterred. “I mean, once you kind of dive in, you've got to double down,” he said. “There's no turning back.”


That has certainly proven to be the case for Gruel. In addition to pandemic restrictions, he consults on topics like the effect of California’s ever-rising crime spree affecting restaurants. But lest you think he acted as a lone squeaky-wheel warrior on the California restaurant scene—charging ahead recklessly and wantonly just because he was the top dog at each of his eateries—Gruel’s actions demonstrated otherwise.


The business owner personally wanted to keep his indoor areas open, but knew a portion of his wait and cook staff felt apprehensive about it. He listened to the people he worked with, and closed many of his indoor spaces, remaining open outside. That decision cost him thousands of dollars in partitions and other related materials, but he felt it was worth it.


“I know some people say compromise isn't leadership, but I disagree, especially in the restaurant industry where it truly is a team sport,” Gruel said. “So for us, we had to take into consideration everybody's feelings and everybody's perspectives and opinions, but still remain defiant to some degree.”


Overwhelmingly, people appreciated his moxie. Gruel received numerous texts and messages thanking him for speaking up. Without fail, however, the sender—often a fellow restaurateur—was too afraid to do the same.


“The insanity now is that a lot of those [same] people that were privately patting me on the back have kind of reconciled back to their corners and forgotten about the original insanity,” he remarked. “So, I'm curious to see how many of those people will relegate themselves to becoming slaves of the system. The pandemic season two is greenlit, if you will.”


Food Fight

And therein lies Gruel’s next great field of battle, or at least one prong of it: The future of dining, from casual to fine, in a state he loves and doesn’t want to leave. He will move, however, if the state noose tightens to an extent that his children can no longer be homeschooled in an education pod, as they currently are.


But that’s a fight for another day. For now, Chef Andrew is focused on the power of a shared food experience: To unite, not divide, and for a state government to focus on consistency, fairness, and sound science that is unaffected by politics and the possibility of power.


On no day in particular, he invites others to engage in a thought experiment similar to a “what if” game. Imagine, Andrew suggests, his restaurant group is given the power to arbitrarily ban food they don’t like, based on scientific research, such as seed oils, with their unhealthy attributes. While on the other hand, consider restaurants who rely on having access to the same oils due to their lower costs. Gruel poses, should he be allowed to eliminate that option for other chefs, or should they be able to assess the risks and benefits for themselves? You can answer that question.


“So, I think it just comes back to being able to have the power to make our own decisions about our own communities, our families, our bodies, and it's that simple,” he emphasizes. “It's a very simple concept, but once we start to get way too granular and dissect it, and get kind of caught up in that curse of knowledge within our own circle, then it's a complicated issue, but it doesn't need to be.”


“It's very simple.”


A man, therefore, ultimately not of ironies, but of straightforward plainness. Perhaps gruel and Gruel do share something in common, after all.


Andrew Gruel was interviewed by Vivian Kanchian for A Voice for Choice Advocacy on 09-01-23.




Published on October 05, 2023.


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