April 4, 2017 | by Cherryh Cansler
From food trucks to food halls: Slapfish founder launches 2 concepts

"Upscale market meets food court" is how Slapfish CEO Andrew Gruel describes Trade Food Hall, the Orange County home of his two latest concepts — Two Birds and Butterleaf.

Two Birds is a farm-fresh Jidori chicken concept founded on the idea that "simple is better," and Butterleaf is "vegetarian food for non-vegetarians," said Gruel, who opened his first concept —  Slapfish —  as a food truck. He's now on a mission to prove that meatless meals can be filling. Butterleaf serves burgers made with sweet potatoes and black beans, along with Avocado Bombs and Umami Chips. The menu also features build-your-own bowls and wraps with a revolving menu of ancient super grains (brown rice, quinoa, or freekah), homemade sauces (creamy sriracha and garlic, plus  kewpie mayo and crushed dill) and seasonally rotating vegetables.

While the flavors are innovative, the menu is limited at both concepts. Each — by design — offers only a few options.

"Our menus are simple and focused for a reason," said Gruel, who partnered with his wife, Lauren Gruel, restaurant veteran Brent Miller and Chief Creative Officer John Wolanin to develop the concepts.  "Plenty of studies show that the more options you give a customer, the more anxiety and confusion they will have about what to order. It's the paradox of choice. By focusing in on comfort-driven staples, we aim to simplify the dining experience and perfect our reinventions of timeless dishes.

"The sauce combinations at Two Birds and variety of seasonally rotating menu items at Butterleaf allow us to expand our menu offerings, without actually adding more set menu choices.

Controlling costs

Both concepts are based around high-quality menu items: Two Birds, for example, uses only farm-fresh Jidori chicken raised in Southern California. And Butterleaf's veggies come from Melissa's Produce, a U.S. distributor of specialty and organic fresh produce.

Although it may sound like an expensive way to operate, Gruel is able to control costs by keeping his menus simple.

"We can be specific with our ingredients and order in bulk," he said. " This helps us save money and also forces us to make eco-conscious decisions about what foods we serve our customers."

Opening inside Trade Food Hall, which is located within a retail strip and houses seven other fast casual concepts, is another way to save money. It cuts back on operational and start-up costs, setting both concepts up for unlimited growth potential, Gruel said.

Although his ultimate goal is to become a high-quality version of Taco Bell/Pizza Hut, expanding into food halls and airports nationwide, he won't rush the process.

"We are very specific when it comes to what locations we will open," Gruel said. "Trade Food Hall was an easy choice given the demographics of the community in Irvine, the abundance of offices nearby and limited food options for those customers."

Gruel and his team take a technological approach to placement of all locations.

"Data is king, and we have access to resources that our competitors simply do not," he said. "Using location software, we can understand the foot traffic, customer demographics, how frequently they visit a location, and so on.

"Too often do people open restaurants on instinct alone. By better understanding your target customer and demographic — where they work, where they live, how frequent they travel — the better you can develop your product and its location to optimize profits."

Measuring success

Although Gruel said he obviously has sales goals, he measures success by customer satisfaction.

"One big measure of success is customer retention and how likely they are to share us with their friends on social media," he said. "Our team has extensive experience in social media, and we leverage the power of the Internet to market for us. We will closely track our audience sentiment using data analytics and measure our success by the social conversation. Creating a loyal customer is one thing, but empowering a brand evangelist to power our marketing channels will help us grow more efficiently over the long term."

A new trend emerging?

Gruel refers to the the food hall trend as the "new food truck" of the industry. He expects them to become a popular dining choice just as food trucks were once rarely seen but are now mainstream.

"People want convenience, yes, but they also want somewhere to sit down and enjoy their meal," he said. "With food halls, customers get to pick from a variety of offerings without having to eat their meal on a bucket in a gas station parking lot. Food halls also offer a lower investment, similar to food trucks."

Cover photo: Avocado Bombs from Butterleaf


Topics: Customer Service / Experience, Food Cost Management, Food Trucks, Franchising & Growth



Cherryh Cansler
Before joining Networld Media Group as director of Editorial, where she oversees Networld Media Group's nine B2B publications, Cherryh Cansler served as Content Specialist at Barkley ad agency in Kansas City. Throughout her 17-year career as a journalist, she's written about a variety of topics, ranging from the restaurant industry and technology to health and fitness. Her byline has appeared in a number of newspapers, magazines and websites, including Forbes, The Kansas City Star and American Fitness magazine. She also serves as the managing editor for FastCasual.com. wwwView Cherryh Cansler's profile on LinkedIn

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