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Slapfish Restaurant founder starts COVID-19 relief fund to help industry

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Yahoo Finance’s Alexis Christoforous and Slapfish Restaurant founder Andrew Gruel discuss the coronavirus aid fund he started to help the restaurant industry.

Video Transcript

ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: One Southern California chef and restaurateur owner took matters into his own hands and started a restaurant relief fund to provide assistance to struggling restaurant workers during this pandemic. Andrew Gruel is the owner of the Snapfish restaurant group. He joins us now. Andrew, good to see you. So you started this fund a mere three weeks ago. You've already raised $230,000. Tell us how you did it.

ANDREW GRUEL: You know, I think it's really just about telling stories. And obviously, everyone understands that within the restaurant ecosystem the most important players are the people working within the restaurants, and they've been left out in left field without any sort of semblance of a lifeline. So as we start to tell those stories and step up and say, look, we don't have time to wait for big, bloated government programs to come in and try and help these people out.

Going into the holidays, they need money to be able to pay the bills, get a couple of Christmas gifts for their kids. These are people who have worked their entire lives and have gotten their, you know, jobs ripped out from underneath them. So we put this fund together really just on the backs of a lot of these stories. And the way the community has rallied around us to help has been unbelievable.

ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: It really has. I know you set up a GoFundMe page. You've already started to distribute some of the funds. Can you tell us, though, how you are choosing? When there are so many people in need right now in the restaurant industry, how are you determining who gets what?

ANDREW GRUEL: Great question. And hopefully, we can continue to raise and we can be able to help as many people as possible. Right now, it's a two-prong approach. So we're working directly with restaurant owners who have said, look, I have to let so much of my staff go, and here's their stories, here's their verification. Can you help these five or six people? So that's one way that we can help restaurant owners directly and their families, if you will.

On the other side, my wife, who has worked tirelessly 14, 15 hours while I've been in and out of the restaurants, she's been calling everybody's previous employer, verifying, using background checks and various services so that we can make sure that the stories line up. Look, the lion's share of these people are telling the truth. You're always going to get a couple of scammers, but we are obviously taking this very seriously and we're making sure that we're distributing the money properly as well.

ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: And how much are-- are folks getting? Does it depend on need at this point? What have you been able-- what have you been able to give out?

ANDREW GRUEL: People are specifying their need. And a lot of people are saying, look, I only need $400 or $500 to cover a couple of utility bills and then to bridge my gap for rent. Other people, they've got higher needs. So it is on a case-by-case basis, but right now we're ranging between $601-- we wanted to go $1 above whatever the government was going to do-- to upwards of $2,000 as well.

ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: Let's talk about what the government was doing, is doing, your feelings on what is in this current stimulus package. I know the restaurant industry was looking for a restaurant relief package. You didn't get it. But what is in the stimulus package, as it stands right now, for people in your industry?

ANDREW GRUEL: Of course, there's an extension of the PPP funds, but that comes with a lot of red tape, and I think it can be somewhat complicated for some of these small restaurants. Unfortunately, it doesn't address any of the restaurants that have been closed. I would have liked to have seen some retroactive funding to perhaps save those independent restaurants on Main Street that have gone under. In regards to the Employee Retention Credit Program, once again, I've-- I've made this argument, I'm very glad that they've extended that program.

But we've got to make sure that the restaurants are still viable and operating in order to be able to get those retention credits via the form 7200. If all the restaurants are closed, then it's a moot point. So there needs to be real-- you know, with that money, I would like to see some local authorities get specific in the ways in which they can help local restaurants.

ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: Now in your area, there in Southern California, there is still a ban on outdoor dining. And I know you spoke to us just a few weeks ago when Governor Newsom had brought down that mandate, and you said, no way, I'm not doing it. I'm going I'm going to stay open. I'm curious, what has business been like for you and have local authorities tried to shut you down?

ANDREW GRUEL: We have not had any issues with local authorities. Our outdoor dining is still open socially distanced. Tables are spaced, incredibly safe. Sales are up 200% to 300% at some of our stores right now. But I think it's really important to mention, if I-- all the people that are dining outdoors, if I switched their food from plate to to-go, then it would be 100% OK. So they can still be sitting there, and they can still be eating in the exact same circumstances, but if it's on a plate it's no good. If it's in a to-go material then it's OK.

ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: Wow, OK. So that's sort of in the minutiae. Is that what you've been doing? People are ordering and you're giving them their food in these sort of to-go plates, and so that constitutes, you know, a-- a take away, if you will, and-- and you're-- all is well?

ANDREW GRUEL: Well, that or we've just decided that our plateware is disposable. So if you want, that's to-go as well. You can feel free to throw the plates and the glasses away. [CHUCKLES]

ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: What's been happening with your staff in particular at the Slapfish? How many employees do you normally carry and what are things like right now?

ANDREW GRUEL: Well, we've always kept our staff on even when we're losing money, because we-- we want to push back against that. We want to take care of our team members. So it's important to mention that none of these funds are being distributed through our own organizations. This is all outside of the Slapfish organization or any of my other restaurants. Everyone is getting their full hours and tons of overtime. We're keeping everyone busy.

And we're doing things to pivot in order to create more hours, even if they might be at the loss of our margins. We're still going to try and increase revenue by adding things like breakfast or catering, et cetera.

ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: And tell us how we all can help small business owners, restaurant owners during this time. And if people hearing this want to contribute to that restaurant relief fund that you started, how can they do that?

ANDREW GRUEL: Well the fund is on GoFundMe right now. So all you have to do is search Andrew Gruel or help struggling restaurant workers on GoFundMe, or look at my social on Twitter @chefgruel or Andrew Gruel on Instagram. I'm posting it what feels like every five minutes. Within your own local communities, just being able to go and do takeout as opposed to using a third-party delivery app. Those take $0.30 off of every dollar for the restaurant, so right now that's only going to exacerbate a restaurant's theoretical bankruptcy if we start doing all these third-party delivery apps. That's really important.

Buy gift cards and just continue to support your local restaurants. They need a voice, that's the most important thing. Even a simple share on a GoFundMe like mine can-- can reach so many people and help so many restaurant workers.

ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: Well, thanks for all that you're doing for the industry, and definitely check out Andrew Gruel's social media. Because you're quite active, I'll just leave it there.

ANDREW GRUEL: Thank you so much. I appreciate it.

ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: All right. Happy new year. Thanks, Andrew.