Making Seafood Sexy

Making Seafood Sexy

Andrew Gruel’s menu satisfies a growing demand for bold, exciting, craveable seafood dishes. In a phrase, he’s making seafood sexy and increasing sales at the same time.

“People know they should eat more seafood and they want to eat more seafood, as the poke bowl and sushi crazes show,” says Gruel, founder and chief executive of Slapfish, a Fountain Valley, California-based casual restaurant chain billed as a modern seafood shack. “But often they are unsure what’s the right seafood to eat and how they should eat it.”

The gateway fish. Gruel welcomes customers into the Slapfish fold with big helpings of seafood that is fun, flavorful, sustainable and Instagram-worthy. One of the biggest attractions is mild-tasting, lake-grown tilapia prepared in inventive ways, he says. Low in calories and fat, and high in protein and nutrients, tilapia has become so popular that it has been rolled out across the entire Slapfish restaurant system.

“Our customers love it,” says Gruel. “We have even convinced people who say they don’t like tilapia to love this fish.”

Some of Gruel’s tilapia creations:

  • Tilapia Ramen Burrito with crispy tilapia, vegetables, miso sauce and braised pork
  • Tilapia Power Bowl with tilapia, avocado, greens, quinoa, veggies and honey-lime vinaigrette
  • Insanely Hot Tilapia Burger with grilled or crispy tilapia, caramelized onions, Angry Chile sauce, lettuce and tomato
  • Tilapia Avocado Fries with potato chip-breaded tilapia strips smothered with guacamole.

Power burritoPath to innovation. To create seafood signatures, Gruel juggles familiar ingredients and adds just enough tweaks to make them exciting but not too far out. Take the Tilapia Ramen Burrito, a marriage of two on-trend culinary platforms — ramen noodles and the burrito — elevated with flavorful tilapia.

Palate-stimulating texture, particularly crunchiness, is a huge popularity driver for seafood menu items, Gruel says. Crushed potato chips make a pleasingly crunchy breading or garnish for tilapia items.

“We do a culinary mashup that reads with ‘wow’ factor, but eats with comfort, flavor and convenience,” says Gruel. “We don’t combine ingredients just to be crazy. We make sure that it works.”

“Our way is to look at a fish and introduce it in a way that people are already comfortable with,” Gruel adds. “We create a construct that people know, and then add our own little twist and insert a particular species of seafood.”

Tilapia filetsSeasonality sells. Tilapia is a fish that welcomes seasonal ingredients. Chowder pie is a winter Slapfish specialty that showcases chunks of roasted pumpkin, butternut squash and spiced tilapia swimming in classic New England clam chowder, crowned with puff pastry.

Summer brings flavors that are lighter and brighter but equally innovative and strong drivers of seafood sales. For example, the tilapia is brushed with olive oil, lemon and Dijon mustard, gently grilled, crusted with crushed potato chips and served over summer squash, zucchini, Jersey tomatoes and corn drizzled with extra-virgin olive oil and sherry vinegar. “That’s the best summer dish in the world,” says Gruel.

Adding Instagram appeal. A big part of making seafood sexy is styling dishes and sandwiches with vivid colors and captivating presentations that encourage image sharing on Instagram — and, inevitably, sales. “It’s all about making the food look like it’s coming right out of your phone,” says Gruel.

Don’t underestimate the visual appeal of swirls, stripes and splashes of sauce. “You want your food to be saucy,” says Gruel. “It doesn’t have to be a crazy, overpowering sauce. It can be a natural sauce.”

Slapfish’s palette of house sauces includes Awesome Sauce, with spicy, sweet and sour nuances; creamy, lemon-herb Jersey Sauce; spicy, tangy Rooster Cocktail Sauce; and tartar sauce tinged green with fresh herbs.

Examples of photogenic saucing at Slapfish include Chowder Fries, natural-cut fries smothered with creamy clam chowder and bacon; and Mermaid Fries, an off-menu specialty of fries bathed in any house sauce.

Sustainable equals tastier. Like all of its seafood, Slapfish serves premium tilapia that is sustainable. Raised in pristine, freshwater lakes in Mexico, Honduras and Indonesia, it is a clean, versatile fish that welcomes a chef’s handiwork, he says.

“The reason tilapia is a great fish to work with is that it is relatively mild, yet rich,” says Gruel. “It’s a phenomenal vehicle for introducing different flavors with creativity and culinary nuance.”

Gruel is proud that Slapfish’s lake-grown tilapia is raised without antibiotics and with sustainability in mind, which preserves the planet’s waters and reduces pressure on stocks of wild fish.

That message can be shared with customers by equating sustainability and quality. “We tell people that sustainable seafood tastes better,” says Gruel. “Then we tell them why — because it’s a higher-quality product. That gets peoples’ attention more than anything else.”

Allied content by Penton Restaurant Group