Best Practices: The Art of the Launch with Ghetto Gastro

The founders of the Bronx-born culinary collective on giving back, building buzz, and the elements of an anti-racist breakfast.

L to R: Jon Gray, Pierre Serrao, and Les Walker of Ghetto Gastro.
Photo: Nayquan Schuler

Editor's note: We could all use a little inspiration and light during these strange days. Enter Best Practices, a F&W Pro interview series where we share how leaders and creatives are facing unprecedented challenges head on during the pandemic while still growing personally and professionally.

Jon Gray, Pierre Serrao, and Lester Walker are busier than a Blue Origin rocket launch pad.

In the last year alone, the trio behind Ghetto Gastro, a culinary, art, and design collective from the Bronx, have launched a wireless headphone collaboration with Beats By Dre. They appeared in a Slim Aarons-inspired ad for Jay Z's new cannabis company Monogram and most recently collaborated on a line of sleek small appliances, CRUXGG, at 1,792 Target locations. Next up: They're taking the Ghetto Gastro brand to Tokyo with Burnside, a chef-driven casual cafe and eatery by day and restaurant, bar, and lounge designed by Snøhetta.

The trio built their reputation on one-of-a-kind international events, but the pandemic clarified their focus. Their blend of community activism, culinary chops, and mixed media experience has put them in the room with major companies looking to align with Ghetto Gastro's mission to empower underprivileged communities. Every new product launch includes a give back program to support their community. For the Target line, CRUXGG, that means 5% of profits will go directly to a collective of nonprofits that are working to end food insecurity, including Dan Colen's founded Sky High Farm and New York based organization Project Eats, as well as many other organizations around the country (and in Minneapolis).

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"Our name is Ghetto Gastro," says Gray. "It's definitely a polarizing thing that forces you to think deeper and see what's going on, or at least makes you want to know more. We're unapologetically who we are. Honestly, that reputation precedes us before we take a meeting."

After selling out of waffle makers with their first small appliance line, Ghetto Gastro developed their own consumer packaged good with Wavy, a waffle mix made with cassava from South America, amaranth from Mexico, and sorghum, millet, and nuts from Africa. Next up, a syrup. Call it a vertical waffle operation.

"We've got to give you the trifecta to set you up for a successful, anti-racist breakfast," Gray says. "We consider ourselves the mouth of the global south. We're rejecting the idea that [cuisine] is all Eurocentric. How do you bring these other continents like Asia, the Americas, Africa and tell these culinary stories."

I recently spoke with Gray and Serrao over a video call to talk about their creative process, how they build buzz for new launches on Instagram, and why mental health breaks matter.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

I saw your new CRUXGG appliances at Target last weekend on the end cap. How does this line reflect the core values of Ghetto Gastro?

Gray: First and foremost, to give back was super important to us. When you get down to the category of home appliances, we just felt like there wasn't a place of expression for the type of things that we dig. So, just like how we created Ghetto Gastro, we saw there was a gap [in the kitchen]. We figured out how to fill that gap. We created something that comes in different colors, feels a little sleek, and has good vibrations.

Serrao: We wanted to make sure that when it came to the use and the design, that the products had functions that the home cook could use to become just a little bit better. To make the whole ritual around cooking more enjoyable and allow people to think in the mindset of [how] we think. When you look at stuff like the smokeless griddle, I think that's the only indoor griddle kitchen appliance that gets up to like 500°. You can sear [food] and get those textures right.

Gray: You don't got to rock a bubble down to grill in the winter, you know what I'm saying?

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You're probably not doing this line without the 5% give back to food insecurity nonprofits, right?

Serrao: We're not really doing anything without a give back, to be honest. Since day one that's always been something that's been baked into our business model. It's always been the core mission at GG. The community is the foundation that lifts us up. As much as we are champions of these different institutions and organizations, the people on the ground are putting in that pain. Delivering packages of food to people and doing that labor. We wanted to make sure that they were recognized as well.

Gray: We don't want to take up space from people doing the real, on the ground activism. The hands-on work. We just want to be able to provide a platform, and then also capital and resources to help amplify that work that's getting done. How do we create pipelines and do business in a different way that really has multiple benefits? It's not just a payday.

We're unapologetically who we are.

What does that look like when you're in the room with a partner like Target? Do they understand your values immediately, or does that take multiple conversations?

Gray: I think that probably in the past it's been challenging. Especially when you think about the world and people are more close-minded and probably care less about Black folks and people of color. Before the pandemic, before June 2020, we were just keeping it a buck. There's no hiding. Our name is Ghetto Gastro. It's definitely a polarizing thing that forces you to think deeper and see what's going on, or at least makes you want to know more. We're unapologetically who we are. Honestly, that reputation precedes us before we take a meeting. The people that want to take meetings and want to be in business with us have that understanding.

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Tell me about the group dynamics of Ghetto Gastro and what your creative process looks like. How do you make decisions? Is it a democracy? Storytelling can be a messy process.

Gray: Shit is definitely a dictatorship. Pierre, they call him Fidel Gastro. We're working on overthrowing that regime.

Serrao: Good luck!

Gray: We definitely all bring our heads together when it's time to make big decisions. We're so aligned, for the most part, we've been doing this for a decade. So, we know what's a no, and we know what's a yes. Also, what type of massaging needs to be done to make a no a yes with other partners that come into an understanding.

My responsibilities, personally, since I wasn't [culinarily] gifted or didn't do the work on the line like my brothers in arms did, I'm more of a CEO/Art Director type. Everybody has business ideas. Everybody has creative ideas at this point, but that's why they call me "the dishwasher." I'm responsible for rinsing pockets. Running it up.

Serrao: Each aspect of business requires a different sort of brain and level of focus. Whether it's negotiating contracts, or it's writing out formats for TV shows or audio series, or working on a book, or giving back to the community. I think between all of us, we divide up the workload accordingly. Like a lot of small companies, we're still working on the internal structures of how everything flows.

Gray: As we look at going to the next level and developing more business units within the Ghetto Gastro world, it's going to be about recruiting and finding excellent leaders. All of us pretty much lean on a right-brain side, so we definitely need those left-brained counterparts who are thinking about how we maximize efficiencies while maintaining authenticity, and just being who we are. I'll just use Marc Jacobs or Tom Ford as an example. I should find better examples than two old white men. But they were always the creators and they had their counterpart that really was focused on growing the business. So, as we build and want to be able to reach more people, those are the spots that we're going to be looking at adding to the team.

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Let's talk waffles. First you made a waffle iron that sold out in stores. Now you've got the waffle mix. Are you working on whipped cream, too?

Gray: Go listen to Three 6 Mafia, UGK, and Project Pat. Whatever they was sipping on, we got that coming next. That sizzurp—we got some sizzurp coming. We got the printer. The waffle iron is the printer. We got the paper (waffles). Syrup is the ink. We've got to give you the trifecta to set you up for a successful, anti-racist breakfast. So in the waffle mix we're using ancestral grains from the motherland cassava from South America, amaranth from Mexico. We're looking at sorghum, millet, and tiger nuts from Africa.

We've got to give you the trifecta to set you up for a successful ant-racist breakfast.

We consider ourselves the "mouth of the global south". We're rejecting the idea that [cuisine] is all Eurocentric. How do you bring these other continents like Asia, the Americas, Africa and tell these culinary stories. Utilize these ingredients to create a new wave—no pun intended—because the waffles are wavy, but that's the energy. Big vibes.

The waffles are delicious. The most important thing is always flavor. You can tell a great story, but at the end of the day, shit's got to taste good. We're always focused on flavor and thinking about how we can innovate and do things a little bit differently.

With something like the waffle mix, who in GG runs point?

Gray: It started with R&D and the design as well. We tasted a lot of waffles to dial in the formula. We're still working on the formula. We have a gluten-free, plant-based version, but we want to keep thinking about it kind of like a software company. How do we keep getting better versions? Taking feedback and being able to iterate based on the feedback.

Serrao: When it comes to the formulating and the tasting of the products, we're working together. We're in the lab tasting these waffles together. Tasting the mixes, whatever the product is, we're tasting together, sharing notes, and then bouncing back and forth until we have something that we're satisfied with and that we feel meets the standard.

You guys were in the Cayman Islands during lockdown before you got approval to come back to the States. How did everything that you went through during the pandemic, what the world went through, what the Bronx went through, how did that sharpen your focus for Ghetto Gastro?

Gray: P and I were together in the Caymans so we got a lot closer. We created a new show. We got really focused because there were no events during the pandemic.

We know communities that are underserved or systemically oppressed. Something like Covid happens, we knew, "Damn. This shit's going to fuck the [Bronx] up." We were paying attention to what was happening on the ground. We saw the work that La Morada [a mutual aid kitchen in the Bronx] was doing. We saw how they pivoted their mission, and we were like, "All right. Let's get some resources, Let's do what we know how to do," which is secure a bag. Let's get that bag in the right hands and work on feeding families. When it was all said and done we fed upwards of 100,000 families during the height of the pandemic.

Serrao: Pre-pandemic, a lot of our energy was spread thin. We were collaborating with other brands and clients, but it wasn't necessarily serving Ghetto Gastro and us. When the pandemic hit, we took that time to think about what we want in the long term. Ownership. What ownership looks like for us, and generational wealth, and being able to build businesses that are hundred-year companies.

Jon, I wanted to ask you about something you said at the Family Reunion. You were talking about creating value and getting to capture that value. You also said, "If the bag goes to a Black woman, it will extend to 10 more people." Tell me about those two ideas: Capturing value and also what the trickle-down effect from Black women means.

Gray: I think being a creative person, in our communities, where we come from, the resilience, just the spirit of Black and brown people. We create. Look at the music industry, and you look at the artist versus the owners. Who is capturing the value from the royalties, the publishing, or even in visual arts? You don't see a lot of [gallery owners] that are Black or brown. But now, especially now, Black artists are super hot so the market is opening up.

We're really focused on building an infrastructure so we can, basically, own our royalties. Own our rights. Create the value, but also capture it. And be able to disperse it in ways that we see fit.

In terms of Black women, that's the ultimate creative source. All humans on the planet started from that place. Women are more prone to share and take care. I'm raised by all Black women and that's where all my knowledge and most great things in my life come from. We just got to pay it forward and keep the cycle moving.

Talk to me about bringing the Bronx to the world and what does home-grown growth look like versus gentrification in the Bronx.

Gray: Man, it's hard to even say what home-grown looks like because ...

Serrao: You don't see it.

Gray: Like I said, capture the value. If you're doing something cool in the space, it'd be a good thing to own that space. I look at Theaster Gates and what he's done in Chicago, and what Rick Lowe's done with Project Row Houses in Houston. In New York period, I think with the way real estate works, we don't have that opportunity to grab property at prices where you can do something creative and try new models. You've got to move in making money. The first iteration of us [bringing] Bronx to the world is us bringing our bodies and our spirit and our energy.

A lot of people think of a particular thing when they think of the Bronx, and it's poverty, it's poor. We wanted to be able to be like, "Yeah, we're coming from that environment. We speak that vernacular. That's the vibration. We're not ashamed of where we started but, make sure we demand respect for the energy that we're bringing."

The Bronx is a cradle to a lot of creativity that's powering the planet right now.

The Bronx is a cradle to a lot of creativity that's powering the planet right now.

Serrao: When you think about it on a grand scale, the world revolves around America. America revolves around New York. New York revolves around the Bronx. Bronx to the world.

There's an art to the drop, the way you create energy and buzz behind a new release or product on Instagram. It's something you guys seem to have mastered.

Serrao: For us it's really about just being authentic to who we are and finding and creating that aesthetic that works for us when it comes to the language and the storytelling, getting our point across and getting the message across to the community. We don't want things to feel gimmicky, we don't want things to feel overproduced.

When it comes to products we try to sell units. We want people to get the products and support the community, but we also don't want people to feel like we're just giving them things to buy. It's a tight rope that we walk, but with us, we live and breathe this stuff. At the end of the day, it's just very natural to do what we do. Fortunately, we're comfortable in front of a camera and we're all slick with our tongues so we can think on a dime and be compelling and interesting with the things that we're saying.

When you're in it, you don't see how big the world is. When you go on the moon, you can see everything.

You guys obviously take care of yourselves. What do you do to feed your soul while you're feeding others?

Serrao: Everything starts within. Meditations and exercising daily. Eating good, eating clean. The majority of my diet is based around plants. Exercise, hydrate, mind your own business, meditate. Check in on your loved ones. Just slow things down a little bit. It used to be really, really, really fast. Going everywhere around the world, doing this, doing that. Once we slowed it down, things started coming a lot more naturally.

We try to do at least three team trips a year where we will take a few days and go to a remote place like Palm Springs earlier this year after a shoot we did [a commercial] for Monogram, Jay-Z's company. We recently just went to Mexico and I'm sure we'll probably just dip off somewhere towards the end of the year, holiday time. It allows us to reconnect with each other and stay focused on the task at hand and also just keep that sense of camaraderie and family.

Not getting lost in the sauce with all the things that we have. We take time to sit back and reflect on what we've accomplished, especially because while you're doing things in the moment you don't necessarily understand the impact. When you're in it, you don't see how big the world is. When you go on the moon, you can see everything.

For us, we take that chance just to step out from inside of all the chaos and ask how each other is doing. Make sure that each one of us and our families, our partners, everybody's good and healthy. That kind of just translates into business and everything else that we do. When we're good, we know that everybody else around us will follow suit and pick up little gems here and there. I know that for a fact that our management team and other people that are close to our circle are definitely taking those mental health breaks.

We demand it too, because it's like, "I need a few days to just go and not be on my phone and not have to answer messages and answer calls and show up, and do this, and do that."

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