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The duo behind Savannah’s The Grey on the creative process of their new book Black, White, and The Grey, opening a new restaurant in Austin, and what sweat equity should really mean.

By Hunter Lewis
February 20, 2021
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Johno Morisano and Mashama Bailey
Credit: Adam Kuehl

Editor's note: The news can weigh heavily on all of us during these strange days, including small business owners and employees whose jobs have been altered by the pandemic. We could all use a little inspiration and light. That's why we've launched Best Practices, a new column for F&W Pro, to share how leaders are facing unprecedented challenges head on during the pandemic while still growing personally and professionally.

In the center of a former Jim Crow–era Greyhound bus terminal, a space that once housed a segregated lunch counter, is table number 34, where a painting by local Savannah artist Marcus Kenney hangs above the best seat in the house. The restaurant's owners, Johno Morisano and Mashama Bailey, commissioned the piece to add color to the dining room.

"The image—titled Collected Stories—portrayed, 1950s postcard-style, a multiracial family disembarking from a Greyhound bus that had traveled from New York City to Savannah," Morisano writes in Black, White, and The Grey: The Story of an Unexpected Friendship and a Beloved Restaurant. "In the front of the bus rode the Black passengers, and in the rear were the White ones. Various imagery of the South's ugly past, (potentially) bright future, progress, and inertia were incorporated throughout the piece."

Bailey, a Black female chef, loved it instantly. "The painting is about a collective future full of change—change that I hope the world is ready for," she writes.

Morisano, her white male business partner, was looking at the collage through a different set of eyes. His first impression: Was it racist? Or hopeful? He couldn't be sure. Ultimately, they decided to hang the painting, which has provoked some white diners to walk out of the restaurant.

"It's hopeful about the future and honest about the past," Morisano writes. "Had Mashama not been there with me, I don't think I would have had the guts to take the piece and hang it in The Grey."

When the Staten Island–born Morisano recruited the Bronx-born Bailey on as a business partner in 2014, he was looking for more than a chef. He was looking for a statement-making partner who could help shake up Savannah's status quo by welcoming denizens of the port city into a space that once divided bus riders by race. After they found their footing, accolades—and international tourists—began to pour in. Bailey took home a James Beard Foundation award in 2019, and the restaurant earned a spot on Food & Wine's inaugural 2019 World's Best Restaurants list, too. But it wasn't until they set out to write the book that they began to truly reckon with their business relationship and began to look at the world through one another's eyes.

When I interviewed the duo earlier this week over a video call, they were clearly in a mind-meld and were even wearing matching green-gray sweaters, albeit unintentionally. (Morisano was in New York City tending to some business, including The Grey's residency at INTERSECT by Lexus in Manhattan, while Bailey spoke from her home in Savannah.) We talked about the frustrating process of making the book, the effects of COVID on their business, and what the year ahead will look like with a new restaurant and market in Austin.

I encourage you to read Black, White, and The Grey. It's one of the best and most honest books about business, partnership, race, class, culture, and gender I've encountered.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The book ends talking about the isolating effects of COVID and the reality of what it's done to your business and the restaurant industry. How are you both doing today? And what's the status of The Grey in Savannah?

Mashama Bailey: COVID was hard for a lot of reasons. Some businesses will not survive it and some will. I think the ones who survive have a little bit of an obligation to help this system that we call restaurants. And I think COVID stopped people who all they know how to do is go. It's been a hard thing. 

Johno Morisano: We did this thing with American Express, these yurts in the side yard of the bus terminal that have been a godsend from a revenue point of view. That's stabilized us financially.

The emotional part of this—I probably hit my low point sometime summer, maybe into the fall a little bit. I was seriously considering, "Is doing this worth it?" But I completely agree with Mashama. There's a real obligation on the folks who have figured out how to survive and even thrive in this pandemic just through sheer creativity, to help right the ship and the flawed economic restaurant model. The margins that make you so fragile that you can't survive being shut down because you've made such narrow margins for so long. We have an obligation to talk about that and to help to figure it out. To re-educate guests that if you're shopping for your restaurant experience based on how much food they give you and how little it costs, hopefully there's going to be less of that.

The Grey is doing okay, the Grey Market is doing okay but it sucks wind occasionally because of the location. I feel good now. I feel very hopeful for the future, not only for our future, but that this industry is trying to work hard to figure out and not to just compete on price, especially like in a city like Savannah.

In thinking about the role of a restaurant guest in the future, is there an expectation that they play a bigger role in the hospitality equation? Maybe one that's less one-sided than before? 

Morisano: We reopened The Grey in late July, early August, and we probably got our first shitty Yelp review that first weekend. You scratch your head. Was it a good experience? Maybe it was a bad experience? I don't know. But why would you come attack us right now? What are you thinking about, Yelp people, when you're not even giving us the room to reopen? We got bad reviews for not being open. During the pandemic! 

When we did re-open, we changed the business model through the menu to this fixed course structure because we had to figure out ways to reduce our food waste, while open a limited number of days a week because of the pandemic and problems with staffing. But people still want the valet parking and the whole guest experience. They still want all these bells and whistles that cost money. So you have to figure out how to generate more revenue on fewer guests and how to get a market that is going to let you survive. It is about educating guests. We used to be able to operate on a 6% net margin. Because revenue is down and we have a fixed cost structure, we have to do something differently and we've got to get net margins up to a point that we can survive this whole thing.

After we survive it, we want to pay people fair wages and health care. We want to create careers, and the industry as a whole doesn't really look at it like that. They look at it like as long as I can open up and have a little bit of money at the end of the day as an owner or as a chef, that's all well and good. That has to be fixed. The only way you can fix it is holistically. The restaurateur. has to fix it in the front of the house and the back of the house, and the guest has to buy into it. Restaurants like ours have to hold the line. If a guest says, "Oh,  it's outrageously pricey." No, it's not. Come sit down and we'll show you our P&L. It's not outrageously pricey. You may think so because you're used to thinking nothing for your meal, but that has to end. 

Bailey: I knew very early on that I wasn't going to have a good relationship with Sysco and the big conglomerates. I wanted something smaller. I was hyper-focused on who was growing things in the area. We had to build relationships with farmers. I did not want to lose those relationships with the farms during the pandemic. There's a lot of thought behind the menu structure, to be able to move through produce hyper-seasonally. As soon as tomatoes are done growing, we're done with tomatoes. We're not going to buy canned tomatoes. That way we stay engaged with the farmers. When you're buying local rice that costs more per pound than chicken, it's going to be really delicious and we have to pay for that. It's also a part of educating the guests, putting a face to the ingredient. You are supporting a family and you're supporting small business and you're supporting the region. It's a little bit more expensive to buy local than getting a big old bag of rice from somewhere that's not a fair trade company and not paying their workers fairly.

Mashama, you wrote that the experience of finding truth and trust while writing the book was difficult. What was your initial reaction when you saw the manuscript for the first time and realized that A, there was going to be more work ahead; and B, you're learning more about your business partner than you had known?

Bailey: I was a little surprised and definitely frustrated because I'd never had these conversations with Johno. I just assumed our pursuit of happiness, building a restaurant, that we are already on the same common ground—and that he understood where I was coming from. And reading this book, I just knew that we had to have more conversations about race and not come from a judgmental place. But my first reaction, even that first rewrite, I was just all bottled up, frustrated, judgmental. And I had to work through that. I had to open up and I didn't want to because I was just like, "Who wants to hear this conversation? Who cares about this conversation?'

I felt like I was a little bit forced, but I kind of need to be nudged outside of my comfort zone in order for me to perform. I get comfortable with and I tend to excel in it. It was the right thing for me to do. Johno knows that about me. I think that he was kind of poking the bear a little bit, and I think that he wasn't sure what he was going to get. It was a little bit harder than he thought it was going to be. 

Morisano: All 100% true. But I don't think I knew that consciously. I just thought that I was going to throw it out there on the page, and we would sort it out. I was never intentionally insensitive. I just didn't have the vocabulary. I had never had this conversation before. So we were learning together. I think we both were insensitive. 

The rewrite process and the results are super meta. How did the struggle and the hard work of writing and rewriting help you two find a better balance in your business partnership?

Bailey: We pored over every single word. I wrote the prologue, Johno the introduction and the epilogue. We rewrote those once we went through the main body of the book together and we started on chapter one and went through everything he and I wrote. In the moment, we addressed the feeling that the other one felt when they read our parts, and so I think by doing it that way, we opened up and got to know a lot more about each other, why we were coming from that perspective. 

A lot of my suspicions can be perceived as guardedness, but then you look at how my great-great-grandfather was murdered [Ed. Note: Bailey writes in the book that Robert Hollis was lynched in Forsyth, Georgia in the late 1920s. Forced off their land by the assailants, Hollis's family migrated to New York City and Tennessee.] If you want to know why people act the way they do, you have to read behind the lines. That's what we were able to do when we went and re-read the manuscript. We were able to ask the question, "Why did you say that? Or what were you feeling? Or where's that coming from?" That's how we got to know each other a little bit better. We became more honest with each other. It became easier. It's like becoming best friends. You accept the faults, you accept the good, and you accept the bad. 

And Johno cried a lot. [Laughs]

Morisano: Three times. Maybe four.

We were writing alone up until when we went away together to Paris. We were planning a food trip anyway and this became a way to kill two birds with one stone and eat at night while we were writing during the day. But before that, Mashama and I wrote. I'd email those words to Mashama. Mashama stayed at home for a period of time or went to the mountains of North Carolina to get away. We had to get words on the page. But it wasn't successful at becoming a real dialogue between us. When you read the final product of that, it was two people talking at each other. 

Then when we went away to Paris and wrote in that flat every morning. In two or three weeks there we knew we were onto something really good. Then at night, we'd go have wine and food—the thing that brought us together in the first place was how we ended almost every day.

The way that your voices work together is almost like emotional fact-checking or some kind of call and response. Or like you two are telling the story over dinner and gently correcting each other or nodding in an affirmation.  I can't recall reading a book written in such a conversational way. What do you call the style?

Morisano: A dialogue. At times it was all of those things. The tears were when we hit a really emotional point and not just the story about Scott [Waldrup, GM of The Grey, who was struck and killed while walking by the driver of a car who was eluding Savannah police. Two of the three occupants of the car were also killed when the car struck a pole]. I remember reading back and I wrote my accounting of 9/11. It was so emotional, sharing all of this stuff together. There were so many of those intense moments, including the intense discussions about where we disagreed with each other about intention or just the recounting of a series of events. And if we couldn't come to terms on more counting of a series of events, it didn't make it in. 

There's a few instances like where Mashama says, there were no police at the scene the night Scott was killed and I remember police everywhere. That was a different recollection of what was going on, but if we couldn't agree on how something transpired we just took me out of the book. So I think it really is a conversation. We both have to take responsibility for every word that's in that book and agree with every word that's in that book.

Bailey: That's where my frustration was with the first draft, because I didn't agree with the book and I struggled with that. One of the smartest things we did was to get people that we trusted to read the book and to understand what the fallout was going to be before it actually was published. To think about how our words will affect people and that they're going to last forever. It's a book. 

It was fascinating and heartbreaking to read about how each of you described the night that your GM Scott Waldrup was killed and each of your interactions with the police and the bystanders in the neighborhood. And I thought in a different way, but also the same, how you each encountered that piece of art for The Grey that you commissioned from Marcus Kenney. Both of your reactions to these memories created a deeper emotional connection to the book. 

Bailey: I love that Marcus Kenney painting. I remember the day we walked into his studio, I was just like, "Wow." I just felt like he was coming from such a good place. And he was observing and he was a father and there was so much of that in the collage that I just thought, "Who would think of it as being a racist piece?" But people do.

Morisano:  We see what we want to see, right?

Bailey: Yeah. And if you see a bus and you see segregation on the bus, you're just looking at segregation, not even looking at how segregation can be reversed or revisited. 

Morisano:  On how we received that night of the accident differently, Mashama said something earlier about her great-great-grandfather, how that has shaped her view of the world and how she responds to anything. There's a question in the book about why did Johno bring his gun to the scene of an accident. I knew when I was talking to Mashama on the phone, I suspected it wasn't an accident. I suspected something violent had occurred. Any night that there's a condoned party in Savannah is chaotic. And I lost my own grandfather to violence when I was 9 years old. That was formative. I didn't realize it until probably the aftermath of that night in Savannah, my own biases and probably how I responded to that. And so, there's something microcosmic about your family and your history that ultimately defines you.

Bailey: They shape your view. They influence how you see the world. If your mother, father, grandmother or grandfather is showing you the world through their eyes, you're going to have some residual effects.

The saddest part was that it was an accident in that moment, but they were in the wrong prior to the moment. The way it happened, everyone was in shock and awe, because it was just so tragic.

Morisano: To me it wasn't an accident. We don't agree on this. To me it was an unintentional consequence of bad events, of nefarious events. It took a lot of the life away.

Talk about the new Austin project, going to a new city and starting all over again. What are your expectations of Texas Hill Country and how it might differ from a Georgia port city?

Bailey: We have a perspective being Savannah for the last six years, we've come with some roots. There's going to be a real opportunity to explore the foodways in Austin and foodways in Texas. I'm excited to see what that's going to do creatively to the menu and the market, but we're going to Austin knowing who we are and sharing that with the people of Austin and the people of Texas. It will be very interesting to see who I meet along the way to opening will influence the food.

Morisano: I was struck by the city because it feels like the bigger version of Savannah, putting aside that's landlocked and geographically and topographically different. It's an art and culture and music and college town that's growing. And the food scene is sort of defined right now. We ate a lot in Austin before we decided to pull the trigger on this. There's a lot of fusion, Asian, Tex-Mex barbecue, and then there was the fusion of those things. I think there's a spot for us. It's a fun market to be in. It's Texas. It's not the South because Texas is Texas, but has got very similar likes and dislikes that I think that Mashama can really take it and reframe what we do in a fun way.

Bailey: Every time you say the word fun, I want to gag. It will be fun eventually. [Laughs]

This book will make a helluva movie one day. Who should play you both?

Morisano:  Rick Astley should play me at 18 years old. [Laughs] I'm more concerned about who would be producing than who was playing because all of the hard work in that business goes on behind the scenes. So I'll just go for Brad Pitt and George Clooney just because they seem to make sense because we're somewhat contemporaries. 

Bailey: I don't know. I really like Kerry Washington. Even though we don't look alike she's great.

Mashama, I'm thinking about the next generation of cooks coming up who will look at you as a strong and creative leader in the kitchen. If you're looking now at the generation below you, who should we be paying attention to in the kitchen? A person or people who impress you, that you see as future leaders?

Bailey: I'm constantly having this conversation. Our representation in this industry is starting to explode, but there are not a lot of people interested in the old guard of learning in the way of coming up. Social media has created an opportunity for people to put themselves out there without any support or any other kind of representation. And there are very few people who want to work through and go through the system, go through the changes in the restaurant industry the way I have. 

I think Ashleigh Shanti is fantastic. I think she's a hard worker. I think she's creative. I think she gets it. I think she's going to be a force. She has a perspective. She's fabulous.

Klancy Miller, she's a writer who just started For the Culture who just came out with the first issue. This is going to be another excellent way that we're going to start to see and learn about young Black chefs that are coming up. As far as me working and helping to amplify voices, BJ Dennis is one of them. Even when he's an old guy in a rocking chair and everybody's going to want to know what he thinks. They are my top three. I think there needs to be representation for the heritage of Black food in America. There needs to be representation for the young and upcoming chef who's listening to our elders. And then I think there's going to be people who need to highlight those stories. 

This is ultimately a book about a partnership. Mashama you've written about negotiating to preserve your voice and constantly staying engaged with your business partner. And both of you write about what happens when you're not engaged, and also about revisiting and adjusting your original agreement as needed. There are a lot of people in business who think a contract has to be written in stone. Can you talk about your willingness to come back to the table and to revisit and adjust the original agreement?

Bailey: If you're truly a partnership, then you're going to evolve. You're going to be a different person than who you were five years ago. You're going to have different needs. For you to feel connected to what you're doing, you have to air out your grievances. You may not get everything, but you need to talk about the things that are important to you. And if they're important to you, they need to be important to your partner. There are limitations depending on the business. But you have to be able to have those conversations. 

In the very beginning, having that one-on-one conversation with my business partner, I would always be riddled with this weird emotion. It was almost this apologetic emotion of asking for what I want. Once you take that part out of it, you're just people and you're just trying to be happy in the business that you're building together. That was probably one of the more important things that I realized and Johno was there for it. He was there for all those moments.

Morisano:  Mashama is right. There's lots of things that go into a partnership, and it starts with finances. And so that is historically, traditionally, how you start to define an agreement. There's a lot of money in this and we've got to figure out equity. If it was not a true partnership in spirit, that would have been the end of it. But we were committed to being in partnership on this. 

There's this story in the book where I'm like, "Are you ready to do this for life?" I meant it. Because I didn't want to do it again. I just wanted to do it with one person. And based on my past experience, this was going to be a really dynamic living relationship that would reflect a dynamic business relationship and agreement. Part of it is making sure that you are in it together. I wanted to make sure Mashama was in it. We trusted each other. And certainly working on this book is as trusting as we're ever going to get with each other's intentions. We will always be talking about this business until it's equal on all fronts.

There's an equalness in the overall relationship now that is not just the collaboration but the business relationship. It should take a long time, as long as people are willing, to be honest about the relationship. And to be honest about what people are bringing to the relationship. Mashama has been the face of the brand from the first day. That's a powerful position to be in if you're successful. 

She deserves that and what comes with that. I think that there's business people out there who question the wisdom of moving to a 50/50 partnership with someone who earned their portion via their sweat equity and their commitment to the business and what they give to it. And I would question the wisdom of not doing that. I've never said that out loud. 

Johno, you wrote about anger in the book and how you would process anger. And both of you were candid about yelling as a part of the culture in the early days of The Grey. There's a lot to be angry about in the world right now. How are you processing anger now?

Morisano: I don't think that anger was a part of the culture of The Grey. I think there were emotional outbursts. I'm not trying to make them something they're not. But in the beginning they were effective every now and then. I can remember the first one where we were doing a shitty job and we had all of our managers up in the private dining room for a meeting. I think it was the first time I ever lost my shit. There was a certain aspect of it where I wanted them to see how seriously I'm taking this.  But I don't think anger was part of the culture. 

Over the last few years, Mashama and I have made a conscious decision to not have those emotional outbursts anymore because I think we've both matured beyond it. 2020 was an emotional year. But at this stage and going into Austin in 2021, I feel really at peace with what we're doing. 

I think I'm over the fear of failure that I've had all my life. The pandemic and a couple of other inflection points I had during 2020 made me go, "What's the worst thing that happens. We go out of business?" That used to scare the ever-living hell out of me. From a reputational risk point of view from all these people relying on you point of view, from a Mashama point of view. We're doing the best we can do. And if our biggest downside is that we cease to exist as a business, well, there are better businesses than us that could not tolerate the pandemic. What's happened to me personally and to us as a restaurant over the last year—and to the whole world—has given me a very different perspective. I'm in a really good place. And the book is really helpful.

Bailey: In the beginning there was much pressure and it was all coming to me. Everyone had expectations. I just felt like I was failing all the time. I just deflected through yelling in anger,  like, if a line cook had not set up his station. And I would yell and scream about it. Then I would go home and feel really bad because it didn't help anything. It just drove a wedge between me and this person who's working his butt off 60 hours a week for me. And I'm just so unappreciative of all that, I'm just homing in on this one mistake, which is probably my fault anyway, because there wasn't a prep cook. 

I'm not a parent, but I have younger siblings. You yell and scream, and then all of a sudden, your children are yelling and screaming and in the way that you do. You kind of see how the people who are closest to you  are emulating you. And I started to see a little bit of that in the management team in the back of the house. And I was like, "No, we can't do this. This isn't going to be the legacy that I leave behind." I want to teach people how to be proactive. That was a huge turning point for me, when I started to see this was becoming how we ran the kitchen, and not just me having an outburst. This was sort of becoming a part of the system. I had to add to make a change.

I love that in the acknowledgement section you shout out unnamed nemeses. What does a nemesis do for you? Help clarify your mission or give you somebody to compete against?

Bailey: It can make you stronger. "You can't catch me!"

Morisano:  We're talking about good natured nemeses, not people that are foes. They drive you. They make you want to be better. It's healthy competition. We did a memorial  thing for Scott when his family came down to Savannah. When I spoke I mentioned all of the people who had been there for us that week. I talked about our friends, our family, neighbors, distributors, purveyors, competitors. And one of them came up to me afterwards. He's like, "I love that you said that. Even though we love each other, we're competitors." And that's not a bad thing. That's a good thing. To be competitive with integrity is a good thing.

You both gravitate to cities full of art and music. What are you each reading, listening to, looking at now to fill up your well so you can go out into the world and to be strong and empathetic leaders?

Bailey: I'm reading African American Life in the Georgia Lowcountry about the contribution that Black people have made on the Georgia coast, and how we expanded from the coast throughout the country. It's really focused on Gullah Geechee culture, and I'm excited to really have an opportunity to dig into it, because I think that a lot of how we use ingredients from Africa apply to this part of the world. It's a bunch of essays about how we got here and what while we were here. I think that's important because that's kind of similar to what we're doing next. We're based on the coast, and we're extending to Austin, Texas. So I think it's very interesting to understand the base of where we're from in order to bring that across without appropriating or taking advantage of anything.

Morisano: I started building some playlists for the Texas space, just to start thinking about it, which is what I started doing for The Grey really early on before while it was still an idea. Music has always been sort of a thing for me since I was a little kid. I immediately started with the Texas outlaws, Waylon and Willie and the boys, and Townes Van Zandt, Steve Earle. Sort of like that Texas countryish vibe. That kind of leads you to Lucinda Williams, and it would lead you to other people around the South. And so I've been working on it that way.

The only podcast I can honestly say I've been listening to of late is Jon Meacham's It Was Said. It  gives you a great perspective on the history of this country through the eyes of some of its really spirited leaders. I am trying to continue to understand more about Mashama and her history. Listen to the Meacham episode on Martin Luther King Jr.'s speech in Memphis the night before he was killed. 

Bailey: That's a really good speech.

Morisano: That's a tremendously good speech. Because so much about what we do is so personal to me and Mashama, the more we learn about each other and our own histories, the better equipped we are to continue to build our business honestly, not get in each other's ways, and not be an impediment to what we both will add to the business collectively and individually.