The Savannah restaurant offers common ground while racing

The past brings tourists to Savannah, Georgia — its historic district, the Antebellum South, caught in a quaint, fairytale time warp. A few blocks away is The Grey, as in Greyhound, a destination restaurant in this destination city that has a very different story to tell about Savannah’s past – a story of a reckoning with racing.

“I was just thinking about what this place used to be, a separate bus station,” Johno Morisano said, “and behind us was the entrance of the colored people and the waiting room of the colored people.”

This is what it looked like when it opened in 1938:

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Savannah’s 1938 Art Deco Greyhound bus station.

The gray


…not the wreck that Morisano, a transplant from New York City, bought in 2012 and decided to pursue his idealistic dream of a restaurant.

“In my simple thought process, I was white; a black woman would be my perfect match to lead this space,” he told correspondent Martha Teichner.

“Before the meeting, I thought, will I be an icon here?” said Mashama Bailey. “Will I be a living, breathing political statement? Because I didn’t want to.”

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Mashama Bailey and Johno Morisano show correspondent Martha Teichner the inside of The Grey.

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Bailey was educated in France and was working as a sous-chef in New York City for a prominent chef when Morisano, a media entrepreneur with no restaurant experience, approached her about becoming his partner at The Grey.

“We were talking about pork knuckles, right?” said Morisano. “And we both realized that our grandmothers both cooked pork knuckles, and that was a shared moment for us.”

And although she was born in New York, Bailey had lived in Savannah for six years as a child.

The restaurant that Bailey runs is in a building that she should have entered through the back door earlier. The Gray opened in 2014. The place’s fraught history is part of its identity, but Morisano and Bailey avoided any discussion of race.

Morisano said, “That question really came to my mind when we had our tragic event here where we really had to deal with it because it was unspoken.” She added, “It was unspoken; I was often the only black person in the room.”

The tragic event was the death of Scott Waldrup, the general manager of The Grey, before Bailey’s eyes, who was run over by three young men fleeing a shooting in 2016.

“I didn’t realize how much I trusted Johno until I called him that night,” she said. “Scott was a huge part of The Grey.”

Morisano said: “I got on the phone and she was just apoplectic, kind of, you know, crying and hard to see and everything. Maybe that’s where we started to really see each other as partners? It’s like tragedy and it’s in difficult times that you find out who your friends are.”

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Johno Morisano and Mashama Bailey.

The gray


What began then and is still ongoing is a conversation.

When Morisano asked her to collaborate with him on a book about The Gray, they trusted each other enough to face everything they had both left unsaid.

“I didn’t want to talk about racing,” Bailey said. “I didn’t want to talk about my feelings about racing and I didn’t want to talk about it his feelings about race.”

And what happened? “We talked about the race, it was tough,” said Morisano.

He and Bailey, accompanied by Morisano’s wife Carol, rented an apartment in Paris and the book took shape. “It was like a six-week therapy session about ownership, pride, pain, fear and confusion,” Bailey said. “It was really about opening those wounds and dealing with them.”

This dialogue became the book Black, White and The Gray.

Lorena Jones books


From the Black, White, and The Gray audio book:

Morisano: “Was I the guy who played a good game about progress, diversity, women’s empowerment… because nothing was at stake?”
Bailey: “Why would you hate us if we don’t have anything you want?”
Morisano: “Was that part of my racism, my legacy that was hidden in my subconscious?”
Bailey: “It’s always a matter of intent when black and white do business.”

Morisano told Teichner, “The emotion was a lot heavier than I thought and Mashama can talk about how many times I cried and how many times she cried.”

“It was less than him!” She laughed.

The restaurant is now her safe place.

In 2019, Mashama Bailey won a prestigious James Beard Award and is up for another this year, for a cuisine that continues to rack up awards and shatter preconceived notions of what southern food is.

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The Gray survives COVID. A painting hangs above the most visible table. There’s a Greyhound bus in there; Blacks sit in front, whites in back. Morisano said: “We had more than a handful of people who left the restaurant before they ordered because they were offended by it.”

The image is quietly provocative, as is the conversation Bailey and Morisano dared to have.

“I don’t think Mashama and I will solve anyone’s problems,” he laughed. “I don’t think we’re going to solve Savannah’s problems, the South’s problems, America’s problems. We don’t even solve our own problems! What we’re really doing is just creating a dialogue and almost sort of a safe space for a dialogue between each other, and that’s the best we can do, you know, I think.”

RECIPE: Mashama Bailey’s Chicken Country Captain


For more information:


Story produced by Jon Carras. Publisher: George Pozderec.

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