When New Yorkers John O. Morisano and Mashama Bailey opened the Grey in an old Greyhound bus station in Savannah, Georgia, they set out to create a restaurant that would become as much a fixture of its community as the art deco building it occupied. Two years in, the Port City restaurant has established itself as a Southern-dining destination — an essential restaurant in the region, according to Eater’s restaurant editor Bill Addison — and the duo is taking concerted steps to further tie the restaurant to its city and invest in the future of Savannah restaurants.
This month, Bailey and Morisano finalized plans to launch a scholarship through the Edna Lewis Foundation, which works to preserve African-American culinary tradition in the South. (The pair joined the board last year.) In the fall, the foundation will cover a year of tuition and supplies for two full-time Savannah Tech students in the culinary or hospitality programs who are passionate about cooking but struggling to find work-life balance. “This is the first time that [the Edna Lewis Foundation] is really going out and impacting the community directly,” Morisano says. “And that's a direct result of us getting involved in it.”
The pair hopes their work with the Edna Lewis Foundation will do particular good for local restaurants. Morisano says that although a large part of the job market in touristy Savannah is in hospitality, filling those jobs with dedicated staff has been difficult. “People were just screwing around [in Savannah],” Bailey says of restaurant staff in the city, a challenge she’s discussed before. “They just were cooking because it was easy.” And Savannah isn’t necessarily an easy town to operate in. Despite critical acclaim, Hugh Acheson’s restaurant the Florence closed this month, with the chef calling it “a financial puzzle that just doesn’t work.”
It’s been an uphill climb, but at the Grey, the duo’s efforts are making an impact. The restaurant offers benefits and 401k plans to inspire commitment in its employees. They also host periodic events in the restaurant’s yard in support of causes like the Rape Crisis Center of the Coastal Empire and the Savannah Bicycle Campaign, and hold monthly “Sunday Suppers” to bring together community members more casually.
“Our staff is starting to understand what we're about and come along with us. I think we're getting a clearer picture of what we want to do and who we are and how we're affecting the community,” Bailey says. “They're sort of like, ‘This is serious. I can have a serious career doing this.’”