The Grey Blog

Fraternity, Community, Pastrami

I have been writing about leadership and accountability in my last couple of posts. I truly believe that the only way that we can solve Savannah’s problems is through the coalescing of the disparate voices around the common issues and solutions upon which we can all agree. This relies on leadership and accountability being firmly present.

That said, I was reminded in the last couple of months that getting people to all pull in the same direction is not always so easy. Being new to the restaurant business I had no expectations about it when we started The Grey a few years ago. I went into it with some basic goals. I wanted to build something that was community oriented and, given my Italian heritage, food to me equals community. I wanted us to be good at it. And, I wanted The Grey to be accretive to Savannah.

My experiences during this period have been overwhelmingly positive. Our team, our guests and our fellow restaurateurs, chefs and peers have, for the most part, been exceptionally supportive. This summer we experienced that support beyond our wildest dreams in the wake of the tragedy that took the life of our General Manager, Scott Waldrup. This weekend that camaraderie is showing up again as many of us rally around each other in the face of Hurricane Irma.

But, in turn, about a month ago, I got a fairly stark reminder that there are always going to be people in this world who just do not get it. This is such a minor happening on one level and then so revealing on another that I was at first reticent to share it but I think it is worth it.

The protagonist in my little tale of woe is pastrami.

Yes the cured meat.

It is a simple tale.

In late July, we at The Grey did something not so very revolutionary…

We…

Wait for it…

We added a pastrami sandwich on rye bread to our Diner Bar menu.

The world needs more pastrami sandwiches

A damned pastrami sandwich.

As many of you know, Mashama and I are both from NYC where Katz’s, Russ & Daughters, and the Second Avenue Deli are icons to us. We love deli food; Jewish deli food in particular. Can’t get enough of it really. Mashama and I have been talking about a pastrami sandwich since we met; obsessing about it even from time-to-time.

And in July we finally got our act together and announced the inclusion of one of the great New York City staple sandwiches on our Diner Bar menu. Sous chef Brian (who is pastrami crazy) cured the pastrami, brined and fermented some sauerkraut, ratcheted up some good deli mustard and pastry chef Erin contributed a rye loaf that is just bombass bread. We debuted our creation via an Instagram post.

Now we were thinking that as far as cured meats go, there is nothing very offensive about pastrami. I mean it’s not liverwurst, or that bologna-like substance with the olives in it, right? I am sure there are people out there who don’t care for it, but hey, pastrami can’t really piss you off.

But we were wrong.

We did offend someone – one woman in particular. This woman’s response to our Instagram post that pictured and described the aforementioned pastrami sandwich was – “You mean just like [insert name of a well-known, local restaurant]’s sandwich??”

I know it is hard to believe, but another restaurant in town already had a pastrami sandwich on their menu.

Shocking!

But, in this woman’s mind the only inference to draw is that all other restaurants (or maybe just us) should be prohibited from putting a pastrami sandwich on their menu. Her clear implication was that we somehow ripped off the idea of a pastrami sandwich from this other restaurant by having the audacity to house-cure pastrami, fucking pastrami for God’s sake, and offer it to our guests in the form of a sandwich. A classic sandwich at that.

Dear offended-by-pastrami-lady, where we come from (which I think is the same place from which you hail) pastrami is as unique as the places that create it. Just ask a fellow New Yorker if they prefer the pastrami, or corned beef for that matter, from Second Avenue Deli or Katz’s and you will get an earful going into great detail about consistency, spice blend , fattiness, leanness, the bread, the mustard, the kraut and why one is so much better than the other.

Now everyone is entitled to their own opinion, that is for sure. But what puzzled me about this woman’s accusation is that she works in the food and beverage industry for a company that provides services to us and other restaurants in town. To be fair, she is not the first person to put her own wit and opinion above the good of the industry she serves nor will she be the last. For those of us in this business, our feelings are not hurt by these comments or critiques whether they are fair or unfair. You must have thick skin when you put yourself out there the way that we all do and it is indeed within people’s rights, just as it is this woman’s right to call us pastrami thieves, to say anything they wish.

But it makes me wonder…

What is the hope of uniting Savannah around our larger problems and challenges when there are people in the world who choose to not even commit to supporting the very industry that powers their personal livelihood? How do we keep pressing forward with our oft-referenced growing food scene when there are people within our own ranks who cannot even follow mother’s advice – ‘If you have nothing nice to say, say nothing at all?’ How many people who make shitty comments does it take to impede progress?

Inside The Grey, we have a zero-tolerance policy among our team for this sort of foolishness. We preach ‘one-for-all and all-for-one’ internally and we feel the exact same way about every single person, group and establishment trying to elevate the food game here in Savannah.

As we pull together this weekend to weather Hurricane Irma, it is a good time to remind ourselves that we cannot reach our full potential as a restaurant, business or greater community unless we genuinely come together and folks lead by example. While this woman’s quip may seem small and insignificant on its face, I believe it is anything but. I believe her words, however subtle or veiled in her social media claim that she is ‘fluent in sarcasm,’ are the words of divisiveness and our fragile food community should not tolerate it from within our own ranks or from our service providers. We should call it out and let those people know that they are either with all of us or against all of us.

Then we would be helping to set an example for our greater community where the problems are very real ones.

– Johno

Leadership

Leadership is a funny thing.

There are no hard and fast rules that determine what makes a good leader which makes leadership a bit like the Supreme Court’s famous 1964 ruling on obscenity – you know it when you see it.

And, you know it when you don’t see it.

Since my colleague and friend Scott Waldrup was murdered in the very early morning hours of July 5, 2017 on the corner of Bay and Barnard streets, I have been thinking a lot about leadership. It is during times of extreme adversity that natural leaders lead and new ones emerge.

By way of example, look at what has taken place over the past nine days since the violent tragedy took place last weekend in Charlottesville, Virginia. Leaders have emerged in unexpected places; leaders like Susan Bro. Ms. Bro is the mother of Heather Heyer, the young lady who was slain by an alleged neo-Nazi, hatemonger. Ms. Bro is certainly mourning her daughter Heather with a strength, dignity and resolve that is downright inspiring.

Susan Bro eulogizing her daughter Heather

If that were not enough, she is also taking her personal tragedy and turning it into a force to further inspire people to loudly reject racism, fascism and, the most egregious of crimes, complacency in our elected officials.

If you were in Pulaski Square on July 7th when Scott’s family hosted a ‘Celebration of Life’ for him, you saw the same grace, resolve and dignity in Scott’s amazing mother Terry. She also mourned her son that day, much like Ms. Bro, with fortitude and courage. But then she called upon all of us to ensure that Scott’s death should not and cannot be in vain. She called upon all of us to better ourselves, to better our neighbors and to better our City.

Terry and family at ‘Celebration of Life’ for Scott

Why is it that these two women, who had every right to crawl up into little balls and beg of us that we leave them alone with their grief, chose to lead us while they themselves were in their very darkest of moments?

I believe it is because that is who they are.

They are the women who have the remarkable capacity to subjugate their own feelings of devastation and loss so that they can support other people by calling upon their gifts of empathy, understanding and, yes, leadership. Terry Waldrup and Susan Bro exposed their own broken hearts so that we, the people whose need was so great that it was, to them, palpable, could touch those hearts and draw upon their strength to fortify our own. They allowed all of us to, quite literally, take a piece of them so that we could mend ourselves.

By the same token, there have been many failures of leadership on display as well.

Throughout my lifetime I have never really, truly understood it when people spoke about an American President or other world leader as someone who ‘unified’ their country or some international contingent. This week, I discovered why. Every American President since I have been old enough to be aware of such things, regardless of their political leanings, has indeed unified our nation in times of crisis. It is an absolute. That is what Presidents do. As such I have never had to intellectually digest someone not doing that. That was until I watched and listened to President Trump in the aftermath of Charlottesville.

Whether you found his words to be the cold, hard truth or completely lacking a moral clarity and purpose, I think we can all agree that he has not united our country. Beyond not genuinely attempting to unite us around a national tragedy and disgrace, he has somehow actually managed to polarize us further.

That is, in my opinion, a leadership failure of epic proportions.

During my time in Savannah I have had the pleasure to meet much of Savannah’s civic and political leadership, some past and some present. Most are good, talented and decent people. Most are well-intentioned and care about you and me and all of Savannah’s citizenry.

But caring and good intentions do not, on their own, a leader make.

Being bound by political and cultural loyalties in the face of evil is not leadership.

Pandering to any one group or the other is not leadership.

Attacking the people with whom you disagree is not leadership.

Obstructing, bickering and working at cross-purposes is not leadership.

Failing to empathize with people in circumstances different than your own is not leadership.

Failing to communicate clearly with your stakeholders is not leadership.

And not showing up is certainly not leadership.

All of this, in my typically long-winded way, brings me to my point.

I do not feel led. In fact, I feel a bit lost. In speaking with many people since that horrible night in July, I have learned that many other Savannah residents feel the same way. Many of us do not understand any of Savannah’s strategic or tactical goals for facing down our challenges. We do not hear a cohesive voice coming from our government, agencies or other organizations meant to achieve progress and success. We do not even know what success is or how it is defined in Savannah.

I am sure strategic and tactical plans exist. They must. We cannot be working without a script, can we? So who is sharing those plans and uniting us all around them? Who is the person pounding the table and saying “Follow me. I have the plan. Follow me and together we will make Savannah better.”

Since Scott’s death I have had countless people come to me and ask me how they can get activated in Scott’s memory because they want Savannah to heal and get better. We all love Savannah. That is why we are here and why we are investing our time and resources into it. We are here to help. I raise this issue to help. We are here to join with our leaders to face down Savannah’s challenges and overcome them.

But we have to know the plan. We have to know what success is and how we measure it. We must be informed by those of you making the decisions.

We, as a community, must be unified and we must be led.

– Johno

(If you have any thoughts you want to share regarding this, Johno Morisano can be reached via email at Johno@ProgressByScott.org).

My Cheers to Scott

On Friday, July 7, 2017, in Pulaski Square, I delivered some words at the Celebration of Life that was held for my friend and colleague Scott Waldrup. There were a fair number of people in attendance who asked me to make those words available online and I thought publishing them as July’s blog post was an apropos way to do this.

My only caveat is that the words below are exactly what I wrote that Friday morning immediately before Scott’s memorial and I am quite certain that what I spoke at Scott’s event was somewhat different. I felt like I was getting a bit long-winded that day and I started adlibbing and shortening my speech (something that doesn’t come all that naturally to me as many of you know). As I cannot remember the final words I spoke, my only option is to publish the words that I wrote. Sorry for the length of them.

I want to promise my fellow Savannah residents that I will use all tools available to me to help to affect the change that I discussed last Friday afternoon (and that is the subject of what is written below) and Mashama and I are determined to fully activate around the issues Scott’s murder has spotlighted for us.

Thank you all for the support you have shown Scott’s family, Mashama, The Grey team, Carol and me. We can never thank you enough Savannah.


Scott Waldrup behind the bar at The Grey

Hey, I am Johno Morisano from The Grey and I have worked with Scott for most of the past three years.

I cannot tell you anything you do not already know about Scott if you were lucky enough to be acquainted with him or blessed enough to call him your friend. Scott, it is safe to say, was not a chameleon. There was nothing hidden or secreted about him. Scott was who Scott was. End of story.

If you are here because you read about Scott online this week or in the newspapers, all I can say is that all of it is true.

He was kind.

He was thoughtful.

He was generous.

He was passionate.

He was smart.

He was curious.

He was absolutely hilarious.

And, in case you didn’t know it, Scott was gay.

He was that rare person who was simultaneously an idealist and a cynic.

He had a remarkably well-coifed red beard that, despite its sheer volume and epicness, was only outmatched by the relentless smile that that red beard made futile efforts to conceal.

He loved Speedo Sunday only slightly less than his family Terry, Jen, Stacey and Dave.

And he loved his soulmate Tart with a childlike giddiness that made the rest of us take note and give our own soulmates an extra squeeze every now and then just to try and keep up with him.

Scott shined in everything he did. He shined as a friend, colleague, son, partner, brother, mentor, mentee, activist and activator.

Scott was pure goodness plain and simple.

And this past Tuesday night on Scott’s favorite day of the year, the 4th of July, a car traveling at a rate of speed too fast for the police to have yet determined, a car filled with homicidal lunatics, hit him so very hard that he was dead before his body even made it to the pavement. It busted his red-bearded face and his getting-ready-for-Speedo-Sunday body so badly that the coroner’s office advised his mother not to look at her baby boy one final time before his remains were cremated and the vessel that contained his extraordinary soul would never again be seen by his mom, sisters, father, partner or any of us. A tragedy indeed.

As is often the case with life, a fairly complex social undertaking Scott might say, tragedy also brings with it surprise and hope. For Carol and me, spending so much time with Scott’s family this week has been one of those so very good surprises. If you ever wondered how Scott ended up the man he did, just spend some time with these folks and it will become evident very quickly. The resilience and love they have shown is humbling.

And if you ever wanted to see the best of Savannah, well, look around you. Ask all of us in Scott’s work family at The Grey and in his immediate and extended families and we will all tell you about the infinite support that we received from our friends, neighbors, competitors and strangers these last few days. The love that we have been showered with is life-altering. There is no way we exit this week, on so many levels, the people we were when we entered it.

But, by the same token, if you can bear to see the worst of Savannah, well that was on display this week too.

I know for many of us the worst is also difficult to look at but the time during which we have stuck our heads in the ground or accepted governmental paralysis because of social, racial and class divides must come to an end.

Scott was killed this week by three murderers and frankly none of us should care if they were black murderers or white murderers. My business partner and the chef at The Grey, was crossing that street with Scott when he was struck and killed and through some small twist of fate Mashama Bailey’s life was spared by the narrowest of margins.

The color of Scott and Mashama’s skin mattered not in the moments in which we lost one of Savannah’s brightest lights and held on to another.

What is going on in Savannah is not a black/white or gay/straight issue. It is a Savannah issue. Political and cultural loyalties do not matter when people are dying and all of our civic, city, county and state leaders need to cast those loyalties and encumbrances aside and work together. We need to work together to create change and to solve this problem so that people – black people, white people, brown people, all people – stop dying.

For almost three years, Mashama and I have been sharing stories of The Grey and Savannah with the media, near and far, about all that is good about Savannah. We have told them why we all moved here and why we chose this city in which to live our lives and invest our time, energy and resources here.

This week that narrative changed for me. Maybe it should have happened sooner, but this week, because of the senseless death of one of the most beautiful people I have ever met, it all changed.

But here is where the hope comes in. I was speaking with someone from the community this morning and that person reminded me of something. He reminded me that bones of this City, this place – Savannah – are good. And we can make its narrative right again.

But it is going to require real, substantive change at every level.

I am a member of this community and I do not accept the status quo any longer. I am on the side of change. Our leaders should not accept the status quo any longer and if they are also on the side of change, well, then I am with them.

And as for Scott Waldrup, well he never accepted the status quo.

It’s time for us to all take one final lesson from Scott.

Cheers to Scott!

The Florence Was Good for Savannah

Hugh Acheson and Kyle Jacovino deserve medals.

The Florence was an honest and mostly successful attempt to elevate the level of food being cooked and served in Savannah. I say “mostly successful” because it obviously didn’t work financially or they would not have closed on Sunday June 25, 2017.

Kyle and Hugh in their groundbreaking restaurant – The Florence

I have read the articles this past week by the various writers whose jobs are to opine on such things. I have read about how Savannah lacks a service culture and how Savannahians say they want good stuff but aren’t willing to pay for it. I have read about different takes on the menu and service model at The Florence and where those may have been to blame. I have also read about how delicious Kyle’s damn pizza is and how some of his pastas are truly ethereal. I experienced first-hand the Negroni tap that they introduced to this market. Frankly, they should get a separate medal just for that. And, on a personal note I must say that there are only a few dishes in Savannah that I truly crave and the Diavola pizza at The Florence was at the very top of that list. I am going to miss it tremendously (although I am hoping that Kyle is plotting something to bring it back sooner rather than later).

In all the writing that took place this week offering opinions as to why The Florence was not able to endure, the real story seemed, to me at least, to get lost. The real story is that Hugh and Kyle tried hard to change things. They put their money and their time where their mouths were and they built something that Savannah had never seen before. Then they took their considerable skills and an artist’s point of view on food and wine and they put those on display not only for all the world to see and taste but for so much of that world to critique, compliment and criticize.

As a restaurant owner and someone whose prior career was in arts and entertainment, I am very used to being criticized and critiqued – it comes with the territory when you stick your neck out there as we do in the food and pop culture businesses. You invite people to judge you and in this era of Social Media, people are very eager to accept your invitation. Kyle and Hugh are consummate professionals and they handled all of it with grace and dignity.

So rather than trying to figure out why The Florence didn’t make it, I would just like to say a giant thank you to both Hugh and Kyle for sticking your fucking necks out there, having a specific point of view on food and wine and sharing it with us for the past three years. I am grateful for knowing you both, I am certain that you will continue to do wonderful things and, alas, I am really going to miss that damn pizza. – Johno

No “I” in “T-E-A-M”

We are all in it together

The old saying that “there ain’t no ‘I’ in the word T-E-A-M,” has never been more applicable than it is here at The Grey. We have built this organization around the premise that if all of us who are on this team put each other’s well-being above all else then taking care of our guests will be the seamless outcome of those efforts. For the most part, this has held true.

In the last several months staffing has been incredibly difficult here in Savannah (and everywhere else from what we understand). We have been understaffed in almost every section of the restaurant and at almost every position. This is the result of a combination of the normal attrition of the industry in which we operate and a bad confluence of events including some of our strongest folks moving to other parts of the country.

There is no way to endure these types of struggles without it impacting those of us who continue to work hard for each other and our guests and, well, frankly, the guests themselves. In the past few months we have asked our server and kitchen staffs to do everything from pick up janitorial and ‘dishpit’ shifts to work multiple double shifts in a single week. We have asked our managers to do the same. Most people have been working six days a week and some even seven. Savory cooks are plating pastry because we have not had a pastry person in several months – it’s a really long story that one. And all of this has been going on behind the scenes while we are in the busiest part of our year.

When you put this kind of stress on people, the stress of no time to themselves, doing jobs far from their comfort zones and asking them to work all of their waking hours in the stressful environment of a restaurant that strives to be exceptional, you expect pushback. Frankly, you expect some people to crack.

But that is not what has happened here. People have responded with smiles and positivity. Every person has stepped up to do something with which they are not comfortable and that they know little to nothing about. People have mopped floors and cleaned bathrooms. People have cooked and shucked and sliced; all often in the same night. Cooks have put in sixty and seventy hours per week. Management has been here day and night; night and day.

And for the most part, we have covered our tracks as it relates to our guests. Sure, we can see in our reviews (the joy of instant feedback in this industry) that food is sometimes taking too long to arrive at a table on some nights and that our limited dessert menu can test the patience of certain of our guests, but, all-in-all, we are surviving and maintaining our standards.

Pastry is on its way back. Staffing has almost ironed itself out. We are surviving.

But it is never easy.

Teamwork truly does makes the dream work.

Thanks to everyone on The Grey team. – Johno

International Women’s Day

I just had the good fortune to spend a week in France – ALONE! Three days in Lyon and four in Paris. Actually, it wasn’t so much good fortune as it was a birthday gift from Carol, my wife. Some of you may think it terrible to ask your spouse to give you the gift of solitude for your birthday but since I began working on The Grey I can count on one hand the number of days that I have spent on my own in the last four years. That week solo was, quite possibly, the most luxurious thing I have ever done in my life.

I woke each morning for seven days in a row, with an agenda set only by me. I took a cup of espresso each morning and then exercised without rushing through my workout. I caught up on the news – both foreign and domestic. I read an entire book and it was almost four hundred pages long called ‘The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace.’ (On a side note it was an amazing piece of writing. A true and tragic story, as the title would indicate, that was thought provoking and elicited a full range of emotions for this young man who couldn’t find perspective or, ironically, peace). Each day I ate lunch and dinner at proper restaurants, with silverware, multiple courses and delicious breads and wine. Being in the restaurant business, you may not believe that this was rare for me but one of my greatest surprises upon entering the food and hospitality industry is that the food is for your guests and most people who work in restaurants spend the majority of their waking hours famished. I lazed away an hour here and an hour there in a café sipping coffee or wine reading silly things on the Internet. I bought myself a new tie and I went to a friend of a friend’s and had had three frozen Polish vodkas with him while he smoked cigarettes in his Parisian apartment. When was the last time you saw someone smoke a cigarette indoors? It was awesome. I walked miles upon miles each day and genuinely and truly reflected on my life and all that is wonderful in it. I took a bath. A bath for God’s sake. Who does that?

And I was able to do all of this because of this wonderful woman in my life who knew that what I would want more than anything else in celebration of another year lived was to live a week catching up on some of things I have missed the last few years. What a woman!

And what I wish for Carol and all of the women of the world on this International Women’s Day who have either never had such a luxury bestowed upon them or have not seen a free day of their own in a decade or two or three because of their never-ending commitments to jobs, kids, parents, siblings, communities and humanity is that you experience a moment of solitude and peace and contentment the likes of which I saw in that week.

 I did not deserve it but all of you do.

Johno

History and The Grey

February is Black History Month. This is something that I have been aware of during my adult life but, frankly, it never meant much to me. I am very white and as much as I would love to make the claim that “I have a lot of black friends,” I don’t. I grew up in a close-knit, white neighborhood of Italian and Irish descent in Staten Island, New York. My professional career also was not one big on integration – the white collars in the world in which I have spent most of my adulthood primarily adorned the necks of other white people.

That said, race and culture have always fascinated me. I am sure it has something to do with the fact that the sum total of my personal exposure to black people during my formative years always took place on a New York City basketball court. I was adequate at the game in my teens and I attended a high school strong on City-wide athletics. I learned on those courts the language of commonality. I learned that while we all looked different and very much played the game differently, we were, all of us, just playing that same game for the love of it. We, regardless of color or station, beat the hell out of each other on the court and then hugged with respect when it was all over.

I struggled to reconcile my on-the-court-experiences with the rest of my existence. Cops and firemen made up the family and world from which I came and their institutional experience with communities of color in NYC was often far from collegial. As my friends and I matured, many of us began to adopt the views of our insulated communities – that different, whether applied to food, music, culture, race, etc., equals bad. This was certainly one of the many factors in my choosing to explore the world outside of my childhood home as soon as I possibly could.

By twenty-five I was working in Paris. Los Angeles came next followed by a home base in Manhattan and twenty years heavy on travel. Now I call Savannah home. I am a first-time restaurateur and I help to operate The Grey in a formerly segregated Greyhound bus terminal with my friend, business partner and Executive Chef Mashama Bailey, a black woman who is also from New York City. Black history is, quite literally, palpable in our space, our food and our ethos. The month of February has taken on new meaning for me. Our relationship and circumstance is somewhat unique, particularly in the current world order. But, that language of commonality I learned as a teen has come in handy.

Mashama and me in the kitchen at The Grey

Mashama and I primarily focus on providing our guests with a complete experience; no easy task, I assure you. But we also spend our time thinking about the larger community. We consider how what we have created here at The Grey and the history of this space in which we operate, now overseen by this talented and humble black Executive Chef, contributes to our community’s overall progress. Think about it – it was not long ago that Mashama would not have been allowed to use the front door of our space.

Back in the day

With this as context, we contemplate the idea that the whole may be much greater than the sum of the parts. And while we do not aspire to changing the world we do hope that together we might positively impact a life, or two, or, God willing, three through our work here at The Grey. We tap into the community as employers of people but more importantly we do strive to be an example of what results from strong work ethic combined with open mindedness. We strive to be part of an ever-evolving history.

I still do not have a lot of black friends but I do have a few more than I used to and I call that progress as well.

– Johno

A new year, same values – January 2017

With the beginning of a New Year, I wanted to take an opportunity to open up a new line of communication on The Grey’s website. Beginning with this I will occasionally be posting a short, periodic note. This will be a way of sharing ideas and information, saying hi or initiating some other interaction. So, without further ado…  Read the rest of this entry »

 
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