Grays Banana Pudding combines excellent taste, passion, ingredients, memories, and history. The specialty dessert shop of the same name, owned and operated by Sharif Grays, breaks the mold (so to speak) with a brick-and-mortar location making, selling an assortment of different flavors of banana pudding and pudding pies.
While dessert shops in Southern Nevada feature pastry, ice cream, and other goodies, Grays Banana Pudding only features eight flavors of the pudding, including a monthly flavor. But with his strong presence on social media, Grays has built quite a following with residents and tourists. The shop will sell out well before closing, and people have posted videos of themselves crying because they can’t purchase Grays Banana Pudding.
Grays left a 17-year career in finance and insurance and moved from San Diego to Las Vegas to open Grays Banana Pudding during the COVID-19 lockdowns in August 2020.
This is just not any pudding.
His grandmother Agnes’ recipe is used as a base and, from Mississippi, definitely can be classified as Southern cuisine and a staple of soul food. As the seventh of nine children (youngest boy), Grays admits he never cooked as a child. His grandmother taught him the recipe before her passing. Grays gives credit to his oldest sister, Constance, who taught him the original recipe since she helped their mother with the cooking. She also helped him develop different concepts, including vegan, gluten-free, sugar-free, custom orders, and adding a twist on this timeless recipe, keeping it traditional but adding different flavors.
“While working in my previous career, I would make pudding at my home, and people knew me as the pudding guy. Whenever we did parties and celebrated the holidays, everyone would beg me to bring my banana pudding. Then co-workers and neighbors would ask me to make my banana pudding, and they offered to pay. I discovered that over time, I could create a small business,” he explains. “I wanted to create a family-owned business to pass it down to the next generation, my daughter, and leave a legacy.” While his daughter is only five years old, she does help dad and knows all of the pudding flavors. “I find it exhilarating to run a business doing what I love: serving a wonderful dessert to people.”
As for labeling it part of a particular cuisine such as soul food, “I feel soul food is underrated. I love soul food like catfish, baked mac and cheese, and yams. One of the desserts offered is banana pudding which complements the meal.”
However, he has discovered that while soul food originates in the Black community, other nationalities love banana pudding, which pairs well with other cuisines. Even with the sales of banana pudding by national brands, there are those who try Grays Banana Pudding because of the reviews and the different flavors. He can offer other options for those who are allergic to bananas.
“This is not just a dessert that only Blacks love. So many other cultures and nationalities also love the pudding. While I am a Black business owner, I need to appeal to a broader consumer base, including the white, Hispanic, and Asian communities. I am out there introducing something new to potential customers.” He also selected a location close to the Las Vegas Strip to reach out to tourists as well as locals.
As for opening during the pandemic (August 2020) with restrictions that prohibited businesses from functioning under normal circumstances, he remained committed. Paperwork had already been signed, Grays had made the move, and his two choices were to either move forward or to take a significant financial loss.
He chose to move forward, knowing he would have to incorporate new ideas to attract potential customers and adapt to the challenges.
“It was difficult to find contractors that worked during that time,” he says. While Grays rented time in a commercial kitchen, he still needed to replace the flooring and have the walls repainted.
Along with contractors, supplies were limited, such as plastic ware, containers, and other items that people took for granted. A disappointment was that the grand opening had to be limited, so Grays could not include the other tenants, people in the surrounding neighborhoods, and the community at large.
Grays offered curbside pickup when he first opened and then contracted for third-party delivery services.
The hits kept coming (so to speak) when Grays realized that as a small Black-owned business that had just opened up, he did not qualify for the PPP loans offered. He had to use his personal savings to keep his business open. It was frustrating that he did not receive any resources from the community, local, state, or federal governments. Grays had to learn in other ways how to budget, navigate the health department, and other concerns in operating his first business.
“I knew my business had a unique concept and that Grays Banana Pudding was the best out there.”
Success came to him by utilizing social media to announce his new business’ arrival in Las Vegas.
“It has been a great tool for me to be able to reach great numbers of people inexpensively. I use social media in many ways, and I have a great social media manager. Instagram, in particular, has been a huge part of connecting my business with the community since people follow me, interact with my account, and tag the business. Many of my posts go viral, and in a sense, I am reaching thousands of people instead of just one at a time. We post reels weekly, if not daily, and we get over 10,000 views at times. Maps are also important in Instagram, Yelp, and Google.”
Grays can analyze insights, demographics, and locations using social media and invest accordingly to existing trends.
Utilizing tools offered by Meta, the parent company of Facebook, Grays has been able to appeal to a mass consumer base and wants to share their story to help encourage the local Black community to engage and support the idea of starting their own businesses. Grays got his big break when Fox News featured his store for Black History Month. He has also connected with the Las Vegas Review-Journal newspaper, works with The Cosmopolitan, and is negotiating a deal with a grocery chain.
He will have tourists come to purchase his pudding who have read his story on social media months ago and made plans to visit his shop. Still, Grays acknowledges that it is the locals that make up the majority of his business. Once a year, he will select a flavor of the month, and last year he donated those proceeds to Nevada Partnership of Homeless Youth (nphy.org).
On the shop’s wall is a framed jersey from the Homestead Grays professional baseball team that played in the Negro league starting in 1912 for 38 seasons. Baseball great Jackie Robinson played for the league before joining the majors, and many baseball enthusiasts come by the shop. In the middle is a painting of his family when Grays was a child, done by an artist using a photograph. His other walls are for Instagrammable moments.
He sells merch such as tee shirts and hats along with pudding and pies. Grays Banana Pudding is located at 4601 W. Sahara Ave. in Las Vegas, offering pickup and delivery (third-party delivery services) with several tables for in-shop dining. For more info, visit graysbananapudding.com. Follow on Facebook and Instagram @ Grays-Banana-Pudding.0+