Tom Gray, Operating Partner and Executive Chef, leads a team of over 70 employees with an unwavering dedication not only to his craft as a chef and business owner, but his commitment to the guests they serve, and the community in which they operate.
A two-time James Beard Award semifinalist for Best Chef: South, Gray is one of the Southeast’s most respected chefs, having made a name for himself in kitchens across the country from New York City to Los Angeles and the Napa Valley. Gray returned to his North Florida roots in 1999 to open Bistro AIX with partners Terry Schneider, Mike Schneider, Ann Riley and his wife, Sarah Marie Johnston.
A proponent of sustainable sourcing going back to his days in upstate New York and the Napa Valley, “locally-owned, sustainably-sourced and seasonally-inspired” illustrates Gray’s philosophy perfectly. He cultivates relationships with each of his 30+ specialty vendors, whether farmers in Jacksonville, cheese producers in nearby Georgia, or artisanal charcuterie makers in San Francisco.
“We don’t have the type of contract buying that benefits the chain restaurants price-wise, but we have the ability to be more nimble to change our vendors and menu very quickly,” explains Gray. The result is that guests enjoy seasonality and handcrafted foods handled with the utmost of care from the time they are received to the time they are served. “It may be a lot easier to just pick up the phone and place a few orders for the entire restaurant, but that is not the best way to ensure variety, freshness and quality.”
Yet despite desire and awareness, other sustainable facets of the business operation have not been as easy to implement. Frustrated that the city did not have a recycling program for businesses, Gray implemented his own for the restaurant several years ago. Gray sourced specialty “to go” Eco Products, choosing the company because of its own “zero-waste” philosophy. And while some may guard their hard-won trade secrets, Gray is quick to share any tips he can with other restaurateurs and business owners in the area. “The more of us that do these things, the better for all. We’re thankful for the help we have received from those who came before us, and now it’s our turn.”
All of the restaurant’s partners are active in various charities and business groups in the community including Jacksonville’s “GoLO” (Go Local!) movement, which Gray’s wife, Sarah Marie, helped found in 2010. With representatives from area merchant associations, historic preservation groups and business development activists, GoLO works to co-brand and help raise awareness of the positive impact that “going local” has. “GoLO resonates so much with people,” explains Johnston, “we are hopeful that our efforts will make a difference for the businesses in our historic communities.”
With this “from the inside-out” approach, Gray and Johnston continue to work each day to build their business while helping others around them. “It starts here, within our own four walls, but it doesn’t end here. Being an independent, it’s important to do as much as possible to help everyone succeed,” concludes Gray.