When Michael & Joni Cole opened their fabulous restaurant, Gray’s on Main, in historic downtown Franklin, Tennessee in 2013, they had three things in common. They both shared a mutual love, passion and respect for this beloved city located just 21 miles south of Nashville.
Meeting Joni Cole is like talking to your best girlfriend. She is bubbly, kind-hearted, and fun. Joni grew up in Franklin and has seen incredible changes over the past decade. Since Downtown Franklin’s 1986 streetscaping project, this little town dating back to 1799 and famous for its Civil War significance, has evolved into one of America’s hottest destination cities.
A Destination Restaurant of Historical Significance
Dubbed “America’s Favorite Main Street” with visitors from all over the world, Franklin is the place to be. Michael Cole spent 18 years working for Walt Disney World in Florida where he was a highly successful artist. He helped design Animal Kingdom and many of its products from pins to Mickeys, of which many are still available today.
After retirement from Disney, Michael owned a wine bar and art gallery in Florence, Alabama. Joni had never owned a restaurant before Gray’s but had a passion for her hometown. She has lived in Franklin her entire life and served on many boards, including six years on the Downtown Franklin Association. She works closely with the Franklin Visitor Center and Franklin Mayor, Dr. Ken Moore.
Preserving Gray’s Century-Old Story
Together, she and her husband, Michael, decided to open a restaurant in Downtown Franklin. The fact that Michael is also an architect helped the process immensely. Joni explains, “The reason we chose Gray’s was because of its historical significance to Franklin. It was built in 1876 and was a pharmacy for 60-70 years. Then the building was vacant for 10 years.
Michael and Joni Cole Share Their Labor of Love
“Michael and I knew we wanted this building. We waited for it to become available for sale. Once we started the renovation, it took 18 months to complete in August 2013.
Michael designed the project to be architecturally sound, replaced the old roof, and handmade everything in the restaurant. He made the tabletops from old wood found in the building.”
Come Sit a Spell and Enjoy Hand-Crafted Vintage Charm
Joni continues, “Michael made banquette booths from old doors. We also chose to keep the original tin ceiling tiles. Our chandeliers were from Philanthropy, a local clothing store in downtown Franklin. We even added whiskey barrels to the tops of some of them for a unique twist.”
Gray’s is not just any restaurant, but a piece of history, a museum of sorts, full of vintage charm. Many years ago, a former Gray’s Pharmacy clerk chronicled his life on the walls along the staircase. He wrote when his children were born; when they went to war, when the man walked on the moon, and even when color TV was invented.
Take a Walk Back in Time at Gray’s on Main
The front glass windows list of some of the pharmacists who worked there, including Frank Gray, Sr. who put up the iconic “Gray’s” neon sign in 1956. You’ll also see old medicine bottles, soda fountain recipes and prescriptions dating back to 1890, which were left in hundreds of old cigar boxes stored on the third floor. You can find them now as wallpaper in parts of the restaurant. These are just some of the many amazing pieces of history you’ll find at Gray’s.
William Francis “Frank” Gray, Sr. (1884-1967) owned this drugstore soda fountain from 1931-1967. He worked as a “druggist” for 62 years. Today, he would be called a “pharmacist.”
Mr. Gray had spent his early 20s working for the previous owner/druggist John Moran as a clerk in his drug store and later took over in 1931. His name has been attached to this building ever since thanks to the famous Gray’s neon sign.
Frank had started out by working as a clerk and soda jerk for Franklin pharmacist John Moran. In 1913, Frank and his wife moved to Hillsboro (now called Leiper’s Fork) where he was the community’s pharmacist and postmaster for five years.
During WWI, Frank was rejected in the first drafts because his services as a druggist were needed on the homefront. He was called in on the last draft, but by that time, hostilities had ended, and he was never ordered out. Read the backstory on the home Frank and Mary Gray called home.
In 1918, Moran rehired him at his drug store in Franklin. When Moran retired in 1931, Frank and D.C. Kinnard bought him out and established Kinnard-Gray Drug Company. After Kinnard died about a decade later, the business became Gray Drug Company.
Enoy this video footage of Gray’s in the 1940s:
The staff of Gray’s, from the hosts and hostesses to the servers, share Gray’s incredible history with everyone who walks through the door. Gray’s manager and head host Wesley says, any people walk through the front door thinking it’s a drug store, only to be surprised it’s now a restaurant. He says, “I have the opportunity to share the history with everyone who walks through the door, from regulars, like the city’s mayor, to tourists.”
Preserving Historic Downtown Franklin
As part of the restoration process, Michael and Joni had to go through Mary Pearce at The Heritage Foundation just like all owners of historical buildings and homes who begin a renovation. Joni says, “You want those folks there, and those standards so that not everybody comes in and opens up a shop. We had weekly meetings during the process. They are very strict, but we are glad that they are strict.”
The response to the restaurant has been great from both the locals throughout the week and lots of tourists on the weekends. Gray’s on Main is so unique. Joni says, “We wanted a restaurant in Downtown Franklin because of the people. It’s the people that make Downtown Franklin what it is today, not the buildings or structures. It’s the people behind them.”
True Southern Hospitality is On Display at Gray’s
When you enter the restaurant, you will notice the wall of mirrors and old photos. That is the Cole’s way of honoring “Old Franklin’ with the historic photos and having guests see themselves in the mirrors as “New Franklin.” Michael and Joni hire their staff based on integrity and character. They look for people with a servant’s heart, who are true team players with a desire to show hospitality to their guests.
“It’s important to Michael and I that we have great relationships with all our restaurant guests, along with our employees and vendors.”
Upscale Casual Cuisine with a Southern Twist
Gray’s describes its menu as upscale casual and Southern eclectic. The executive chefs change the menus twice a year with the seasons. Their most famous item, Fried Pimento Cheese Balls, is an appetizer paired with homemade moonshine jelly. This dish pays homage to when Gray’s Pharmacy served pimento cheese sandwiches at the counter.
Did you know you can rent the second and third floors of Gray’s for event space for special occasions including private parties, wedding rehearsal dinners, or corporate socials? Request a quote for your event here.
Enjoy Incredible Food, Signature Drinks and Live Music
When you visit Gray’s you must try their fabulous desserts. Their Sweet Tea Banana Pudding is super popular. With vanilla wafers soaked in sweet tea, mascarpone, yummy vanilla pudding and fresh whipped cream all served up in a classic mason jar, no doubt this dessert is a big hit with customers.
Music has become an important part of the Gray’s menu as well. Every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday night you can enjoy live music. You won’t find country music at Grays, however. They specialize in Jazz, R&B, and Soul. “We let Nashville take care of country music, and we are going to do everything else!” They are doing something right because Gray’s is packed every night.
Maintain a Clear Vision on Excellence
Michael and Joni opened their neighborhood whiskey bar adjacent to Gray’s called O Be Joyful. They have over 200 whiskeys and bourbons with delicious, upscale bar food. It’s open until midnight, so it’s the latest spot open on Main Street nightly. Many people are surprised by how busy and vibrant Downtown Franklin is with all the pedestrian traffic and vibrant storefronts.
As a professional artist, Michael does all the branding. Joni explains, “We are very intentional about everything we do. Two key phrases are part of our mission: ‘spirit of excellence’ and ‘an eye for detail’. From our linens to our signs and menu, every decision we make reflects our mission. When you are very intentional about keeping accomplishing your mission daily, then you will have a strong brand.”
That Beautiful Sign – A Downtown Franklin Landmark
Word of mouth and their beautiful neon sign have been Gray’s best advertising. Gray’s on Main also works with non-profit organizations to give away signature drinks. Currently, the Coles work with Habitat for Humanity, Studio Tenn and A Vintage Affair as a way to give back to the community.
Franklin – The Most Charming City in America
“Franklin is like a Norman Rockwell town,” says Joni. “I feel like I’ve stepped back in time. But this did not happen overnight. We are benefiting from people who have been here for 50 years. The Heritage Foundation, the Franklin Historical Society, and The Downtown Franklin Association have all contributed to what Franklin is today. When the city did the streetscape in 1986, the trajectory of what Downtown Franklin looked like changed, and businesses started coming here.” Get your Lovely Franklin Shopping & Dining Guide here.
Welcoming More Independent Retailers
The Coles love all the restaurants on Main Street. They welcome more “Mom & Pop” restaurants because that makes Franklin more of a destination. When new people visit Franklin, they encourage them to see all the unique shops because 85% are independently owned. Most of these beautiful buildings are owned and have been renovated by them. When you shop Downtown Franklin, you are truly shopping local.
Joni Cole – One of Franklin’s Best Ambassadors!
We asked Joni to describe Franklin in one word: “CHARMING!”
Joni Cole, another reason we call our city Lovely Franklin!
Thank you Michael and Joni for your entrepreneurial and preservationist spirits. You both are such an important part of making Downtown Franklin the charming and hospitable city we have all grown to love.
Enjoy watching the historical journey of Gray’s:
We are Lovely Fankllin!