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Banana pudding store satisfies those sweet Southern cravings

As Elon Musk is to electric cars and Mark Zuckerberg to oversharing, Sharif Grays wants to be to banana pudding. And he’s dedicated a Las Vegas business to making that happen, with Grays Banana Pudding at 4601 W. Sahara Ave.

Grays knew from early childhood that his grandmother’s banana pudding was special, but when he shared it with friends and colleagues in his hometown of San Diego, he found out just how special. It was, he was told repeatedly, the best banana pudding people had ever tasted.

If banana pudding sounds like somewhat of a niche product, that’s because it is. It’s a Southern thing, just like Grays’ Mississippi-bred grandma. And, he soon found out, it’s a niche product with a legion of passionate devotees. Those who tasted the family pudding kept coming back for more and were willing to pay for the pleasure. Pretty soon, Grays — who worked in San Diego’s financial industry — was getting 40 to 50 orders a week, just from word of mouth and social media.

“It just kept taking off,” he said. “We were making banana pudding more than I was working.”

Grays knew there was some precedent for a banana pudding business, since one of his brothers opened one in San Diego a few years ago. Sharif decided to get into the business, too, and started doing his due diligence. In what probably wasn’t a big surprise, he discovered that Las Vegas didn’t have a banana pudding shop.

“We figured Vegas is a big foodie city,” Grays said, likely to have a pool of pudding fans. And so Grays Banana Pudding, owned by Sharif and his brother Maher, was born last summer.

He says what makes his product special is that it’s made with a lot of love — and secrets his grandmother was wise enough to pass on to family.

“We use things that make our pudding taste a little different,” he said.

Pretty soon, he had a pretty strong contingent of banana pudding fans in Las Vegas and was doing family trays, party trays and catering parties where his pudding was the main event. The business has been successful enough that Sharif plans to buy out his brother and go it alone.

Sharif and one of his sisters also developed a number of other flavors, all based on the basic recipe. While banana remains the most popular, accounting for about 45 percent of sales, it’s trailed by cheesecake, pistachio, strawberry shortcake, and cookies and cream. Some are made with the vanilla wafers that characterize a traditional Southern banana pudding; some are not.

“Some people are allergic to bananas,” he said. “But they find out we’re a pudding store, so they come in and get every other flavor.”

There are monthly specials, too; for August it was rocky road. Past special flavors have included strawberry frenzy and pina colada. He offers vegan varieties on weekends.

Portia Smith is a repeat customer who found the appeal of Grays’ banana pudding a little difficult to describe.

“It’s so yummy, OK?” she said. “I’m originally from Alabama, so I know good home-cooked Southern desserts, and his is the equivalent of that. It reminds me of Southern love, with Southern-home style.”

Smith said she normally sticks with the original banana. “If I’m living on the edge, I might do the cookies and cream,” she said.

Grays said most of his customers are locals, and the pudding is popular with families. Regular-sized containers sell for $7, the larger size for $10. He’s branching out to offer salted caramel cheesecake pudding pies and cookies and cream pudding pies and plans to offer pudding pops soon.

And for pudding fans who don’t want to live on the edge, Grays takes special requests. He’s done banana without vanilla wafers, pistachio with bananas, strawberry with bananas. He’s willing to prepare whatever combinations, conventional or not, his customers manage to dream up,

“You’d be surprised,” Grays said, “once you have a pudding store.”

Contact Heidi Knapp Rinella at hrinella@reviewjournal.com. Follow @HKRinella on Twitter.

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