Food & Drink

A Fresh Start

Greg Nalley founded his fast-casual restaurant chain after a scary bout with cancer.

If chef Greg Nalley hadn’t been diagnosed with cancer in 2001, we might not have Nalley Fresh, the local fast-casual chain known for its build-your-own salads, bowls, and wraps. His prognosis was bleak. Nalley, who was 40 at the time, had late-stage prostate cancer and was told by doctors at a Baltimore hospital he had missed the window of opportunity for surgery.

After another opinion, he decided to take a chance on a radical prostatectomy at GBMC, followed by 18 months of radiation. Nineteen years later, he is cancer-free and getting ready to open a new Nalley Fresh in Towson in March, his 11th store. “It was a tumultuous time,” recalls Nalley. “It gave me the strength and courage to do something challenging and adventurous.”

The Ruxton resident has come a long way from his small-town South Carolina roots, where he bounced around several colleges and worked for his father’s concrete pumping company. There was one constant: He liked being in the kitchen—and that’s where he found his passion. His grandmother, Ina, was his muse, though he points out that his mother was a good cook, too. “But it was my grandmother who got my creative juices flowing,” he says.

In true Southern fashion, Nalley remembers Sunday suppers with local, seasonal vegetables, cooked with ham hocks, black-eyed peas, biscuits, and coleslaw. He often helped Ina cook these sumptuous meals, using recipes from The New York Times and spiral-bound church cookbooks.

A family friend, Herman, often showed up for those dinners, and Nalley can still picture the older man layering each food on top of the other instead of leaving it in its own place on his plate. It’s a memory that inspired him to open his first Nalley Fresh in 2011 on East Baltimore Street. Admittedly, Chipotle was another influence.

But first came Harvest Table, a breakfast and lunch restaurant in Locust Point, which Nalley opened a year after his cancer diagnosis. “After the cancer thing, I was happy to have creative control,” Nalley says. He eventually started serving weekend brunch in addition to the sandwiches and made-from-scratch soups he offered during the week. He whipped up creative dishes like pancakes piled with shredded chicken, pear salsa, and crème fraiche, or biscuit halves stacked with grits, scrambled eggs, and smoked maple bacon. “I went back to my days of Herman and South Carolina and started making layered dishes,” he says. “I loved the yin-yang flavors.”

Nalley first arrived in Baltimore in 1991. By the time he turned 30, he realized he needed to follow his cooking instincts, and so he went north to pursue his chef credentials at the now-closed culinary school Baltimore International College. He was one of the older students, but they accepted his college credits, and that was all he needed to make the move. “Man, I really got to do this,” he thought. “I sold my house and gave my dog away.” Soon enough, he found his stride.

Around this time, he also found his future wife, Amy, in Atlanta, through a mutual friend. The two continued a long-distance relationship until Nalley graduated from BIC and they were married. “I’m not a foodie at all,” Amy says with a laugh. “I’m a candy eater.”

The Nalleys, who now have three adult children, live near Towson with their two dogs: Oliver, a friendly mutt, and Gunner, an aloof black Labrador retriever. “A typical blue blood,” Greg jokes.

Between the attached garage and main house is his “flavor lab,” where he conjures up new ideas for Nalley Fresh. The cozy brick anteroom is filled with racks of spices—mason jars with gumbo filé, the Ethiopian mix berbere, sumac, wasabi powder—as well as cold cases toting preserved lemons, and shelves of cooking accessories, including an Instant Pot, Nalley’s favorite appliance. He captures his thoughts on a white board. “The place doesn’t have customers and employees and a time clock,” he says. “It’s just music and me.”

On a recent weekday, Nalley—whose gray hair bolts up in Guy Fieri fashion—talks about his plans to introduce a new ingredient to the stores every week and has jotted down combinations for salad dressings: cranberry-citrus and honey-lemon-thyme. He’s also thinking about offering afternoon snacks, maybe cheese platters and fruit cups. “The challenge is, ‘Can I make it with healthy components and still make it taste good?’” he ponders.

His knife collection, lined up like scalpels in an operating room, calls for attention and includes a roughly made blade that belonged to his great-grandfather and another one dating to 1905. It was given to him when he left a 10-year stint as executive chef at the Maryland Jockey Club in the ’90s. “A lot of prime rib has been cut with this,” he says, wielding the aged cutlery.

Before that, Nalley also sharpened his skills at the Turf Valley Resort in Ellicott City in his novice cooking days, mastering kitchen stations like prep, broiler, and sauté. But he knew early on that he wasn’t interested in working at a fine-dining establishment long term. “I wanted to have a family and be there for soccer,” he says. “I didn’t want to work nights.”

Nalley relies on several books in the flavor lab for inspiration, including his grandmother’s well-used Woman’s Club Cook Book, published in North Carolina, and Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain. He devoured the late chef’s restaurant tales in two days when he first read it. “It rocked my world,” he says. “It’s about flawed people who find their way in the culinary world.” This particularly resonated with Nalley, a recovering alcoholic. “I had a chance to find my way.”

Around the room are several other knickknacks. A photo of him with a just-caught mahi-mahi captures a fishing hobby he’s enjoyed since he was a kid. A blackboard is neatly printed with the words: “Welcome Food Network . . . Chopped!” He was a contestant on the show in 2016, winning his first round before being eliminated in the second challenge. “The experience was just enough,” says Nalley, explaining that he was also dealing with Lyme disease at the time.

None of his children are pursuing cooking careers—Devon, 25, is a nurse; Grace, 23, a fashion stylist; and Cooper, 21, an undergraduate student. But it was the kids who dragged their dad to Chipotle when they were younger and paved the way for the Nalley Fresh concept. “I was fascinated with the point-and-pick system,” Nalley says. “I thought I could do the same thing with an international flavor profile and a healthy twist, keeping in mind that I could make picky people happy.”

Soon, Nalley Fresh was born, giving customers a dazzling array of ingredients to choose from, including proteins like Old Bay shrimp, herb-roasted salmon, and tofu, to make their salads, wraps, or bowls. Some patrons didn’t quite understand the process when the first store opened downtown. “One guy ordered pastrami on rye,” Nalley says, chuckling. “I explained what we do; you customize your order. It was a learning curve for both of us.” Soon, there was a line out the door, even in winter, and he realized he was “onto something.”

Hunt Valley was the next location in 2012. After that, Nalley partnered with Phil and Brad Hoag, who were local Burger King franchisees. The father-son duo was looking for another investment and liked what he was doing, says Nalley. They now have a licensing agreement, not a franchise deal.

“I knew my limitations,” Nalley says about the collaboration. “I’m a gut guy …They brought instant credibility to my brand.” The partnership, which opened six locations, also allowed Nalley to get back in the kitchen, developing most of the recipes himself.

In total, Nalley Fresh now has 11 stores across Baltimore and Maryland. Some are open for lunch and dinner daily while others offer breakfast and lunch, or just lunch during the week. His newest location will be on West Pennsylvania Avenue in Towson. He is hoping to expand further still and is currently looking for new partnerships in other states.

Last year, a Nalley Fresh opened in Concourse A of the Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport with daily hours from 4:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m., his most round-the-clock location.

“I felt there was a need to have healthy, nutritious, delicious food there,” says Nalley, and after six months, the store had attracted 173,000 customers. He works with Toronto-based Firkin Group of Pubs at the airport and is planning to open other airport outposts with the restaurant company around the country.

Between planning for the future, creating recipes, and hanging out with his family, Nalley has to find time to relax, and these days, he does so by picking up the harmonica. He became enamored with the instrument when he and a friend heard a musician in a Virginia bar in the 1980s. “Afterward, I bought some harmonicas, eight-track tapes, and cassettes,” he says. “I listened to Muddy Waters over and over again.”

Nalley’s love of the blues has grown over the years, and if he gets a chance, he’ll sit in with various bands. Baltimore contributor Rafael Alvarez, also known for his Orlo & Leini stories, witnessed a performance during a road trip in 2018.

“Knowing that Greg loves the blues and Southern food, I invited him to go to Mississippi,” Alvarez says. “In Clarksdale, we hit a club called Red’s and walked into a show by a young man who calls himself Kingfish.” The guitarist-singer just so happens to be one of the fastest rising stars for the musical genre.

Nalley asked if he could play harmonica with him, and Kingfish agreed. “And blow, Nalley did,” Alvarez recalls. “I think he impressed the authentic bluesmen, who are probably used to white boys claiming they can play.” Of course, food also fueled their escapade. The pair feasted on crawfish and blood sausage along the way.

At this stage of his life, Nalley appreciates what he’s accomplished, crediting his 2001 diagnosis for giving him the courage. “I’ve been very fortunate,” he acknowledges. “I’ve been given third and fourth chances.”

He believes in giving others chances, too, hiring employees who are overcoming issues with drugs, alcohol, or the law, or who have special needs. “It’s challenging but gratifying,” he says. “I do it for me.”