Sandra Sherva and Max Okray of Savory Bake House
We visited Savory Bake House on a recent Tuesday morning. The sign on the door said closed, the ovens were cold, and the only sound in the place was the low hum of the air conditioner. We found proprietors Max Okray and Sandra Sherva sitting at the counter, the latter contentedly flipping through a magazine. With the weathered air of a veteran, Sherva told us how she had worked in a great many kitchens — Savories European Bistro, The Wedge, Birchwood Cafe, Crema Cafe (now called Sonny’s), Barbette, and Merlin’s Rest among them. Some of these jobs were rewarding, some were punishing, but she learned a lot along the way. And eight months into Savory, she seemed still to be settling into the idea of it, surprised and grateful to have found not only a kitchen of her own. “In some respects this was dumb luck,” she says. “This was just really, really lucky.”
Take, for example, how Sherva and Okray — who are a couple as well as partners — found the space for Savory, or it found them. Sherva was on a break at Merlin’s Rest. She had a blinding headache, so she went out to her car, apron still tied to her waist, to rummage the glove box for medicine. “I saw this couple looking at me so strange,” she says, “and I thought, ‘They think I am robbing this car.’ So finally, I was like, ‘Hey guys, what’s up?’”
The couple turned out to be Brookes and Mark Mahoney, owners of the storefront. “Have you ever wanted a bakery of your own?” they asked. At the time, Sherva was working three jobs, and as she says, her life was upside down. Not an ideal time to start a business. But she agreed to kill some time walking through the place while the analgesics worked their magic. As fate would have it, Okray stopped by right at that moment to get something out of Sherva’s car, and the tour turned into a showing — and the empty storefront turned into a bakery.
Sherva: Very unintentionally. I rolled my eyes for weeks after.
Okray: Because we didn’t have a plan.
Sherva: And I was looking for stability, not a new venture.
Okray: But this just sorta showed up. And I’ve always said that Sandi makes great food — she just needs a place to do it. To always be in the back corner of somebody else’s kitchen — OK, you do these three little desserts; one of them has to be this, and one of them has to be that — that’s not showcasing her talents. So you give her a place. In this little tiny kitchen, you just do whatever your heart desires with local foods.
It turns out that Sherva’s baker’s heart is called to comfort. As we noted in an earlier review, her bars, cookies, hand pies, and the like, are humble yet cleverly executed and delightful. So it’s not surprising that when asked what’s feeding her creativity at Savory, she answers that it’s equal parts nostalgia and invention.
The Coffee Cake Muffins ($3), a top seller, are based on a caramel apple coffeecake recipe Sherva’s sister made from scratch the year they were both “huge and pregnant and baking alongside each other” in the Wedge’s bakery.
The Churro Cream Puff (above, $4) — a golf-ball-size cream puff shell covered in cinnamon sugar and filled with whipped cream cheese, nutmeg, and vanilla — was inspired by a photo of a churro doughnut on Pinterest. “I’m addicted to Pinterest,” Sherva says. “I can just scroll and scroll. It’s like my Facebook for food, and I don’t have to get stressed out about politics. It’s all food and fonts.” (Graphic arts might be the path not taken for Sherva, who designed the Savory logo.)
Lately, color has been driving her work. Not the bright berries that energized her at the beginning of summer, but the golden yellow on the scalloped edge of a hand pie or the dark, shiny crust of a brioche sandwich. “This is a lot more rustic than I’ve been able to do in the past,” Sherva says. “Even when we got the really big, nice combi ovens at the Birchwood, they didn’t produce any color on anything. All the bakers would sneakily go to the old ovens. So when I look at the case and see all the different tones of doneness, that’s what is really getting me right now.”
There’s also a lot of impromptu feedback from the public because her kitchen door is wide open, something of an adjustment for Sherva, who’s used to being behind the scenes. Luckily, her partner shines at greeting the public.
Sherva and Okray met while working at the Birchwood, where Okray was a line cook. “I just thought he was hilarious,” Sherva says. “He’s the big loud guy in the kitchen.” Yet that’s the very reason Sherva, the introverted baker, didn’t expect them to work out all, much less end up owning a house and a business together.
Sherva: Maybe it’s the opposites attract thing, but we can spend unusual amounts of time together.
Okray: Oh, I’ve never had anyone want to spend this much time with me. I’m always talking, whistling, making some noise. Even my mom used to be like, ‘Go do something,’ but we can work together from sun up to sun down.
Sherva: Yeah, and then on our day off, we’re like, ‘What should we do?’
In terms of their partnership at the Savory, Okray is technically the sole owner, and as such manages the business and the front of house. At one point, they had an employee who worked the counter, but that didn’t last long. “It was hard to send somebody out to talk to these regulars that I’d grown so fond of,” Okray says. “I really knew these people on a first and last name basis. They come in every day, I needed to be the one who interacted with them.”
Sherva: This was a huge surprise. I’ve never seen a kitchen person be so well acclimated to the front of house.
Okray: Well, I’ve always been —
Sherva: You can talk, but that doesn’t mean that you should.
Okray: Yeah, I’ve had to dial it back a little bit. Shut up and let them go home.
However it works, the combination of Okray’s gregarious good will and Sherva’s rustic pastry has been successful — folks have embraced Savory to the point where the bakery regularly sells out, and it has become a part of the neighborhood’s workaday routines. Okray told us about the woman who buys cake for the neighbors who care for her cat when she’s away, the hardware store owner whose funny sarcasm belies a daily habit of Lemon Berry Crumble Tart, and Irving, the Prairie Woodworking dog, who responds to the command, “Cookie Max” by trotting down the alley and around the corner of the shop to wait at Savory’s door for a biscuit.
And so, though the bakery is not yet a year old, the couple is expanding their offering — they now take special orders — and looking to the future. “We’ll grow into a situation that caters to the people we have worked with and respect,” Sherva says, “everybody who has a craft that’s not being appreciated or utilized in the right way. So my future dream is to have a bigger space where we can have all those people doing their own thing, almost like a market.”
She and Okray envision a kind of commissary, where other chefs could work and store their food and goods — a stepping stone to help them get where they’ve been trying to go.
“If you get other inspired chefs in your midst,” Okray says, “everyone starts firing all cylinders and you start really bouncing things off one another — and that becomes a beautiful thing, to see what you can all do.”
Savory Bake House
Bakery in Longfellow
3008 36th Ave S
BAKERS / OWNERS: Sandra Sherva and Max Okray
ENTREE RANGE: $5-$9
Wed-Fri: 8 a.m.-3 p.m.
Sat-Sun: 9 a.m.-3 p.m.
VEGETARIAN / VEGAN: Yes / No