Article and photos by JAN WILLMS
Max Okray and Sandra Sherva have partnered to follow their dreams and open their bakery in a neighborhood they love. “I used to live in Longfellow and moved out for two years,” Sherva said, “and all I wanted to do was move back. Now that we’re in the neighborhood living and working, I couldn’t feel better.”
The journey to this bakery started some time ago. Okray is from Stevens Point, WI, and moved to the Twin Cities when he was 17. “My parents are potato farmers, and I have been around food my whole life and been eating my whole life,” he joked. “But it wasn’t until I started cooking that I developed a serious passion for food.”
He lived with his sister and her roommates and attended the Art Institute in downtown Minneapolis. “I got into the culinary program and fell in love with it,” he noted. After culinary school, he started working at Birchwood in Minneapolis, where he met Sherva.
“Sandra had been a pastry chef there for 10 years when I arrived, so she was already a seasoned vet in the field,” Okray explained. “I was just starting out, and something clicked. She laughed at all my stupid jokes, and we just became inseparable. I worked brunch in the morning, and she was the early morning pastry chef. She would ride the crazy wave with us during brunch times, and it was definitely intense.”
“I was a line cook, but I kept trying to get in to work with Sandra because I heard how talented she was. Baking is not like cooking in any way; it is completely different,” Okray said. “I wanted to come in and train with her, but Birchwood wanted me to stay on as a cook. The few days I did come in and work with her, she said I was great and efficient.” The two worked well together.
Sherva moved on from Birchwood and Okray also left and worked in different restaurants throughout the area. Sherva did a little time at Babette and helped open a place in Eagan. She also started baking desserts for Merlin’s, the pub that is just across the street from Savory Bake House’s new location.
Sherva was working three jobs, working with foods that were French, Cajun and English Isles.
“People were telling Sandra she should open her own place. And one day when she was working at Merlin’s, she went out to the parking lot to get some Advil from her car, and the people who owned this place called her over and said ‘Hey, look at this spot. I don’t know if you’ve ever thought about opening up your own bakery, but we have a space here.’”
The space had been used as an art gallery for the property owner’s mother, who had recently died.
“They loved the shop, but they needed to rent it out,” Okray said. “The more we talked about it, the more it sounded like it could be a real thing, and so we put together plans and figured out finances and what we would need to get going. We’ve been working on it over a year. I formed the LLC on Sept. 9, 2014.”
Okray said that for a long time, he and Sherva did not think it was going to happen. “We had designers come in and said the space was too small; we could never fit a kitchen in here. But then we had the perfect designer come in and say he loved it, and the shop would be beautiful.”
I usually bake at restaurants, so I’m the one who gets pushed by cooks into the smallest spot,” Sherva added. “So I’m used to it. I could come in here and say the space was huge.”
She said she and Okray kept hearing that it was impossible and could never happen.
“But then we got the crazy, eccentric designer in here and he said it was perfect,” she said. “I felt like he was looking at it through my eyes and saw exactly what I saw.”
“It’s just what we need,” chimed in Okray. “Anything more than this would be taking on too much. We can always grow.”
The couple found a construction company that has been great to work with, according to Okray. “They have done such a good job with the space allowed. It’s tight, but Sandra’s been doing all the baking in here.”
Sherva said she had been doing all her baking for Merlin’s in that restaurant’s kitchen until the past month, when she started working in her own space. She hesitated to tell Merlin’s that she was opening up a bakery across the street, but she said the pub has been totally supportive.
“They have been enthusiastic about us starting our own place, guiding us through it. They know the city, the neighborhood and the community. They have guided us through it, helping with tax questions and other things.”
“Merlin’s is just a good place to be connected with,” Okray said. “Our first date was there, and we have been going there ever since and loving it.”
Sherva said she has been careful with the selections the bakery will offer so that it does not overlap on anything Merlin’s serves. “I want to bring more to the neighborhood, not the same,” she said.
The name Savory Bake House gives a definition of what the couple plans to do—provide a savory avenue of baking as well as sweet. “I love pastries filled with something not sweet; that is always what I wanted to do,” Sherva said. She said there will be layered cakes and pies and muffins, but also biscuits and brioche filled with ham and cheese.
The bakery serves coffee to go along with the baked goods, but it is not offering a sit-down venue.
“To do that we would have to add a restroom. Right now we have a small bathroom in the basement for employee use only,” Okray said. “We’ll have coffee, cold press, chai, warm cider, hot chocolate, orange juice and milk. But we’re not a full-fledged café.”
He said he is happy that even with remodeling the space, they have managed to keep its old world charm. Rather than replacing the wooden door that was there with a steel one, he scraped off six or seven coats of paint and refinished it. “It’s a beautiful door, and I would have felt bad if we had gotten a new one. The fact that I did it myself makes it more meaningful. And the fact that it’s the owner’s mother’s door that we kept screams what this neighborhood is all about.”
Savory Bake House will open with its regular venue Dec. 27. “We’re really going to go to town then,” Okray said. “We have a freezer full of stuff that is ready to bake off.”
Sherva added that the bakery is going to be very eco-friendly, using compostable and recyclable containers. The couple is also hoping to keep the prices reasonable so that everyone can partake of their food. And anything left over they hope to donate to those who are hungry, as policy and law will allow.
“This looks like an old-world European bakery, and that’s what it is,” Okray said.
“Sandra bakes things that my grandmother might have made 60 years ago. That’s what food is; it brings you back to childhood and can hit the part of the brain that makes you remember and smell the food before you even taste it.”
“The neighborhood has been so supportive,” he said. “I think we’ve picked the right place to do this.”
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