For the love of bread: A tribute to John Savanna, owner and founder of Mill Pond Bakery (Part 1)

by Laura Tucker Honig and Joan Tucker

This past spring, amidst the dark, quiet days early in the COVID-19 pandemic, our community lost an inspirational icon.  John Savanna, artisan baker and founder of Mill Pond Bakery (later Mill Pond Bread), died at the age of 72 on May 15, 2020. John and his supportive wife, Colleen, started the Mill Pond Bakery as a small-town treasure full of rich, European traditions mixed with local innovation, products, and patrons.

John was deeply kind with a love for the natural world that surpassed most. He had a twinkle in his eye and a keen interest in always learning something new—a better process, a seasonal inspiration, a more efficient way. The bakery was his gallery and a place for creativity and fostered connections.

He woke every morning to pour his heart, soul, and body into a long list of delectable breads and pastries. If you walked into the bakery on a clear Michigan morning, you might be delighted with the taste and texture of fresh snails and hand-dipped pretzels; soft oatmeal raisin cookies; or a hint of fragrant herbs, garlic, and onions amidst the backdrop of the faintly sour smell of dough rising.

In the afternoons, it was French bread, cottage cheese dill, Lithuanian rye, New Yorkers, Anadama, foccacia, Kalamata olive twists, jalapeño cheddar bread, and eventually, Mill Pond’s famous sourdough, crafted with a hundred-year-old San Francisco yeast. John literally and lovingly kept his culture alive. Some of the Mill Pond traditions were passed down from friends or family and sometimes even other people’s families.

John loved to try a new recipe, especially if it could feature seasonal fruits or vegetables. During the holidays, my mom would send me in with a “wish list” of Mill Pond goods: stollen, lebkuchen, cranberry walnut bread. These breads and cookies became the traditions of my family and many others.

The bakery was an aromatic destination that came with an invitation to linger and share stories. When locals popped in, they often stayed longer than intended and left with more carbs than the doctor ordered. John had a way of starting a conversation with just about anyone and always found a way to throw in something extra.

John loved to talk about gardening when he got the chance.

My sister Sarah recalls he was “always gardening, always sharing some interesting facts about plants when we would run by. He was a comforting presence and always made me feel safe. I remember when I was 11 or 12, probably one of my first times home alone, calling him because I was so scared that there were poltergeists in our kitchen cabinets. Of course I didn’t tell him that. I just merely asked if I could come over at 7 p.m. on a weeknight. He came and picked me up, gave me a little pat on the back, a warm smile. That’s how he was. Not a lot of questions asked. He inherently got it.”

John was generous. He baked for large community events such as Pioneer Day at the Waterloo Farm Museum and the Swiss Steak Dinners at the Territorial Methodist Church. Sometimes his generosity involved individual customers. My dad’s penchant for the perfect olive twist would pull him into the bakery, only for John to tell him that the twists weren’t ready yet. But John would send him away with two full bags of other fresh bread and tell him to stop back later for the twists. John would write it down in the “Barter Book,” though I’m not sure what was bartered since my Dad was a high school English teacher.

In addition to the love for his family and an appreciation for his customers and workers, John realized that food could connect a community. Bread could be a meditation or a celebration. It could be spontaneous and organic without a lot of intention. Once, he displayed a dried ciabatta loaf that looked like Mother Theresa. He loved when customers popped in the store with a specific request or a box full of fresh produce that we might include in the next iteration of stuffed focaccia. Mill Pond customers were mostly kind and eclectic, characters that made us feel like we were living in the best sitcom ever written.

John Savanna pulling bread from the oven. Photo credit: Gabe Blauer

Next month, read the heartfelt memories of what it was like to work with John at Mill Pond.

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One Comment

  • jane schertzing says:

    John and I shared our birthdays! I loved his cottage dill bread! Wishing Colleen and family all the best. Many wonderful memories of the bakery and your hard work.

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