For the love of bread: A tribute to John Savanna, owner and founder of Mill Pond Bakery (Part 2)

John and his baked goods were a fixture at the Ann Arbor Farmers Market. Here he is pictured with his wife, Colleen, and two dedicated employees, Gabe Blauer (far left) and Sarah Ladd (far right). Photo provided by Joan Tucker

by Laura Tucker Honig and Joan Tucker

Memories of Mill Pond’s John Savanna continue from last month, this time with a focus on what it was like to have the opportunity to work with John.

For those of us who had the privilege to work with John Savanna at his Mill Pond bakeries, we were lucky to say the least. I cannot speak for all of us, but it seemed like John may have been our saving grace. In a world that was shaping up to be more corporate and mainstream, the Mill Pond was an alternative haven where we learned to work hard in a unique and supportive environment. John was our mentor and hero. He listened and treated us like the adults we aspired to be. He thanked us for hard work and even for the most mundane of tasks. He made us feel that every job was important. John gave us the confidence that we all had the ability to handle adversity and a change of plans. (I only wish he knew about the current pandemic sourdough explosion! Everyone coping, making, shaping, baking, and sharing bread!)

Linda Conrad recalls an early morning in the bakery after a storm took out the power, “I remember it as a hot summer’s day, but then it was always hot like summer in the bakery. For a moment I assumed there was nothing to do but go home. Ohhh nooo! John gave the command to mix by hand, and we did. We gathered around the big bowl and threw ourselves into kneading, putting the full force of our bodies into it, tribal chanting to sustain rhythm, except we kept laughing.”

John loved a good laugh at absurdity.

Mill Pond Foccacia—A garden delight. Photo credit: Laura Tucker Honig

Karen Ocwieja worked with John at Mill Pond Bakery in Munith and, later, Mill Pond Breads in Waterloo. She is grateful for “learning so much in that short time and long days.” She remembers fondly the “warm challah bread that never lasted the car ride home.” Karen’s older sister, Sarah, also worked at Mill Pond Bakery in Munith. Sarah recalls John’s creation of a “community that welcomed you back with open arms, good food, time with friends, and even a job, if needed.” Over the years, so many people of all ages and backgrounds who worked at Mill Pond became part of John’s extended family for life.

Gabe Blauer, one of the most dedicated and long-standing Mill Pond employees, reflects on 15 years of work at the bakery.

“John, the bakery, and the relationships I formed there shaped so much of my identity that I honestly don’t know who I’d be without them. John taught me about persistence and determination.” Blauer added, “As an artist, he lived by the Calvin Coolidge quote that he kept on the wall of the bakery: ‘Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful people with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.’”

The beloved olive twists. Photo credit: Sarah Tucker Bouchard

Gabe recalls how his teacher and friend lived by these words, especially when things got tough or the bakery van keys were missing. Somehow, it would all come together and John would make it to the Ann Arbor Farmers Market in time to eagerly display the sought-after fruits of his labor.

John left a legacy of bread bakers and aficionados. It is really hard to beat a fresh slice of sourdough French, an olive-oil drenched Kalamata olive twist, or an artisan apple roll sliced with a slab of butter. His memory is entrenched in his creations that we love and miss. Our hearts are broken and, at the same time, full of gratitude for all the ways John taught us to live deeper, more meaningful lives. On the days we miss him most, we can only move one step at time and try to live like he did—with persistence and determination, humility, creativity, humor, and patience. He is missed terribly, but his spirit and the spirit of the Mill Pond will live on through his culinary and community traditions.


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