If there's one thing people can agree on, it's cookies. That's what chef Michael Savino of Michael's Cookie Jar believes in and has believed in since he began his business in 2006.
Savino hails from upstate New York, and after a failed career in television and radio production, he started working at a local bakery shop baking cookies. After working in the bakery for two years, he decided to take his career to the next level and enrolled in the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY, where he received his degree in pastry and baking.
Upon graduation, Savino was hired as a pastry cook at the Four Seasons in Dallas in 1994. He worked at that hotel for a few years as assistant pastry cook, then was transferred to the Four Seasons in Houston, where he was the executive pastry chef. Savino says kitchen life got to be too much to handle, so he became the director of purchasing at the Four Seasons in Houston, paving the way for his current job.
"In 2006 I decided it was time to go off on my own," Savino says. "And I do love baking and pastry, and I love projects, and I thought it would be fun to have my own business. There was no one doing what I wanted to do in Houston. There was no other gourmet cookie place, so I thought it would be a good move."
Savino opened Michael's Cookie Jar in 2006 as an online bakery primarily selling wholesale products.
"We shared a kitchen with a lady who makes wedding cakes in Tomball and she was very gracious," Savino says. "She let me use the kitchen whenever she wasn't and even sometimes when she was using it...and then in 2010 we moved to where we are now in West U, and so we have been here about three and a half years."
Michael's Cookie Jar is currently enrolled in the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses Program, which is designed to help the business grow. Through the program, Savino has been able to establish a second location downtown that expected to open in early November.
"There will be no production there," Savino says. "We will do all of the production here and we will bring our products over there. We are going to have a small oven so we can have chocolate chip cookies out of the oven every day in the afternoon, but it is definitely going to be a retail environment."
In fact, aside from selling his cookies, Savino will offer products from local vendors, such as Chocolate Pizazz, a gourmet chocolate-covered popcorn, pretzel and snack business, as well as Fredlyn Nut, Araya Artisan Chocolate, Katz Coffee and Fat Cat Creamery. Not all of these products will be sold at the same time; Savino says some may be seasonal.
"I got my start because somebody opened up their kitchen to me and let me work there," Savino says. "If you have an audience as a local vendor, local retail business, I think you have a duty to showcase other local businesses as a way of paying back to those who supported you when you were starting."
Savino chose to focus on cookies because from a business perspective, no one in Houston specialized in gourmet cookies, and from a production point of view, cookies are easier to store, maintain and assemble. But he also believes cookies are sentimental and something everyone loves.
"Everybody has a memory of cookies. We live in a very polarized society now where everybody is against somebody or something and there is very little we can agree on," Savino says. "But I think the more important thing is bringing people together, and when people say this tastes like their mom's cookie or their grandma's, or reminds them of their childhood, I really know I did my job." The second you walk into Michael's Cookie Jar, you are hit with the smell of butter, sugar and freshly baked cookies; it's a warm and comforting scent that makes you feel right at home.
"We have a commitment to the quality of our ingredients; we have a commitment to our employees, hiring and training professional pastry cooks; we have a commitment to making 'chef-prepared' products, meaning something that tastes great," Savino says. "But the other part of that whole experience is the people who serve you... Our staff, they are wonderful people; they are warm, they're friendly, they're caring. They want you to feel like you are going to an old friend's house or an auntie's house, because to get a cookie from someone that's not pleasant would really ruin the experience."
All of the recipes have been adapted and personalized by Savino. Some come from family members and friends, some come from the Four Seasons and cooking school, and one was recommendation by a loyal customer.
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"Our pumpkin moon cookie came from a customer," he says. "She was like, 'You just have to make these,' and I usually don't just do that because it is very time-consuming to take people's home recipes and try to figure them out, but it sounded interesting to me; I wanted something pumpkin-flavored, so I gave it a try and it was really good, and of course I adapted it."
Savino's two best-selling items are the soft-baked, home-style, Americana cookies, and the all-butter shortbread made with a splash of orange oil, which he decorates in a variety of ways. Savino says the chocolate chip and snickerdoodle cookies are the most popular Americana varieties. Michael's Cookie Jar provides a lot of specialty cookies for birthday parties, office events and wedding showers, but the signature item is the cookie tower.
"I am from upstate New York and there is a huge Italian population in upstate New York, and in Southern Italy one of the traditions at weddings is a cookie cake, which is basically a pile of cookies," Savino says. "So I decided to adapt the Italian cookie cake, which was just a pile; I had a custom-made stand so I could make it taller and have it look neater."
Through his dedication to enjoyably serving his customers, lending a helping hand to local vendors and producing quality, tasty cookies, Michael Savino has made a name for himself in the Houston area as a successful gourmet cookie baker.