My significant other and I have a secret code by which we judge the vibe of big box home-fix-it places, grocery stores and restaurants.
“There’s joy in Home Depot today,” we’ll nod at one another as we pass the enthusiastic greeter and hoof it to one of the aisles between 21 and 25 for plugs or faucet repairs or switches.
Same assessment happens when we grocery shop. Mr. G and I can sniff out the customer service level after grabbing a cart and cruising through the produce section, list in hand. Usually the guy tending the apple display is a dead giveaway.
If we get a smile from him, we know there’s joy throughout the store.
Restaurants are a bit trickier. Sometimes the employee manning the reception station can be abrupt or sour, but servers and bartenders buzz about, beacons of happiness. Other times the host or hostess is chatty and affable but the dining room and bar decided to take the fork in the road — that’s when things don’t click, and no matter how good the food is coming out of the kitchen, it’s an off-night in joy land.
Then there are occasions when the stars align and the hospitality gods shine down on retail establishments and restaurants, bathing them in happiness.
That electric current is what I’ve found every time I’ve visited Sasha’s Baking Co. in Kansas City’s Library District at 105 W. 9th St.
Joy. Oodles of it, from the lovely woman taking my order, patiently waiting for me to choose a pastry from the case, to Michelle Schepmann, one of the owners, who could easily be on a runway modeling the latest fashion rather than delivering a bowl of creamy tomato-basil soup to my table.
Michelle’s husband, tousle-haired Jeremy, is always smiling, even after schlepping Sasha’s artisan breads to wholesale accounts throughout the city, dodging traffic jams and other road hazards.
Julie Steele, one of the chefs and a pastry goddess, bounces around Sasha’s two rooms with salads and sandwiches, welcoming customers.
It feels good to be at Sasha’s.
Part of the bistro’s undeniable draw is the food. But atmosphere is another part of the equation.
It feels good to sit here.
Maybe Sasha’s karma draws, in part, from the Schepmann’s love story.
Jeremy, a veteran of the food business, was behind Christopher Elbow’s Glacé on Main Street three years ago, scooping ice-cold pleasure for customers. In walks Michelle with her two children, Wolfgang and Carmen.
“Michelle claims not to like sweets, but she was sampling all sorts of flavors,” Jeremy said.
Next time the striking blonde walked into Glacé with her kids, Jeremy was prepared.
“Chocolate for Carmen and half raspberry sorbet, half chocolate for Wolfgang.”
Impressed that Jeremy remembered her daughter and son’s choices from Glacé’s revolving menu, Michelle accepted his invitation for a date.
“I asked him what he wanted to do with his life during that first dinner,” she recalled, “ and he said, ‘Bake.’”
The couple married and became serious about their concept for a bakery. They traveled to Paris in 2012 to study with one of the foremost croissant and baguette bakers in the City of Light.
Back in Kansas City, they found a derelict space — the historic 1881 Cosby Hotel building downtown — that was set for the wrecking ball.
“It had everything we wanted,” Michelle, a civil engineer, said. “We could feel the building’s solid bones.”
The Schepmann’s christened their new baby “Sasha’s,” in honor of a Russian baker and mentor Jeremy worked with at The Grand Bakery in Oakland, Calif.
Steele, Michelle’s former nanny and a graduate of The French Culinary Institute in New York City, helped brainstorm Sasha’s menu and structure the offerings: soups, salads, sandwiches, fresh breads, cookies and pastries.
Michelle and Jeremy hired well-known Kansas City pastry chef Carter Holton. His treats seem to have been sprinkled with fairy dust — they’re out-of-this-world — and he also freely lends his buoyant personality to Sasha’s ambience.
Barbara Shaw is Sasha’s macron-ista. David Friesen is the bread handler and Paige Newcomer is the barista extraordinaire. There’s a full bar and a chic new sidewalk patio with a European flair.
“Sasha’s is French country with a modern twist,” explains Michelle. “One of my favorite bakeries in Paris is Ladurée, famous for its macarons, and our interior colors — the gray and blue — are similar.”
One of Sasha’s tables for two hugs up to a mural uncovered during the building’s renovation. Painted on the exposed brick wall, the unusual art is now encased in plexiglass to protect a wooden frame that was built around it decades ago.
The mural depicts a Pilgrim being greeted by a Native American Indian bearing food and is inscribed with: “Friendly Indians bring food to the Puritans at Plymouth Rock.”
The mural’s message implies sustenance and community.
“I don’t think it’s a mistake that we’re here serving food in a building destined to be razed, and that this particular mural was discovered,” Michelle said.
And it’s certainly no coincidence that the Schepmann’s, along with their merry band of chefs, bakers and baristas, have created a delightful universe where the atmosphere is a regular star on Sasha’s delicious menu.
There’s joy at Sasha’s. Eat up.
Kimberly Winter Stern — also known as Kim Dishes — is an award-winning freelance writer and national blogger from Overland Park and co-host with Chef Jasper Mirabile on LIVE! From Jasper’s Kitchen each Saturday on KCMO 710/103.7FM. She is inspired by the passion, creativity and innovation of chefs, restaurateurs and food artisans who make Kansas City a vibrant center of locavore cuisine.