The wide, bright smile and kind eyes of Mamadou Savané, owner of Sav’s Grill in Lexington, Kentucky, are the first things most customers walking into his restaurant see. Along with the warm deposition Savané exudes and the smell of Guinean food wafting through the air, there is his story of becoming a food entrepreneur thousands of miles from home.
Savané hails from coastal Conakry, the capital and largest city of the small West African country of Guinea. His journey to Lexington began with meeting his now-wife Rachel, who was serving in the Peace Corps there. The pair moved to Lexington in 1993 and started to build a life and family.
Not knowing much English (his native tongue is French), Savané worked various jobs to support his growing family ― UPS, a nearby Hyatt Regency, the Lexington Country Club ― until he forged his dream of being a business owner that centered on his great loves of cooking and food. Sav’s Grill opened at its original South Limestone location in 2008.
“I had this dream in the back of my head,” he said. “People who knew me at work, my co-workers, friends and neighbors knew I always mentioned that one day I’m going to open my own restaurant.”
But there was a significant hurdle: funding his dream. After coming up short in his search to find someone to partner with him as an investor, he refinanced the home he and his wife owned.
Recreating the dishes he grew up eating posed another unexpected challenge. His preliminary menu only had four items. From there, it has grown to include staples customers look for time and time again.
And that he did, a restaurant that today has moved into another location on East Main Street within downtown Lexington, a space painted bright yellow with art from his homeland decorating the walls. Sav’s Grill was the first West African restaurant in town when it first opened in 2008, and it remains the only one today. Savané admits that for many of his customers, dining at his restaurant is their first experience with Guinean or West African cuisine.
Guinean cuisine encompasses the essence of food prevalent in most West African countries: low- and slow-cooked stews and sauces with tomatoes, onions, garlic and habanero pepper as a base. Popular dishes include things like jollof rice, fried plantain, cassava leaf and groundnut sauces (colloquially known as maafe or maffi and made from peanuts cooked down with aromatics) served with chicken, beef or fish.
Rice is an important staple, as is fufu, affectionately referred to as pounded yam, and rolled into balls to be eaten with sauces, soups and stews. Guinea is a French-speaking country due to French colonization in the 19th century, so some dishes bear those influences if only in name. Some examples reflected on the Sav’s Grill menu include boffa tilapia and lamb ragoût.
When Savané cooked his favorite dishes for friends and neighbors at his home, the intrigue and delight of their reactions spurred his passion to make a brick and mortar restaurant a reality instead of a pipe dream.
“Every time I made [Guinean food] at home for neighbors it’s like, ‘Oh my gosh, man this is so good. I wish we had something like this in Lexington.’ That’s when the idea of the restaurant started rolling around in my head,” he said.
But there was a significant hurdle: recreating the dishes he grew up eating. His preliminary menu only had four items. From there it has grown to include staples customers look for time and time again.
“When I started adding more and more items to the menu, I’d call my mom or sister to walk me through things I wanted to try and then made them in small batches at home for my family,” he said with a laugh.
But his ingenuity and introduction of new dishes and concepts wouldn’t stop there. In 2012, four years after his restaurant opened, Savané introduced a new concept into his business: ice cream. That year, he opened an ice cream shop across the street from his then restaurant on Limestone. He’d go back and forth across the street, using equipment he bought for an eight-flavor ice cream freezer at low cost when leasing the space. He used to make up to 24 flavors, but has now reduced that number to 20. Kentucky coffee and hot banana ― a special flavor that combines banana and a habanero hot sauce Savané makes himself ― seem to be customer favorites.
Due to the coronavirus pandemic, his menu is simplified right now. Diners can choose from his bowls that come with a choice of chicken, goat, meatballs or vegan options alongside rice or fufu, a side salad and fried plantain, as well as kéké (couscous made from cassava and a housemade vinaigrette) salads.
In December, Savané opened at his newest location on East Main Street ― a lack of parking and issues with the nearby University of Kentucky student center necessitated the change. The new space combines his restaurant and ice creamery in one space. The new location is more convenient for him, too, as it’s close enough to walk from his home.
Operating his business during a pandemic has been challenging. He had to lay off some of his staff to adjust to the reduction of service when the dining room closed some months ago, and he had to adjust the menu. Still, he’s hopeful about the future. Recently, he launched outdoor patio seating and live music.
“We all have our dreams, but if you don’t try you will never know,” he said. “I’m glad I did.”