Eight great years, one awful day, and Sav’s Grill thrives after accident

Sav’s Grill And West African Cuisine

Mamadou Savane has been in business at Sav's Grill for 8 years.
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Mamadou Savane has been in business at Sav's Grill for 8 years.

Mamadou “Sav” Savané still has the pot that scorched about half of his body. It’s a reminder of the worst day in the life of his popular eight-year-old eatery.

It’s a giant pot, the size of a young child, and it was full of molten peanut liquid when the owner of Sav’s Grill and West African Cuisine on South Limestone lost control of it in June 2014.

Savané suffered second-degree burns over half of his body. He spent 2 1/2 weeks in the hospital.

Now, more than two years after his accident and eight years since he opened his business near the corner of South Limestone and Maxwell Street, Savané is celebrating. This weekend — Sept. 23 through 25 — the celebration will include a live DJ playing African music on Friday evening, live music featuring MBIRA from Zimbabwe and Da Normads on Saturday evening, storytelling open mic from 2 to 5 p.m. Sunday, and beer specials all weekend.

At 52, Savané looks several decades younger. He attributes that to the consumption of West African food (he’s joking, about halfway). But then he raises his sleeves and a bit of his shirt, and there is the scarring, a constant reminder of that day, when his wife, Rachel Savané of Savané Silver, helped him walk to the hospital.

He returned to the restaurant as soon as he could after the accident. He even saw a piece of luck in the timing of his injury: He had recently begun teaching Bangaly how to cook his recipes.

“As a human, we are resilient,” Savané said.

A crowdfunding campaign with a goal of $50,000 raised more than $67,000. Evan Morris of Orange Leaf Yogurt donated $700 with his partners.

“We really love local restaurants that are making Lexington better. We just wanted to give to Sav because he does interesting things in Lexington and we just care about people who do that kind of stuff,” Morris said.

Others in the community also rallied around the Savanés and their eatery. An online fundraising effort made it clear that Savané is one of Lexington’s most popular restaurant owners. He was called “a bedrock of our community.” “Your joy lights up any room you enter,” another donor wrote. “Lexington loves Sav,” said one. “Y’all are a part of what is the best of the Bluegrass!”

Savané was neither born in the Bluegrass nor educated here, yet his is the spirit a community cherishes: Enter his restaurant, and prepare for a chat. How are you? What brings you in? Where are you from? Need a sample of something? Want to try the hot sauce?

It’s the kind of personal service that makes you feel that, even though you’re in a city with the state’s flagship university just around the corner, you’ve entered a small-town diner where the owner is a genuinely nice fellow. And if nobody knows your name, Savané will learn it.

Two years after the accident, Sav’s Grill & West African Cuisine is thriving, serving peanut goat, leaf and beef (spinach and beef sirloin tips) and mafen veg (a blend of eggplant, carrots and potatoes) to a devoted following and to first-timers who wander in intrigued about how such food can be healthy.

Across Limestone is Sav’s Chill, anther restaurant he owns, which serves up unique frozen flavors including Ale-8 gelato and hot banana ice cream (made with Savané’s spicy Piment sauce), and more standard flavors, including chocolate overload and bourbon ball.

A native of Guinea, Savané met Rachel when she was a Peace Corps volunteer. One night they went dancing, “and the next day I found out that somebody liked me.”

“The connection was just like this,” he said, snapping his fingers.

After moving to the United States, the Savanés had three children: Bangaly, 22, who works at Sav’s, both in the Grill and making ice cream for the Chill; Diaka Grace, a student at Transylvania University; and Kanny, a high school junior.

Before opening his restaurant, Savané worked for the Hyatt Regency and as a sorter for UPS.

“For about 10 years, I said, ‘One day I will have my own restaurant,’” he said. “At a big company, you are just a number.”

When Savané sought investors for his restaurant, he found no takers. He considers this a blessing in disguise. He and his wife decided to use their home equity as funding, and now he’s delighted with that choice: It allows him to keep business decisions in the family.

He attributes his recipes to his mother and sister, both of whom are great cooks. But he also learned to make ingredients go far when he and his wife were just starting out, and they ate chicken four to five times a week, along with lots of macaroni and cheese.

Tandy Solomon of San Francisco visited one day Sav’s last week. She had pulled off the interstate and was determined to find an eating experience different from the standard glut of fried fare off the interstate exits.

She found Sav’s.

“I wanted to make sure I had a really amazing experience for lunch. In America, other than Ethiopian, it’s hard to find African food.”

Savané hasn’t ruled out expansion, but he’s in a good place: with Bangaly working by his side, and introducing people each day to things such as fufu, a potato-like starch. He’s just grateful to have made it to eight years at Sav’s.

Instinct led him to train Bangaly in cooking right before Savané had his accident, a move he now sees as more than fortuitous.

“If he did not learn back then, maybe this all would be closed,” he said.

Cheryl Truman: 859-231-3202, @CherylTruman