Walk into Back in the Day Bakery in Savannah, Georgia, and you’ll take a step back in time. Women in denim button-downs walk briskly back and forth between the kitchen, their hair kept out of their faces by red handkerchiefs like Rosey the Riveter of We Can Do It! poster fame. The women carefully balance sheet pan upon sheet pan of freshly baked goodies – cookies, cupcakes, pies, breads, scones, you name it, they’ve got it – and arrange them in the glass display cases for hungry customers to eagerly gobble up.
If, by chance, you stop by on a Saturday morning, you’ll likely wait in a line that snakes around the display cases and sometimes bumps into tables of guests; don’t worry though, no one ever seems to mind. The line never takes long, and you’ll likely see someone you know, or perhaps meet the person behind you. Nothing brings people together like baked goods.
When you arrive at the display cases, you’ll understand why the glass partition is there – to catch the drool, of course. A confectioner’s cornucopia awaits you behind that glass, and you haven’t even seen the best part yet. The line will edge closer and closer to the register, and right before you arrive to pay, you will spot them – the biscuits. Fluffy little leaning Towers of Pisa, these soft, cylindrical pillows of carbohydrate nirvana are so perfect they’ll have you calling home to mama. Or, waxing poetic about their heavenliness in the pages of The Bluff magazine.
Either way, you must eat one. And soon.
Opening its doors to the Hostess City more than 15 years ago, Back in the Day Bakery began as a passion project for its owners, Cheryl and Griffin Day. “Griff and I are self-taught bakers. We’ve always loved to bake, and after 9/11, we decided to do something we were really passionate about,” Cheryl said. “[Griffin] was changing careers, and we were just tired of doing something that didn’t have much love in it.”
As she sits in the corner of her bakery, Cheryl begins to gently massage her forearms as she talks. She’s wearing an apron over her button-down, and her horn-rimmed glasses frame her chestnut-brown eyes. She rotates her left arm and glances down at her elbow – she has dashes of red down her arm, and she tries to rub the marks away.
Growing up in Los Angeles, Cheryl developed her love of Southern food and baking from her maternal grandmother, a born-and-bred Southerner from Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Every summer Cheryl visited her grandmother in Tuscaloosa, and that’s where Cheryl’s baking education began, when she was just eight years old.
“I learned everything from her – from the basics of baking, to how to put time and care into everything you do, to the science of baking. But, most important, to put love into everything you do,” Cheryl said.
In her grandmother’s kitchen, Cheryl and her grandmother made cakes and pies together, creating each confection by hand, with heart. It was here that Cheryl also learned to find beauty in the imperfect, in the homemade, in the roughhewn.
“My aesthetic is kind of wabi-sabi – a Japanese phrase that means appreciating imperfections. Like texture; it may look odd, but to me, it’s perfect,” Cheryl said, rubbing her arm again and then crossing her hands on the table. “I like to see my hands in the cakes; I like people to see that someone handcrafted this.”
Cheryl uses the appeal of homemade in all that she does, from the white pastry boxes tied with red-and-white butcher string to handwritten tags on her homemade marshmallows. Every baked good, whether sweet or savory, is made from scratch in-house by Cheryl, Griffin or one of their bakers.
“We don’t do ‘fast.’ That’s just not something we do. We make everything from scratch,” Cheryl said. “I make everything in big batches, but it’s still time-consuming. It’s a process. I do everything from scratch, by hand.”
And the results speak for themselves. Besides establishing one of the most popular bakeries in the
Savannah area, the Days have received attention and recognition from the big leagues, too. Cheryl and
Griffin have penned two cookbooks, both of which are New York Times best sellers, and have been sold on the popular QVC television channel. The first time the couple sold their books on QVC, they sold 30,000 copies in the first six minutes. So they did it two more times, each with great success. Then, in 2015, the couple was nominated for a James Beard Award in the Baking category.
“That was the first year that [the James Beard Awards] included bakers, so it was kind of cool to be nominated that year,” Cheryl remembered. Her thoughts were interrupted as a smiling customer approached the table.
“Cheryl!” the customer exclaimed. “When are you going to bring back bingo?”
“Hi Lorraine,” Cheryl replied. “Oh bingo, I’d forgotten about that! Yes, we do need to bring back bingo,” she agreed. “We used to do all kinds of things like that – pizza night, bingo night, cupcake happy hour. In the early days we had a very small budget, so we would do innovative things to get people to come in.”
When they opened the bakery in 2002, Cheryl and Griffin had a bigger mountain to climb than just opening a small business. They had to attract customers to an area most people were afraid to visit.
“Fifteen years ago this neighborhood was a bit rough around the edges,” Cheryl laughed. “People thought we had lost our minds. It’s hard for people to imagine, but 16 years ago this building was completely by itself, so we’ve seen growth literally all around us. We were kind of pioneers for this neighborhood. But it’s got legs [now], and a lot of people are moving here.”
Besides being financially feasible for their small budget, the neighborhood provided the location that allowed them to become the true mom-and-pop bakery they are so passionate about.
“This is a place where people gather and build relationships. We want people to come here for the experience, so that they’ll sit at the community table, and before the end of lunch, they are fast friends,” Cheryl said. “That’s the kind of connections we want to foster.”
Indeed, Back in the Day Bakery has fostered many relationships, even the marriage of its owners. Cheryl and Griffin were actually married right in the bakery.
Twelve years ago, the couple had made grand plans to wed, but when Griffin’s father fell ill, the wedding took a back seat. Not long after, a Savannah judge visited the bakery on a Saturday afternoon when Cheryl was working the counter. He asked her about married life, and when she told him they hadn’t tied the knot yet, the judge insisted he perform the ceremony right then and there.
“He said, ‘How about we just do it right now? I have the vows and my robe in the car,’ because he was headed to [perform] a wedding at Tybee,” Cheryl said smiling. So she went back in the kitchen to get Griffin, and the judge married them in the front of the bakery.
“We got married in our aprons right over there,” Cheryl pointed to the front windows overlooking the street. “For two people who work all the time, it was very convenient. It’s given a fun life to the bakery.” She laughed again at the memory and turned over her left forearm again to look at the red marks. “I’m making Christmas cookies today, which is not my favorite,” she said. And the marks are, in fact, food coloring stains. The sign of a true baker.
As for what’s next, Cheryl and Griffin are planning a third cookbook that focuses on baking in the South. They are also planning an expansion of their kitchen to be able to create more savory items, namely, those divine biscuits, of which Cheryl estimates they make 100 of each day, and several hundred on Fridays and Saturdays. So many biscuits that Cheryl exclaimed, “I have carpel tunnel [syndrome]!”
But maintaining their foundation as a neighborhood bakery is paramount to their future, and one that Cheryl and Griffin are determined to see through.
“We are going to continue to be grounded in being a neighborhood bakery because it’s what we started out to do,” Cheryl said. “We’re not the place where people pick something up and leave. I want people to sit down and eat a piece of pie and have a coffee.”
Cheryl then turned to greet a customer. “Hey Emily!” she said. Emily waved and sat down with her latte and piece of cake.
Though humble and modest, Cheryl is a baker who gets what she wants.
Chocolate Chip Cookies
AKA cookie most likely to cause a riot if we run out
2 ½ cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 ¼ teaspoons baking soda
1 ¼ teaspoons fine sea salt
½ pound (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 cup granulated sugar
1 cup packed light brown sugar
2 large eggs, at room temperature
2 cups semisweet chocolate chunks
Fleur de sel for sprinkling
Position a rack in the lower third of the oven and preheat the oven to 350°F. Line two cookie sheets with parchment.
Sift together the flour, baking soda and sea salt; set aside.
In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (or in a large mixing bowl, using a handheld mixer), cream together the butter, vanilla and both sugars on medium speed until light and fluffy, 3 to 5 minutes.
Add the eggs, and mix for no more than 1 minute; the eggs will not be fully incorporated. Turn the speed down to low and add the dry ingredients in thirds, beating until just combined, 1 to 2 minutes. With the mixer running, sprinkle in the chocolate chunks, beating until just combined, about 1 minute.
Use a large ice cream scoop or a ¼-cup measuring cup to form the cookies and place on the prepared cookie sheets, leaving 2 inches between the cookies to allow for spreading. Lightly tap each cookie with the palm of your hand and sprinkle the cookies with fleur de sel.
Bake the cookies, one sheet at a time, for 15 to 18 minutes, rotating the pan halfway through the baking time for even doneness. The cookies should be golden brown around the edges but still light in the centers. Let the cookies cool on a wire rack. Store the cookies in an airtight container for up to 3 days at room temperature.
Written by Anna Jones
Photos courtesy of Back in the Day Bakery & Christine Hall