Maria Helena, Saya’s founder and owner, moved from La Paz, Bolivia to Washington, DC to attend George Washington University. While studying engineering, Maria Helena started cooking as a way to refresh after draining bouts of studying. Maria Helena loved these impromptu cooking sessions and quickly realized that her passion lay in cooking, not engineering. She also realized that she wanted to share her cooking with a wider audience. So, after graduating, Maria Helena took a big risk, gave up the safety of an engineering career, and went all in to pursue her passion for food.
The Early Days
A Dream Grows
Within a few years of graduation, Maria Helena had founded a successful catering business: Creative Catering. (A business that continues to thrive.) While she loves catering, Maria Helena wanted a new platform to share the Bolivian food she had grown up with. Specifically, she wanted to share Bolivia’s delicious and unpretentious street food. As a starting point, she decided to bring Bolivian salteñas to an American audience.
Salteñas are extremely labor intensive to make and require practice to perfect the intricate roping that visually distinguishes them from empanadas and other meat pies. On top of learning a new technique and training her team, Maria Helena also had to track down the unique ingredients and adapt the salteña recipe from Bolivia’s high altitudes to Washington, DC, just over 400 feet above sea level. The obstacles did not deter Maria Helena. Whenever she could find time, she experimented with and tweaked her salteña recipe. She wanted something authentic, like she had enjoyed in Bolivia. Unfortunately, perfecting the recipe proved elusive because the demands of the catering business prevented Maria Helena from dedicating herself fully to the work.
Perfecting a Recipe
COVID-19 Brings Opportunity
When COVID hit, people stopped gathering in large groups and Creative Catering’s business slowed to a trickle. Some might have viewed this as a catastrophe, but Maria Helena viewed it as an opportunity. Without the demands of her catering business, she finally perfected the salteñas.
With techniques and recipes ready, Maria Helena launched Saya out of DC’s Mess Hall. Due to COVID restrictions, the business began as pick-up and delivery only. The positive reception customers gave her salteñas led Maria Helena to expand the menu to include additional Bolivian street foods. As with the salteñas, Maria Helena and her head chef put in the time needed to get each recipe just right.
Business boomed and Saya quickly outgrew Mess Hall. Saya moved and split a kitchen with another local food purveyor. While that space worked well for to-go and delivery orders, there was no where people could sit.
A New Location
Realizing the need for a new space, Maria Helena and her team began looking for something that would better suit Saya’s needs. After considering countless spaces, the team finally found one that had everything they wanted. The new space is located at 1919 Pennsylvania Ave NW, Suite GR07, Washington, DC 20006, just a few blocks from Maria Helena’s alma mater (GW) and about a block from the Farragut West Metro, right across the street from DC institution, Founding Farmers. In addition to a great location, the new space will have a some tables and chairs so guests can enjoy their food at the restaurant.
Wanting new branding to match the new location, Saya partnered with Bolivian artists Arte Sano Mutante to create the hand drawn and painted murals, t-shirts, and characters you see throughout this website. Saya will slowly transition its materials to the new branding over the next few months, so don’t stress if you see a mix of the old and the new for a little while.
More to Come
As the commitment to her dreams continue to pay off, Maria Helena invites you to try a salteña. But be careful - contents are hot and juicy! And stayed tuned, Maria Helena and her team have plans for even more!
You can read more about Saya’s story in the Washington City Paper.