‘Sister Schubert’ keeps rolling along and going strong

Published 11:00 pm Friday, September 7, 2012

Patricia “Sister Schubert” Barnes recognized the employees who have been with Sister Schubert’s Homemade Rolls since its beginning. From left, George Barnes, vice president of operations; Kay Petery, payroll; Bruce Roberts, sanitation manager, Patricia Barnes, founder; Carolyn Hill, production supervisor; David Williams, maintenance; and Bill Caldwell, plant manager.

Patricia “Sister Schubert” Barnes isn’t exactly sure about the dream she had 20 years ago. Maybe it wasn’t even a dream. Maybe it was just that she was doing what thousands of other young women around the country were doing – baking or making their pride and joy dishes to help raise funds at church bazaars.

That’s how it started anyway.

Barnes baked 20 pans of Parker House style rolls for the frozen food fair at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Troy. She used her grandmother’s family recipe, confident that, if people tried her Gommey’s rolls, they would like them.

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But she never dreamed so grand as to imagine that one day she would be the founder of a bakery that would bake nine million rolls a day to supply markets in all 50 states and Puerto Rico.

From the time she could stand on a stool and reach the countertop, Barnes, a Troy native, was the helping hands in the family kitchen.

“I’ve always loved being in the kitchen,” she said. “The kitchen was, and is, my favorite room in the house. I came from a long line of good cooks, on both sides of the family. My heritage is cooking.

But, had not been for that frozen food fair at St. Mark’s, Barnes might not have risen to the top of the yeast roll industry.

“Sarah Lawrence knew about my rolls and asked if I could try freezing some of them for the frozen food fair,” Barnes said. “I was willing to try. That first year, I made 20 pans and we sold all 20 pans. The next year, we took orders for the yeast rolls and got 200. The third year the orders reached 300 and I said, ‘Stop taking orders. I can’t do anymore.’”

After the third frozen food fair, Barnes evaluated her “little bitty” catering business, which she called The Silver Spoon, and weighed it against the potential for yeast roll sales. The rolls won out.

Barnes’ first “bakery” was her home kitchen. She then moved to the sun porch and then to the back half of her dad’s furniture warehouse in Troy.

“Business grew and I went to my dad and asked him if he could move out the rest of the furniture and let me have the whole warehouse,” Barnes said. “He was willing so I had a real commercial kitchen with a 30×20-foot freezer. The freezer was so big it was unreal. I thought that I would never need anything bigger than that.”

Barnes began doing her own marketing and one of her first big orders came from Ingram’s Curb Market in Troy and later the Piggly Wiggly.

“I’d go to grocery stores with a pan of rolls and ask them to let me put my rolls in their stores,” Barnes said. “Most of them didn’t say no.”

Her big break came when she walked into J.T. Bess grocery store on Mulberry Street in Montgomery.

“Mr. Bess said he would try a case and in less than a week he called for more rolls,” Barnes said. “He told me that people were coming in his store that he had never seen before to get the rolls. Word of mouth. Sister Schubert rolls were selling by word of mouth.”

Sister Schubert was on a roll.

Barnes realized the potential for her Gommey’s rolls. She needed a bakery, a much bigger bakery. She went looking, first to Troy and then to Brundidge.

“As disappointed as I was, I believed a door would open for me somewhere else nearby,” Barnes said. “The mayor of Luverne, John Harrison, called and asked if the city of Luverne could make me a proposal. In 1994, Luverne became the home of Sister Schubert’s Homemade Rolls. It was a huge risk but it was an affirmation of my faith and my vision for the company.”

Barnes thought the 25,000-square-foot bakery would provide all the space she would ever need. But by 1998, the company had completed two expansions and was making more than a million rolls a day.

“I couldn’t have found a better town for our bakery and we’ve got wonderfully dedicated employees,” she said. “Some have been with us for 20 years and many for 10 years or more. We’re family and Luverne is home for us.”

Barnes’ dream of owning a bakery became a reality on August 29, 1992 in Troy. It was not an overly ambitious dream; in fact, it was a rather simple one.

Today, Sister Schubert’s Homemade Rolls has three locations, Luverne, Mobile and Horse Cave, Kentucky. Sister Schubert’s is a $100 million a year business. Barnes still has to pinch herself every now and then to convince herself that she’s not dreaming.

“Sister Schubert’s bakery has been blessed. I have been blessed,” she said. “I never make any business decisions without praying about them. A lot of hard work has gone into the bakery and our employees have bought into our vision for the company.”

Barnes gives much of the credit for the success of Sister Schubert Homemade Rolls to her husband, George Barnes, who expanded the bakery’s distribution to include major grocery chains throughout the South, and to Lancaster Colony Corporation, a specialty foods company based in Columbus, Ohio, that bought Sister Schubert’s stock in 2000.

“When I was first approached about selling our stock, I wasn’t interested but eventually we did sell to Lancaster Colony,” Barnes said. “We sold for two reasons. Lancaster Colony and Marzetti, its specialty food division, had all the resources to propel Sister Schubert to a national brand. They also had a history of purchasing family-run companies and then keeping the families on board to run the company. I wanted to be on board.”

Barnes said it is important for her to be involved in Sister Schubert rolls because she is committed to remaining true to her roots.

“Sister Schubert rolls have maintained the same home-baked quality and taste that my grandmother’s rolls had when they were made with loving hands in her kitchen,” Schubert said. “We use fresh ingredients and a special flour and each roll in placed in the pan by hand, giving Sister Schubert rolls a very personal touch.”

And, for many, Sister Schubert rolls are not about bread. They are about memories.

“It’s so heartwarming when people come up to me and say that Sister Schubert’s rolls brought back memories of their grandmother’s or mother’s yeast rolls,” she said.

“They say that they never thought they would experience that taste again and, there it was in Sister Schubert’s rolls.

“My grandmother, Leona Henderson Wood, called her rolls ‘everlasting’ and that’s our hope for Sister Schubert rolls. Pure and simple, our hope is for everlasting rolls.