Patricia Barnes scatters a handful of all-purpose flour on the kitchen counter, plops a pile of yeast dough in the middle, and begins patting and shaping the mixture with her hands.
"You want the dough to be about an inch thick," says Barnes, 58, placing her index finger alongside the dough as a measure before flattening the mixture with her trusty rolling pin.
Using the same round stainless steel cutter that helped her start Sister Schubert's Homemade Rolls in 1992 in her kitchen in Troy, Ala. (pop. 13,935), she presses individual rolls and hand-dips each in a bowl of melted butter, deftly folding more than a dozen into an aluminum foil pan for baking, packaging and freezing.
"This is exactly how we started out making these," says Barnes, who was 40, newly divorced and supporting two daughters when she launched her business with a Sunbeam mixer, a Sears double oven, and her grandmother's handwritten recipe for rolls. Today, Sister Schubert's frozen breads are made by 500 employees in bakeries in Luverne and Saraland, Ala., and Horse Cave, Ky., and Barnes' image graces the packaging of every panful sold in thousands of grocery stores across America.
"If I can get these in your mouth, then I can get you to buy them," Barnes says about her melt-in-your-mouth rolls. "I've always believed in this recipe."
The heirloom recipe for homemade rolls was handed down from Leona Henderson Wood, known as "Gommey" to Barnes, her brother and three sisters.
"We ate lunch with my grandmother every Wednesday and Sunday, and we all grew up loving Gommey's rolls," recalls Barnes, who's been baking and cooking since she could climb on a kitchen stool and hold a spoon.
Barnes was just a child when she first prepared dinner rolls, using her grandmother's recipe, for a family Thanksgiving meal. "I was nervous, but they came out of the oven light and golden and smelling delicious," she says with a smile.
When Barnes turned 21, Gommey presented her with "a treasured gift"—a red vinyl notebook filled with family recipes, including her Everlasting Rolls. "I had seen her use that cookbook thousands of times," says Barnes, who was studying interior design in college at the time before working as a flight attendant for Delta Airlines.
She didn't realize how important Gommey's gift would become, however, until after marrying into the Schubert family, having children, and returning to Troy to work in her family's furniture store.
In 1989, she started a part-time catering business, and her clients raved about her rolls. That same year, just before Thanksgiving, she donated 20 pans of rolls to a frozen foods fair at St. Marks Episcopal Church, where she was a member, and soon orders began rolling in for subsequent fundraisers. "I started thinking, 'If everyone at church loves these rolls so much, maybe others would like them, too, and not just for the holidays,'" Barnes recalls.
On a roll
In 1992, she began making 200 pans of rolls a week in her kitchen, converting her sun porch into a proofing room to help the yeast rise faster and turning her dining room table into a cooling and packaging station. Daughters Charlotte and Chrissie, who were 16 and 12 at the time, helped by applying adhesive labels and fastening twist ties to the packaged rolls. She named her product Sister Schubert's, using her married name at the time and her lifelong nickname, Sister, given to her at birth by her big sister, Charlotte, who could not pronounce her given name.
Ingram's Curb Market in Troy was Sister Schubert's first retail customer, and each week she and her daughters called on small independent grocers across Alabama to share samples and entice new customers.
Business was on a roll, and Barnes knew she had to expand her homegrown business quickly. With her father's blessing, she took over his 1,000-square-foot furniture warehouse, secured a wholesale supplier, and bought several commercial ovens and a 20-quart mixer. Within a year, her operation grew from five to 180 employees, and production increased to a level measured by pallets instead of pans. One year later, she secured a $1 million loan and built a 25,000-square-foot bakery in Luverne, adding products and production space as sales climbed.
A rising business
Today, Sister Schubert's produces more than 6 million rolls a day, and Barnes—who would rather be in the kitchen than in the boardroom—continues to play a daily role with the company that she sold in 2000 to Columbus, Ohio-based Lancaster Colony Corp.
"A lot of people have a good recipe or a good business idea, but the difference is that Patricia never shied away from the hard work and long hours it took to build the business," says George Barnes, 58, the Montgomery, Ala.-based food broker who helped expand Sister Schubert's distribution network and then married its founder in 1995.
"Even with all the big changes over the years, she has never changed as a person," says longtime employee Carolyn Hill, 47, who has watched the company and its bread rise since she helped Barnes make rolls in her kitchen. "She's sweet. And she makes a good pan of rolls, too."
For Patricia Barnes, now a grand-mother herself, the success of Sister Schubert's is particularly satisfying during the holidays—knowing that her grandmother's rolls are served at family gatherings across the nation.
"Gommey shared her bread with a lot of people at her own table, and she'd be so happy to know that so many families are enjoying it today at their tables," she says. "It's almost like she knew her Everlasting Rolls would go on and on. And they are."