Author: Earl Thomas | Photographer: Photography by Anne
No local restaurateur has achieved such longevity in the same restaurant. And, Gardo still clearly remembers that first day as she sips on a frothy cappuccino with extra milk—a treat she gives herself nearly every afternoon at Signe’s Heaven Bound Bakery Café on Arrow Road.
The original café was called “Signe’s World—a world of good things,” and was more of an emporium of gourmet foods, including imported Swiss, Italian and French cheeses, English jams and jellies, Belgian chocolates, a variety of vitamins along with fresh-squeezed juice drinks (carrot and watermelon juice were among the choices), plus handmade sandwiches “where I would individually slice the meat for each order,” Gardo said.
“We started out wearing long blue, six-gored navy blue skirts with white lace aprons and pink and white long sleeved blouses,” she continued. “I knew it was hot outside, but even though I was six months pregnant, I was feeling fresh and wonderful in that little Harbour Town cottage, which previously had been serving as the Sea Pines Library. We made $28 that day.”
Gardo also remembers the first male who applied for a job. “His name was John Polumbo. I told him no, because he didn’t fit our uniform,” she said. “But, he kept insisting because he loved our food and even swore he would wear a dress to get the job. I finally relented, and he became our night manager, but he didn’t have to wear a dress.” Polumbo later finished Stanford Business School and eventually became president & CEO of AT&T’s consumer division.
“It was remarkable what a natural businesswoman Signe was,” Polumbo said recently from his San Francisco home. “She had an insightful ability to hire, train and give each employee, no matter what their background, a chance to learn and grow. She wanted all of us to succeed in life. I know that because I was one of those grateful trainees.”
Keeping a restaurant going at a successful competitive level on Hilton Head is not for the faint of heart. Hundreds have failed over the past four decades, and Polumbo points out that Gardo’s success is especially noteworthy because she has never depended on the sale of beer, wine and alcohol—the prime profit makers for so many long-standing dining establishments.
andy Beall, founder and CEO of the Ruby Tuesday restaurant chain, once lived on Hilton Head Island and encouraged Signe during those years to take her concept national. “Signe had a real sense for fresher, healthier meals that also had great flavor profiles and a contemporary flair,” Beall said. “She was like a great designer at Chanel.”
By the 1980s, the little bakery café had gained a reputation that was reaching far beyond the island and earning Gardo glowing commentaries in national publications such as Southern Living and The New York Times. She was even featured with a full-page photo spread in Us Magazine, which called her “an erstwhile housewife who is baking up a storm in South Carolina.”
Indeed, Signe’s Bakery Café was ahead of its time on many items, including the signature jumbo grandma style, chocolate chip cookies, which Gardo was serving years before Mrs. Fields, from a small oven that made a dozen at a time, for a line of customers that stood 10-deep at the Harbour Town cottage doorway. Some of those early sandwiches are still favorites, including the turkey/cranberry and sprouts on her original eight-grain bread and cucumber/cream cheese with watercress.
“Signe has an incredible gift to be able to taste food with her eyes and in her mind before it is made,” said Laura Clark, now a bank manager, who served as kitchen manager for more than a dozen years. “She can imagine combinations and the chemistry of what it takes to create something that is delicious. She turned a light on in me about combining textures and flavors. She taught me how to create a recipe and how to write it down so someone else could prepare it. When I cook today for my family, I am still asking myself, what would Signe think? Is this the right combination of flavors? Are there enough layers of flavors?”
In 1983 Gardo moved the café from its tiny Harbour Town location to its present location on Arrow Road to be more centrally located for islanders and provide more production space. At the time, she was providing several desserts to the Ruby Tuesday chain and needed bigger ovens and storage. However, as Ruby Tuesday expanded internationally, Gardo’s facilities couldn’t handle the support, so she needed to use her facilities for other things; and along came the expansion of Hilton Head as one of America’s foremost wedding destinations.
“We started making wedding cakes seriously in the late 1970s,” Gardo said, “but back then the decorations were mostly flowers, and weddings certainly weren’t like they are now with professional planners. It was mostly just family, and my focus was on making sure our cakes tasted good, like a dessert. But things changed dramatically in 1987 with Martha Stewart’s first book on weddings.”
Gardo remembers when brides started coming to the bakery with the Martha Stewart book in their hands, and having to figure out how to use “rolled fondant.” Now there are several cable television shows featuring wedding cake makers, and Gardo has not only developed her own fondant recipe, but earned the affection of nearly 7,000 brides and the accolades of The Knot (the nation’s leading wedding publication), which has named her one of America’s top wedding cake providers in four of the past five years.
“Every bride is important to me,” Gardo said, “no matter if their cake is $250 or $1,000. It is her special day, and I want to do my very best.”
“But, it’s not just the brides,” Clark said. “It’s everyone. Countless times I would watch her interact with locals who have been coming to her for years, and although she might have nine irons in the fire, they will want to talk, and she always tries to take time for them. I don’t think she even realizes how much of their trip to Signe’s is about seeing her and talking with her. She has touched so many people in so many positive ways over the years. She always tries to show them that they matter.”
“Some days it gets really physically tiring, but I don’t begrudge a day of it,” said Gardo, who just celebrated her own 71st birthday. “God has blessed me with a servant’s heart, and this is what I am gifted to do. That’s how I try to do it, always to His glory!”