On Aug. 11, Signe Gardo will celebrate her 50th year of owning and operating Signe’s Heaven Bound Bakery Café on Hilton Head Island.

In doing so, Signe becomes the first island restaurant owner to achieve such a milestone. She attributes her longevity in Hilton Head Island’s extremely competitive restaurant scene in part to her willingness adapt and try new things to spark her business when sales begin to soften, and in part to a deeply loyal base of patrons – both residents and vacationers who return annually to the island.

A slim, 88-pound blonde with a whimsical smile and twinkling bright blue eyes that belie her 81 years, Signe is quick to admit: “I have never followed a business plan other than making my customers happy and living by faith in Jesus. God has blessed me with a servant’s heart, and this is what I’m gifted to do. I consider this more than a business. It’s a calling!”

Indeed, although the bakery café is located off the beaten path on Arrow Road, it has outlasted many dozens of competitors in the breakfast and lunch space on the island since the early 1970’s, including such national chains as Cracker Barrel, Shoney’s and Waffle House.

The earliest days

Originally Signe’s establishment was named Signe’s World – A World of Good Things. It was located inside the gates of Sea Pines Resort in a former lighthouse keeper’s cottage, which still sits off to the right on the approach to the iconic Harbour Town Lighthouse.

Back then it was more of a convenience store than a café except for its handmade sandwiches and giant chocolate chip cookies baked fresh – one dozen at a time.

“Although our place was very small, it was exciting for me,” said Signe. “It’s hard to imagine when I think back about it. I had a 3-year-old toddler and was six months pregnant. Why on earth was I starting a business? We made $28 dollars on the first day. It felt like a thousand!”

Dyane Lee, one of Signe’s earliest managers, remembers the staff was largely teenagers from Sea Pines Academy.

“In the spring and summer we were open from 8 in the morning until 10 p.m. or later at night – but during the Heritage and Family Circle Cup tournaments it got really crazy,” said Dyane. “We would arrive before 6 in the morning and prepare hundreds and hundreds of sandwiches. People would be lined out the cottage door and down the street. Evonne Goolagong always had to have her egg salad sandwich, and Martina Navratilova a ham hobnob.”

Moving out of Sea Pines

However, as good as things were during tournament times and through the summer vacation season 40 years ago, there were obstacles. As soon as September arrived and until mid-March, times were tough for small independent businesses that operated behind the Sea Pines gate. So Signe took the bold step to move, expand her floor space, and focus more on the baking side of her enterprise, since Hilton Head had no real bakery at that time.

She moved the cafe out of Sea Pines in 1979 and, with her new husband, Tom Gardo, built a commercial building on Arrow Road in the early 1980s. Signe had 5,000 square feet on the ground level for her café and bakery, while Tom used the second floor for his new PR and marketing firm, Gardo, Doughtie & Rose.

Good fortune began smiling on Signe’s operation during that time, when Egon Lorenzen, a trained German baker, showed up and taught Signe how to bake bread and pastries from scratch. She added these baked goods to the pies, cookies and cakes already on her menu.

“Our place became quite an impressive operation, thanks to the support of Hilton Head Bank & Trust who believed in us,” said Signe. “Not only were we serving our own customers breakfast and lunch, but we started selling wholesale baked goods to Hilton Head’s Hotel Intercontinental (now The Westin), the Hyatt Hotel (now Marriott) and the old Hilton Head Inn (now site of Marriott’s Grande Ocean Resort on South Forest Beach Road).

Indeed, the business had grown into a significant enterprise on Arrow Road with large freezers for storage, a walk-in double-rack rotating oven (named Brutus), and huge 80-quart mixers. This was also when island resident Sandy Beall, founder of Ruby Tuesdays Restaurants, became enamored with Signe’s skills and contracted with her to create and prepare several desserts for his new 16-unit chain. The big Ruby Tuesday 18-wheeler trucks would roll up to every week or so and fill up with brownies and pies – until the restaurant chain grew just too big for Signe to handle.

Beall made an offer to help Signe expand her bakery-café concept into a national chain of its own. But Signe turned him down because of her desire to be home every evening with Tom and their blended family of four young daughters.

“Sandy made it clear that I would have to do a lot of traveling around the country, and I quickly realized all the time it would take from the girls,” Signe said. “It just wasn’t something God wanted me to do.”

Celebrity and wedding cakes

As Hilton Head Island steadily became known as one of America’s best year-round vacation destinations, Signe’s unique bakery-café concept also achieved a bit of celebrity status in the 1980s and 1990s. Travel writers from around the world were captivated not only by the island’s exquisitely planned oceanfront setting with great golf courses, but also by charming and delicious eateries like Hudson’s on the Docks and Signe’s.

Travel & Leisure Magazine’s editor Pam Fiori became a fan of Signe’s style, as did Southern Living’s travel writers. Soon there were multiple write-ups in leading publications like Bon Appetit, Food & Wine, and the New York Times. Even US Magazine featured Signe as “an erstwhile housewife who is baking up a storm in South Carolina.”

Nothing, however, did more for business than Rachel Ray and her Food Network show “$40 a Day” in 2004, when Ray “flipped out” over Signe’s Deep Dish Blackberry French Toast and made it famous. “For years afterwards Rachel Ray foodies would find their way to our place and ask for our Deep Dish Blackberry French Toast,” said Signe. “It happens even today, 20 years later.”

Laura Clark, once a kitchen manager for Signe and now a bank manager, attributes Signe’s success with recipes to “a talent for tasting food with her eyes and in her mind before it’s made. She imagines combinations and the chemistry of what it takes to create something delicious.”

Another of Signe’s proficiencies became wedding cakes. This part of her operation began generating a significant revenue stream in the 1990s when on some weekends she would deliver cakes to as many as a dozen weddings or more. The bakery has been featured in Destination Weddings Magazine and named one of the top wedding cake makers in the Southeast by The Knot.

Today, however, Signe admits her wedding cake business has diminished – the result of fierce competition from a combination of resort hotels and more supermarkets doing their own cakes, plus an increased number of local homemakers selling cakes from their kitchens. “Nonetheless, I’m blessed today with a really good cake maker, Elizabeth from Costa Rica,” Signe said, “and I think we still create the best-tasting wedding and specialty cakes in this region.”

Signe estimates she has made more than 4,000 wedding cakes since the first few in the late 1970s, and notes that lots of her former brides show up today with their daughters to make their wedding cake. “Every bride is important to me,” said Signe, “no matter if her cake is $250 or $1,000. It is her special day, and I want to do my very best.”

Keeping pace with take-home dinners

Looking to keep pace with the growing competition over the past decade, Signe has been continuously astute at adapting to changing circumstances, whether it be creating new products – like biscotti – or expanding into new areas.

Eight years ago, she began offering take-home dinners. New weekly menus are announced each Monday morning by email and on Facebook. Locals call by 2 p.m. and pick up by 6 p.m.

The popularity is highest with seniors and working women. Signe said comfort food like meat loaf, chicken piccata, and “anything Bolognese” is most popular, with salmon always on Friday. “I’ve made lots of new friends with the dinners,” she said. “It’s been a blessing for me.”

The idea for dinners started when she began roasting turkeys in her big stand-up oven more than 20 years ago. That evolved into making full take-home turkey dinners for Thanksgiving. During COVID, she made 84 turkey dinners and roasted 23 whole 18-pound turkeys.

Is there an exit strategy?

What Signe likes best is seeing the generations of customers returning year after year. She frequently welcomes children brought by their grandmothers to meet her and have a chocolate chip cookie or brownie, like grandma enjoyed when she was a youngster.

The past 18 months have been difficult for Signe because of labor shortages and her recovery from a broken leg and hip replacement surgery. “Many days I get physically tired, but I don’t begrudge a day of it,” she said. “People ask what’s my exit plan. I’m 81 and still don’t have one. I know the Lord will show me when it’s time. Until then, I try to be a blessing to those around me.”

On Aug. 11 Signe’s Heaven Bound Bakery Café will celebrate its 50th anniversary by offering cookies at 1972 prices – maximum four cookies per person.

Freelance writer Michelle Thomas grew up on Hilton Head Island, where Signe’s Heaven Bound Bakery Café was part of her childhood.