Signe’s: How an eclectic ‘conqueror’ survives 50 years in business on Hilton Head, SC

·6 min read

Signe says it herself.

She wasn’t much of a businesswoman when this all began, avoiding numbers kind of like she avoided homework all through school.

“We were constantly just making it,” she said of her business that survived to become a Hilton Head Island institution. “I probably wasn’t charging enough. We went by the seat of our pants and kept going.”

That was half a century ago.

On Aug. 11, 1972, Signe Gardo opened Signe’s World deli in a former lighthouse keeper’s cottage at Harbour Town on Hilton Head Island.

Signe in her new Signe’s World deli in the early 1970s.
Signe in her new Signe’s World deli in the early 1970s.

It is believed to be the longest-running restaurant with a single owner on the island.

Signe is 81 now. She’s still working 10 to 12 hours a day, six days a week, at Signe’s Heaven Bound Bakery & Café on Arrow Road.

A pandemic and a tsunami of new businesses has slowed traffic from the days when her deep dish French toast with blueberries and her key lime pound cake attracted a visit from Rachel Ray of Food TV.

But Signe is still Signe, marching to a different drummer in her fuzzy pink polka-dot socks and flour-dusted Crocs. Feint green shorts, pink top, and oversized pink glasses beneath her trademark mop of blond hair make her look like a little girl caught playing in Elton John’s closet.

She sits in the bakery where she has made at least 4,000 wedding cakes, including three for one lady, and reflects on the journey.

“I don’t have to prove myself,” she said. “I’ll do it until I don’t. It’s pretty cut and dried.”

OLD HILTON HEAD

Signe traces her vocation to being a latch-key child of a Swedish mother and Boston Yankee father. She baked things in her own little world.

She came to Hilton Head in the winter of 1965 when her then-husband Franz Meier was hired by Charles Fraser to bring European cuisine to Sea Pines.

She had a toddler and another on the way when Signe’s World opened. It was always different, unleashing such oddities on the Lowcountry as alfalfa sprouts, whole wheat bread, imported beer, giant cookies and free Bibles.

When her marriage ended, the enterprise was more than an expression of creativity. It was a matter of survival, and it wasn’t long before big rigs were delivering 1,200 pounds of chocolate to her house in Sea Pines, and she was hauling goodies around the island in a Volkswagen van.

Her about-face from atheism to evangelical Christianity, and marriage to then-Sea Pines public relations executive Tom Gardo in 1978 – blending two families of two girls each – formed the arc of a life Signe calls most fulfilling.

When she and Tom Gardo built the place on Arrow Road in the early 1980s, she changed the name to Heaven Bound Bakery based on a tasty morsel of old Hilton Head.

Before Signe’s World, Signe worked at the Plantation Club in Sea Pines, where island native Beatrice Brinson worked in the women’s locker room and shared local lore and wisdom with the young woman from so far away (Signe learned you bury a watermelon in the ground to keep it fresh).

In those days, Charlie Simmons Sr., known as “Mister Transportation” and “Mister Hilton Head,” hauled goods and people, sometimes live chickens, around the island in an old school bus that might not have had matching tires because it seemed to glide down the road with the front end the back end almost in different lanes.

“Beatrice called it ‘The Heaven Bound Fly Away’ because it was coming at you sideways,” Signe said. She kept that in the back of her head, and in her heart.

THREE SECRETS TO SUCCESS

Signe’s general advice for someone starting a business today is to “know what you’re doing, get good advice and capitalize.”

She said she was grossly under-capitalized. It was three years before she got a paycheck.

She said your idea “has got make sense. It’s got to be a need.”

I asked Signe for the secrets to survival in business here.

Adapt.

Adapt to the wishes of customers. She can tell after one batch if a new menu item will survive.

“You might have to pare down,” she said. “You can’t make everything you used to offer.”

Butter that used to cost $88 to $96 a case is now $154. You either make something else, or charge more, she said. You do not switch to margarine.

“Survival is for amateurs, you have to be a conqueror,” she said. “Will the recession beat you or will the recession not beat you? You have to work around it.”

In the old days, she had to adapt to a UPS strike. It meant she couldn’t get her bread, so she started making her own.

Today, she adapted her pre-cooked meals that people can heat and serve at home from a holiday special to a daily offering. She puts out a weekly dinner menu and people email in orders by noon for pick-ups that evening.

Be individual or unique.

“My recipes are mine, that I either adapted or that come from childhood tastes and smells I have put back into goods,” she said. “The concept is in my head or in my mouth and then I have to come up with the recipe.”

Be consistent.

“Things have to be exactly as people expect them to be,” she said. “It has to be the same today as it was last week or last year.”

Last week, she shipped a chocolate chip pecan pie – the business’s first and most popular pie offering – to a woman who wanted it for her daughter. Her daughter first had the pie when she was 3. Last week, that same pie was a gift for her 43rd birthday.

IN GOD’S IMAGE

Signe said she’s happiest in a place others think is the worst place to be: the kitchen.

“It’s in me. It’s just in me to do this,” she said.

“When you’re gifted to do something and you want to do that, you are fulfilled. If you’re doing something that doesn’t bring that, it’s not your gift. It will wear you out. You’ll burn out.”

She links her job to her faith, and says it requires God’s way of doing things: honesty, kindness, encouragement, a servant’s heart.

Signe said people are natural imaginers who chase dreams.

“What you imagine is like that carrot out there in front of your nose,” she said. “Who gave you that picture? God gave it to you.

“I’m made in the image of God. He puts Himself in me. He tells me: This is us. We’ll do this together. The other way’s a struggle. It doesn’t work.”

David Lauderdale may be reached at LauderdaleColumn@gmail.com.