Cracking an odd mix of ingredients in a Hilton Head Island institution

dlauderdale@islandpacket.comAugust 18, 2012 

Signe was born eclectic, the only child of a Swedish mother from Brooklyn and Yankee father from Boston.

She moved to the Deep South as an atheist with a husband from Germany.

Naturally, she would become a Hilton Head Island institution.

Signe opened a cafè called Signe's World -- "A World of Good Things" -- in a former lighthouse keeper's cottage that had been moved from Leamington to Harbour Town.

It was Aug. 11, 1972, and she had just found out she was pregnant with her second child. The place was tiny with heart pine floors, lace curtains and a staff dressed in gingham dresses. The curious dropped in to face eclectic choices like French cheeses, Belgian chocolate and the Westphalian Wonder ham sandwich with toasted, crispy onions on German pumpernickel bread. She had organic peanut butter and date sandwiches and freshly-squeezed fruit juices -- orange, carrot and watermelon.

At the end of the day, Signe had grossed $28.

Forty years later, she is still at it. No one has matched her longevity in the brutal island restaurant business.

At 71, still bursting with energy, blond hair over round glasses, the gingham dress replaced by shorts, thick socks and sandals, Signe Gardo is owner, manager, van driver, interior designer and menu mad scientist at a much bigger place on Arrow Road called Signe's Heaven Bound Bakery & Cafe.

It's best known for giant cookies with funny names (last week she sold 2,400 cookies at 1972 prices), pound cakes with odd flavors (key lime is the most popular), wedding cakes (she made her first one for Perry and Kathy Wood's wedding on the beach, and has since baked as many as 23 for a single weekend), along with eclectic sandwiches and salads made by hand, always, as she says, "fresh, natural and real."

Her latest concoction is a Pistachio Rose biscotti. Its inspiration is from a customer who is Turkish; its result is a mixture of "crunchy pistachios and tart cranberries with a hint of rose water ... lovely."

Commitment and shape

Signe declined an offer to franchise her business, which has been featured on the Food Network and in national magazines. She supplied desserts to the Ruby Tuesday chain in its early days. Her cheesecakes once were distributed regionally by PYA. For a while, until she moved to a bigger place, her bakery operated out of her house in Sea Pines, starting at 4 a.m.

Today, the parking lot is filled with cars with tags from around the nation. Signe is serving the grandchildren of couples whose wedding cake she baked.

It doesn't seem businesslike for her to name her equipment -- the first mixer was Gloria, the first oven was Chippie. Her menu is riddled with goofy names. A cupcake is called the Mud Dauber. "I always wanted something that looked like a mud dauber," she said. "Why? I have no idea. That's just the fun part of it. You have to have fun when you work this hard."

But to last 40 years, you have to be serious.

More importantly, Signe helped establish Hilton Head as a place that could cater to a discriminating national audience.

Her first husband, Franz Meier, was hired by Sea Pines founder Charles Fraser to bring the exacting European training and culinary standards to the new Plantation Club. Meier was the first in a wave of European restaurateurs to come. He opened the Calibogue Cafè and the Old Fort Pub, and was Fraser's first vice president for food and beverage.

When they divorced, Signe was on her own with two little girls and a growing business.

"I said, 'All right, I'm an emancipated woman' blah, blah, blah," Signe said. "But emancipation means you have to have order, commitment and shape."

She said her life was shaped for good when she became a Christian at a spiritual enrichment program run by Glenn McCaskey for Sea Pines.

She met Sea Pines public relations executive Tom Gardo at a Bible study. He, too, had been recently divorced. Their first date was the night before New Year's Eve in 1977, and they were married 59 days later. They blended a family of four girls, almost like two sets of twins in ages.

More than cookies

The girls are grown now, and Signe estimates 2,000 people have worked for her. At first, it was mostly Sea Pines Academy girls. The first one was Marty Powell. Signe found them to be responsible and smart. She once left Valerie Moyer, then 16, with a checkbook and put her in charge of the store for a weekend.

The first boy she hired was John Polumbo, who convinced Signe to stay open until midnight. She says that's when the business took off, and after three years produced her first paycheck. She's still friends with Polumbo. He went on to become president and CEO of AT&T's consumer division.

She talks fondly of longtime managers Dyane Lee and Laura Clark, and Betty Aiken who makes all the salads today. All of Ed and Johnnie Pinckney's girls worked for her, she says, and two of them are now missionaries.

All became familiar with Signe's stance on fences and boundaries -- whether it is about following recipes precisely or setting the right atmosphere for customers. "If you have no shape, no definition, you don't know who you are," she said.

Signe sees her work as a calling.

"It's more than baking cookies," she said. "I am doing what I was created to do."

Follow columnist David Lauderdale at twitter.com/ThatsLauderdale.

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