With the holidays approaching, many families are already beginning to think about the meals to come: Menus are taking shape. Aunts, cousins, and grandparents are swapping recipes. Siblings are deciding who will host Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years brunches, lunches, and dinners. Along with turkey, stuffing, and the other standard holiday fare, another grocery will also top many shopping lists: Sister Schubert’s.

The familiar pans of pre-cooked, flash frozen yeast rolls are a familiar fixture on many tables. In fact, more than one child is sure to be convinced that their own mother, not Patricia Barnes – Sister Schubert’s real name – is responsible for the homemade flavor and texture of the beloved rolls.

Barnes will be in San Antonio to speak at the Junior League of San Antonio (JLSA)’s Holiday Olé Market, on Thursday, Oct. 27. She is promoting her new cookbook, Celebrations from the Heart: Giving From our Families for Art, ALS, and All the Children of the World. All of the proceeds from cookbook sales benefit charity through the Barnes Family Foundation, The Sims Family Foundation, and the N.A.L.L. Art Association.

Barnes sat down with the Rivard Report to talk about her new cookbook and the spirit of celebration and generosity that has stayed with the company as it grew from the kitchen of a single mom to a nationwide household name. 

She also came to San Antonio to visit Haven for Hope, where Sister Schubert’s donated about 800 rolls and Barnes could see firsthand the people the company was feeding.

Patricia Barnes walks with Haven for Hope Director of Volunteer Services Melody Mcrea through the cafeteria that feeds over 1200 meals a day to the hungry.
Patricia Barnes walks with Haven for Hope Director of Volunteer Services Melody Mcrea through the cafeteria that feeds over 1200 meals a day to the hungry.

Barnes grew up one of five children. Unable to pronounce “Patricia” her older sister gave her the name “Sister,” which stuck. Now everyone calls her Sister.

As a child, Barnes developed an early love of all things culinary.

“I was always the most comfortable when I was in the kitchen,” she said.

Her grandmother’s yeast rolls were her go-to crowd pleaser for every occasion, but it wasn’t until a church “Freezer Fair” that she thought to freeze them. Once she realized that freezing the rolls did not change the flavor or freshness upon reheating, she knew she was on to something.

The first year at the Freezer Fair she sold 80 pans of her yeast rolls. When pre-orders started coming in the next year, the church called Barnes to warn her that they had just hit 300 orders.

That’s the kind of success Barnes has enjoyed ever since. She takes a chance, and the demand explodes.

Haven for Hope Courtyard Executive Chef Lorris Gibson gives Patricia Barnes of Sister Schubert's a tour of his newly updated kitchen.
Haven for Hope Courtyard Executive Chef Lorris Gibson gives Patricia Barnes of Sister Schubert’s a tour of his newly updated kitchen.

A committed Christian, Barnes attributes her success to divine guidance.

“When we’re born, God has a purpose (for our lives),” Barnes said. “Everything I’ve done is because God wills it.”

She takes every encounter seriously and tunes in when she feels that God using perfect strangers to make suggestions that will open new doors for the company.

It has paid off.

As a single mother, she decided to take her love for the kitchen and turn it into a way to provide for her family. The yeast rolls had proven to be a demand generator, so she chose to start there.

Barnes found a niche in the grocery market. Pillsbury and other bread companies sold raw dough, but few took the convenience and quality control to the next level, which is as much part of Sister Schubert’s appeal as the taste of the rolls itself.

At first, Barnes sought out small entrepreneurial grocers in her Alabama town. Her first expansion was to a meat market in Montgomery. Soon the meat market had to expand its freezer display to keep up with demand. 

The company is now 25 years old, and when she sold it to Lancaster Colonies, it sold for $40 million. The plant produces nine million rolls per day in 12 varieties. Barnes has published three cookbooks and stayed involved with the company.

Patricia Barnes walks with Haven for Hope Director of Volunteer Services Melody Mcrea through the courtyard.
Patricia Barnes walks with Haven for Hope Director of Volunteer Services Melody McCrea through the courtyard.

While we talked, we snacked on the classic yeast rolls as well as some of Barnes’ newer creations.

The cinnamon rolls and “sausage rolls,” or pigs in a blanket, were both classic and distinctly Sister Schubert’s. The yeast rolls’ unique texture and melt-in-your-mouth quality comes through in even with the cinnamon or sausage flavor up front.

Barnes said that bread puddings are currently on her radar, and she’s tinkering with the perfect recipe to incorporate Sister Schubert’s rolls.

As the company grew, she stayed involved in product development to ensure quality. With the exception of a lard substitution, the original yeast rolls are identical to her grandmother’s recipe.

“We grew as slowly as we had to in order to maintain the quality,” Barnes said. 

When it came time to sell Sister Schubert’s to a larger corporation that could handle national marketing and sales, Barnes chose Lancaster Colonies because of its reputation for keeping the family involved in family businesses.

One thing Barnes never skimped on was hiring talent. She believed that the right person for the job was worth whatever she had to pay. When she hired her production manager, who is still with the company, she paid him more than she took home herself.

Barnes recently added a $2.2 million wellness center for her employees to the Sister Schubert’s plant in Luverne, Ala.

“We wanted them to have everything they needed to be healthy,” Barnes said.

Her care for her employees is another proof that Barnes’ faith is not the token platitude of someone who feels like God is on her side. Barnes has always identified with Jesus’ care for the physical needs of people.

“I said, ‘God, if you’ll help me, I’ll help you feed the hungry people,’” Barnes said.

Patricia Barnes hugs Haven For Hub Volunteer Coordinator Rebecca Sorrells during a tour of the facilities.
Patricia Barnes hugs Haven For Hope Volunteer Coordinator Rebecca Sorrels during a tour of the facilities.

At Sister Schubert’s, any pan of miscounted, unevenly colored, or “reject rolls” are set aside. As long as the bread still passes the safety and taste tests, Barnes will not let it go to waste. She freezes those pans and delivers them to local food banks and shelters. In one case she had to buy a freezer for the facility so that they could store the donations.

Wherever she goes to speak, she asks where she can donate rolls. In San Antonio, the JLSA connected her to Haven for Hope.

“I’m so honored to see Haven for Hope firsthand and to learn more about how it manages to feed and care for so many, while equipping them for a new beginning,” Barnes said.

Bekah McNeel

Bekah McNeel is a native San Antonian. You can also find her at her blog, FreeBekah.com, on Twitter @BekahMcneel, and on Instagram @wanderbekah.