Patricia ‘Sister’ Schubert, founder of Sister Schubert’s Homemade Rolls, began her career in the food business in 1989 in her hometown of Troy, Ala. Schubert started taking orders for her rolls at a small church frozen food fair, and within a few years she was able to expand her market to Ingram’s Curb Market in Troy and several other food corporations.
Today, Sister Schubert’s is one of the of the finest U.S. southern delicacies actually sold in a supermarket.
Webster’s dictionary defines an entrepreneur as someone who undertakes the startup of a business and is responsible for every aspect of it, including the manufacture, the service and the sales. He is responsible for the financial cost, but he also gets rewarded for that. I do not think of myself exactly as an entrepreneur, because back in 1991, when I finally made the first step towards starting this company I had a talk with God and I asked Him that if He would help me, I would help Him to feed the hungry people of this world. So truly I have had a partner from the very beginning. I have not really done this by my own. I never have.
I think that some of you may be familiar with the story of our bakery, and how it grew from our little home kitchen in Troy to a small warehouse facility in downtown Troy and finally to the current 100,000 square foot facility we have in Luverne, Ala., today. When I started this business I had to learn bit by bit. I had absolutely no real business experience other than just working for my father in his furniture store.
I loved to bake and cook, and I felt that I have always been very blessed to have been from a family of great cooks. One of them was my grandmother, who taught me how to bake these wonderful Parkerhouse rolls. From that day on, I have served them for family gatherings and for friends. I had a small catering business before I actually came into the real food business. But the story of how this product came to be on the marketplace is one of hope, determination, enthusiasm, hard work and generous and inventive backers. More importantly, it is mainly about having faith in yourself and in your product. I think my company has been very lucky, but I also believe in Thomas Jefferson’s interpretation of luck. Once he said: “I believe in luck, but it seems the harder I work the more of it I have.”
In 1989, our church in Troy, Ala., St. Mark’s Episcopal, held a frozen food fair where we baked our specialty items and sold them. I baked about 20 pans of rolls and they all sold. So the next year they asked if they can put them on a list and have people take orders. I agreed and we had 80 orders that year. About the third year we had 300 orders for rolls being taken. I had to stop taking orders, because in my old kitchen at home we baked 300 pans of those rolls and that was enough. It was very exhausting and hard work. My two girls, a couple of my sisters and several other people helped us. It was very exhausting, but it was very satisfying. And I realized that maybe people from other places would like our rolls, not just in Troy and not just during holidays.
So this is what I did. I made up my mind to try to do this. It was the first step that I took, but it was by far the hardest one. I went to Sears and I bought the largest double-oven that they had, and installed it out on my sun porch because it would not fit in my kitchen. My mother donated a large chest type freezer that we put out there opposite the oven, and I started baking rolls. I went around to the little local grocery stores in Troy and nobody seemed to be very interested. Then I went to Ingram’s Curb Market. Mrs. Ingram tried my rolls and took a dozen pans. We made them with full pans and Ziploc bags from the grocery store and hand-typed labels that came off more often than they stayed on. That was a big problem for us, but nevertheless things were starting to look pretty good. When Mrs. Ingram was up to about ten cases of rolls a week, I decided to take another giant step for the company.
I found a wholesale supplier for ingredients and packaging, and decided that we needed to make that step into a real business, into a business location where we could get a license and we could start to go after larger grocery store chains. The site was the least of my priorities, because my father had a furniture warehouse in downtown Troy. I was just sure that daddy was going to let me have some space there and he did. We got some used commercial equipment and a little 20-quart mixer. I say little now, but it looked like a monster to me that first time I saw it. We set to work altering my grandmother’s recipe to suit the new batch capacity.
At that time I had five employees, and realized that I was going to need to have a way to sell more products if I was going to keep these ladies in a job. And so Mrs. Ingram suggested that I go to Fleming foods and talk to the frozen food buyer, which is a wholesale distributor in that area. The frozen food buyer instructed me that I was going to have to have UPC codes, and I was going to need to have a food broker if I were going to take my products into bigger grocery store chains.
The very next day I met with a fellow named George Barnes, who has happily been my husband for the last 15 years. Together we took the next giant step for the company. He went to work on Winn-Dixie and Fleming foods, and I concentrated on a smaller grocery store chain in Birmingham, Ala., Western Supermarkets. They agreed to try my rolls and ordered 96 cases. That was more than my little van could deliver, so I had to find a frozen food carrier that would take less than a trailer load and deliver those. I was sure to tell friends, relatives and everyone that I could in Birmingham where they could buy the rolls.
That wonderful word of mouth, which has done more in the way of advertising for me than anything I have ever paid for, certainly paid off. Before Christmas we were in three Western Supermarket stores and I was up to 12 employees. We could barely keep up with the orders. So, I contacted a government agency that helped with job training. It was a huge relief because they paid half the salary for my employees who I was training for the first six months. For small business, government has a wonderful way of helping you if you ask for it. They have lots of things available to help you when you start out the business. That was one thing that I did take advantage of, and I am very happy to say that it is still in effect all over the country. It is a great way to get some help when you are starting a business.
About that time I realized that we really were going to have to continue to grow because George had succeeded in getting the rolls into Winn-Dixie and Fleming foods. I knew that I was going to have to expand. We evicted all of my father’s furniture and we took over the whole warehouse. At that time I realized that I was going to have to have more money. It just so happened that a really good friend of mine introduced me to his banker. He loved my rolls and had faith in me. He loaned me the money that I needed in 1994 to take a really giant step for our company, and opened our first bakery in Luverne at 25,000 square feet. It was a huge investment for me, but it was an affirmation of my faith and my vision for the company. At that time I was sure that it was just going to be a very long time before we needed to grow or do any more expansion. I thought, “We will make so many rolls here, and this will be wonderful.”
I remember that little Sunbeam mixer in my kitchen and the people who helped me roll those rolls by hand. I just thought that this was wonderful and I was so thankful that we did not need to really grow anymore, but I was wrong. In 1998 we completed a second expansion at the bakery, allowing us to produce over a million rolls a day at that time. We were in 3,000 grocery stores with five premium rolls and two wonderful corn breads. Over the course of seven years, I realized that we were gaining the attention of some international food corporations. And I started finding myself telling people, presidents of Sara Lee, Mrs. Smith and Flower’s bakery that I was not interested in selling the stock of my company.
One day George and I were talking and he said: “You know, honey, it is probably not a real good business move on your part not to find out what these people feel the value of your company is.” Do not ever say anything that you cannot take back because I said, “Well, I guess if one of these people would be interested in paying me X amount of dollars I’ll just have to take it.” And so we entered into a contract with an independent company to initiate bids for the purchase of the stock of the company. We narrowed it down to five, and after numerous meetings and much conversation in September of 2000 we did sell the stock of Sister Schubert’s to Lancaster Colony. They were a specialty foods cooperation out of Columbus, Ohio. We did it for two reasons. First, they had a broad-based marketing system and all the resources out there to propel the Sister Schubert brand to a national brand status. But more importantly, they historically purchased family-run companies and then asked those families to continue to run the company, which thankfully, they did.
George and I do remain at the helm of Sister Schubert’s and feel very blessed, every day, to have the opportunity to go to work and take care of our family. But also to get up every morning and truly love what you do. Now, that is what I call a real blessing. And with God being my partner in this business I have been afforded many blessings. So many that I cannot even count them. With that, to me, has come the responsibility to love and care for people all over the world. I have a new calling now that does not involve baking. Our legacy has become advancing the kingdom, rather than just building an inheritance for our children and grandchildren.
We began to understand that we have a responsibility to all of the children of the world and to all the people of the world. One fallacy concerning working for God and doing His will is that people think you have to have lots of resources in order to do a good job of that. But if you wait for lots of resources those might not ever arrive. It is wiser to begin working to further the kingdom of God with whatever you have been given right now. The story of the poor little widow who gave all she had was seen as an extravagant gift by Jesus. It has been very instructive for me in my life. It is the amount of the sacrifice, not the amount of the gift. God can do much more with great sacrifice than He can with great riches. Paul gives us good counsel when he advises Christians at all levels to understand who you are working for and what you are working to accomplish. Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart as if working for the Lord. You will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ You are serving. By viewing all of our work as working for Jesus, we gained a whole new perspective on our work and also on our fellow workers. We serve Jesus by serving people, specifically the widows, the orphans, the strangers and the poor of the world.
That opportunity came for me about ten years ago. I was approached by a missionary couple, Kenny and Laura Payne, who were ministering to the people of Ukraine. He needed financial support to help fill shipments of staples, medical supplies and clothing headed for Ukraine. I was happy to help provide some financial assistance, as well as flour, beans and rice. But that was just the beginning of helping these wonderful people. About six years ago, Laura Payne discovered a need that weighed very heavily on my heart. She volunteered in the children’s hospital there and discovered the deplorable conditions that those children were being kept in. In Ukraine, babies are abandoned because their mothers or families cannot take care of them on the meager means that they are given. Other babies are abandoned in the hospital at birth because the mothers only had them in order to get the money that the government hands out to help their dwindling population.
When I was there once, a baby was brought to us that was found in the forest. The hospital does not have the funds to take care of these abandoned children and therefore provides very little for them. They are provided a cloth diaper they wear in the morning and one at night. They have two bottles a day, a little cup of sour yoghurt type substance and some broth that more often than not has nothing in it. They are kept in the same wing of the hospital with the sick babies and thus remain unnecessarily ill. Not only are babies abandoned, but also small children whose families are no longer able to provide for them. They too, are submitted to the deplorable conditions.
One day Laura was working in the hospital and discovered that a second floor had a whole vacant wing. She and Kenny brought this to me, and we realized that we had this wonderful opportunity to help these babies. Laura contacted the hospital and asked if we could take over that second floor wing in the hospital and use it for abandoned babies if we could supply the work force, the clothes, the furniture and all the needs of these children. After much time our request was granted. I was elated to have the opportunity to help refurbish that wing in that hospital and finance it. But that was not enough. God said He wanted me to go and see these children. And every time I return from the trip to Ralevka, I cannot tell you what it is like for me to be with these children that have been so left behind. I am sure many of you have made a mission trip or have been somewhere where you have seen the conditions of the Third World. I can’t tell you what it’s been like for me to be with these children that have been so left behind. It has been a life-changing experience for me.
The wing is beautiful. It is painted with bright colors and biblical stories. Each baby has its own bed and its own little wardrobe. We have a care giver for every four children. They have formula and diapers. We also have strollers, a beautiful playroom, toys and everything that a child here has. It is a truly wonderful place, but sadly, it is the best place that most of them will ever see, because they have to be taken back to the state-run orphanages in order to be adopted. With the Paynes, we hope to change that. We are setting new ground in the country of Ukraine. They have allowed our family foundation to finance an orphanage for children zero to three years of age, so that we can take them from our abandoned site where we give them wonderful care to our orphanage site where we can find Christian loving homes for them. They never have to go back to the meager conditions that sadly this state can offer these children. And to look into the eyes of these precious babies and know that you have made a difference by giving them a home – that is better than anything they could have ever hoped for, is a joy and it surpasses anything that I have felt.
I have always believed that we should bloom where we planted. My hope for these babies is that we can find Christian homes in Ukraine. If not there, wherever God wants them to be, so that they can bloom and help make their country a better place. I heard Chancellor Jack Hawkins at Troy University state once that leadership is the management of hope. William Frye says that hope is the ability to hear the music of the future and that faith is the courage to dance to it today. I’d like to leave you with just one question. Shall we all dance?
Baylor Business Review, Fall 2007