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AN ISLAND INSTITUTION

SIGNE’S HEAVEN BOUND BAKERY & CAFÉ CELEBRATES 50 YEARS

BY AMY COYNE BREDESON | PHOTO BY ROB KAUFMAN

It all started in August 1972, when a young mother from Guilford, Conn., decided to open a food emporium in Harbour Town, selling fresh juices, protein drinks, salads and sandwiches to residents and visitors of Hilton Head Island.

Now 81 and just as hardworking as she was five decades ago, Signe Gardo is celebrating 50 years in business.

The oldest continuously owned restaurant in Hilton Head history, Signe’s Heaven Bound Bakery & Cafe was originally called Signe’s World. Gardo added chocolate chip cookies and banana bread to her menu, and soon became an island favorite.

“Years ago, Charles Fraser said the two most popular things in Harbour Town were the lighthouse and Signe’s,” Gardo said. “And that was great coming from him.”

Her staff was made up of teenagers from Sea Pines Academy and college kids at home on break. They wore long blue skirts, lacy white cotton aprons and white-striped shirts.

With a small oven that could only bake 12 cookies at a time, customers would stand in line down the steps of her shop, which was in a former lighthouse keeper’s cottage.

Gardo got so busy that she had to start baking cookies and bread in her home kitchen on Plantation Drive in Sea Pines.

In 1983 Signe’s moved out of Harbour Town to its current location on Arrow Road.

Gardo has since expanded her menu to offer breakfast and lunch. She began offering take-home Thanksgiving dinners in the 1980s and daily dinners in 2015.

One thing has remained the same through the years — Gardo’s heart for serving people. She loves her customers and will go out of her way to make them happy. She makes everything from scratch, and all her recipes are original.

Signe’s has been featured in several national publications, including The New York Times, Bon Appetit, Southern Living, Destination Wedding Magazine, and The Wall Street Journal. She was named “Best of Wedding Cakes in the Southeast” by the wedding planning website The Knot in 2008 and 2009.

Even celebrities sing Gardo’s praises. Years ago, Rachael Ray featured her on Food Network’s “$40-A-Day.” In the episode, Gardo taught Ray how to make Blackberry French Toast. Ray absolutely loved it.

“That was a big boost,” she said. “I had Rachael Ray groupies, and they came for what she ate. And she ate blackberry French toast, so blackberry French toast was a hit. And that helped put us on the map.”

Gardo recently baked a red velvet birthday cake for Craig Melvin of NBC’s 3rd Hour of the TODAY show. The cake was decorated with palm trees and an alligator with a golf ball in its mouth.

A self-described introvert who would rather remain behind the scenes, Gardo works 12-14 hours a day and still takes the time to say hello to customers.

Island visitors often stop by Signe’s to catch up with the Hilton Head legend. Former brides ask for pictures with the woman who created their wedding cakes. Gardo has even baked wedding cakes for three generations of the same family.

Gardo became a Christian in 1977. She said her secret ingredient for success is Jesus.

After becoming a single mom, she prayed for a Godly man who would love her and her two young daughters. She prayed that prayer in October 1977 and was married to her new husband, Tom Gardo, in February 1978.

Between the two, they had four daughters. The girls would help Signe bake the cookies, which she sold for 35 cents apiece.

Signe recalled one of Tom’s little girls saying, “Daddy’s smart. He married the cookie lady.”

Signe has no plans for the future of her shop.

“And that’s the fun part,” she said. “I haven’t been given marching orders. I think 81 is pretty good. We’ll just keep doing what we’re doing until we don’t.”