Who was Sister Schubert?
In honor of International Women’s Day, we’re celebrating the most iconic female figures on our supermarket shelves—both real and fictional—who have shaped the way we cook and eat over the last century.
For those who grew up in the South, the taste of Sister Schubert’s dinner rolls are probably as familiar as your grandmother’s homemade recipe. The brand’s yeast rolls became a cult classic for their uncanny ability to mimic homemade, freshly made goods (even senior Southern Living writers have been fooled into thinking Sister Schubert’s rolls are homemade).
Pre-baked and packaged just-barely-done, these convincing rolls have expanded from a Southern staple into a multi million-dollar national brand, but who was “Sister Schubert” and how did her addictive roll recipe come to be?
The real life “Sister Schubert,” a.k.a. Patricia Barnes, grew up in Troy, Alabama, spending countless hours in the kitchen with her grandmother, who taught her everything she knew about baking the perfect dinner roll. Patricia was given her lifelong nickname, “Sister,” at birth by her older sister, Charlotte, who couldn’t pronounce her name.
After studying interior design at the University of Alabama and Auburn University and holding brief careers in advertising, as a flight attendant, and as an interior designer at her family’s furniture shop, Sister decided to embark on a business venture entirely her own—and entirely delicious.
The seeds of Patricia’s business were planted in 1989, when she baked 20 pans of her grandmother’s dinner rolls for her church’s holiday frozen food fair, quickly selling out. At the following year’s fair, over 200 people pre-ordered her frozen rolls before she had to cut off orders, and at the next fair that number jumped to 300.
The recently divorced mother and rookie businesswoman converted her sun porch into a full-time proofing room and began hand rolling 200 pans of rolls per week on her dining room table to sell to locals. Her daughters, Charlotte and Chrissie, helped to package the rolls into bags, which were labeled “Sister Schubert’s”—a combination of her nickname and married name at the time, Schubert.
Patricia convinced her father, a businessman and entrepreneur, to loan her money to buy baking equipment and carve out a 1,000 square foot space in the corner of his furniture warehouse for her to bake out of. After six months of operating her catering business, the demand had become so high that Sister’s baking equipment had taken over the entire warehouse, and after a year her operation had grown from five to 180 employees. In 1992, Patricia Barnes a.k.a. Sister Schubert officially founded Sister Schubert’s Homemade Rolls, Inc.
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To help handle this rapid expansion, Patricia enlisted the aid of a food broker named George Barnes, who helped market her product on a larger scale, and whom she later married. Patricia quickly moved into a 25,000 square foot facility, and by 1998 was rolling out over 1 million dinner rolls per day and employing 500 workers. Today, Sister Schubert’s makes more than 6 million rolls a day.
“A lot of people have a good recipe or a good business idea, but the difference is that Patricia never shied away from the hard work and long hours it took to build the business,” George Barnes told American Profile about his wife and business partner.
Sister Schubert’s catapulted into a national brand when the company was sold to Lancaster Colony Corporation, who kept Patricia and her family on board to continue running the business. In addition to her multi-million dollar convenience food brand, Patricia also published a cookbook, Sister Schubert’s Secret Bread Recipes, and has since worked on two additional cookbooks.
Today, Patricia Barnes still plays a pivotal role in the company she founded as the Vice President of Product Development and Manufacturing, and still enjoys joining her employees at the factories to hand roll out dough. She has overseen the expansion of Sister Schubert’s products into a wide variety including Baguettes, Banana Nut Bread, Pretzel Rolls, Cranberry Orange Bread, and more.
Because of her massive culinary and business success, Patricia has served as a Culinary Ambassador of the State of Alabama as well as on the Board of Directors of the Alabama Women’s Hall of Fame. She and George also co-founded the Barnes Family Foundation in 2001, which provides rolls to local food banks, shelters, churches, and organizations to feed the hungry; preserves local historical buildings and landmarks; provides study abroad scholarships through Auburn University’s School of Human Sciences; and established a foster care home in Ukraine in honor of Patricia’s adopted Ukrainian-born son, Alexander. Together, her and George have five children and seven grandchildren.
A businesswoman, mother, philanthropist, and baker at heart, Patricia Barnes a.k.a. Sister Schubert not only created one of the most beloved—and convincingly homemade—products available in the frozen food aisle, but has brought the time-honored tradition of Southern cooking into millions of kitchens across America.