Patricia Barnes, aka Sister Schubert. All photos courtesy Sister Schubert's.

On a roll: Meet the real Sister Schubert

For those who might be confused, Sister Schubert’s famous homemade rolls are not created by a nun, but a soft-spoken, bright-smiling, Southern-born gentle lady. Patricia Barnes, aka Sister Schubert, says that as long as she can remember, she loved cooking, and she started watching and learning from her grandmother as soon as “I could climb up on a high chair.”

Sister Schubert’s rolls are now found in the freezer section of supermarkets as well as on residential and restaurant dinner tables from Baton Rouge to Boston. Below, Barnes shares a few of her secrets to success.

Q: So how did Patricia Barnes become Sister Schubert?
A: In the South, a child’s name becomes “sister” if the sibling can’t pronounce the real one. But when it came to building Sister Schubert’s as a brand name, that also started when I was a girl. My Grandmother, “Gommey,” taught me the recipe for her Everlasting Rolls. She called them that because good food brings people together and creates everlasting blessings. Many years later, when I made several pans of rolls for a church fundraiser, people loved them—not only for their amazing homemade taste, but also, I think, because they recognized the connections that happen when passing the bread basket around a table. They started saying, “I want some of Sister’s Schubert’s rolls,” and at the next Christmas fundraiser I sold 300 pans! I realized I could really make a business out of my baking.

Q: How did you grow the business from the small start in your home kitchen?
A: My first “expansion” was onto my sun porch of my home! I needed more room for the largest residential double oven I could buy, along with a chest freezer my mom gave me to help store the pans of rolls. My daughters helped me distribute rolls by driving our wood-paneled station wagon to mom-and-pop stores around Troy and to bigger towns like Montgomery, Alabama, up the road. Before long, people asked larger chains to stock my products. Southern Living magazine did an article about them. And that’s when I took the leap and opened a factory in Luverne, Alabama. Today, Sister Schubert’s produces 9 million rolls per day.

Q: In this era of diet concerns and weight control, do you substitute other ingredients for butter, whole milk or eggs?
A: No substitutions—wheat flour, eggs, yeast—the same ingredients my grandmother used. And the rolls have 0 grams of trans fats. Frozen immediately, they require no preservatives and have no artificial flavors. They really taste like homemade.

Q: You once told me that a well-seasoned cast iron fry pan was one of your must-haves, and to never use a fork to turn fried chicken. Any other Sister tips?
A: Those tips are old favorites, but you can teach an, ahem, older cook new tricks! I have discovered a battery-operated pepper grinder that makes it so easy and fun to add fresh seasoning, and grapeseed oil is a new favorite, too. But my all-time favorite tips apply in or out of the kitchen. No. 1: Remember that life’s too short to drink anything but good wine. And No. 2: Always surround yourself with really good friends.

Q: What do you see for the future of family cooking?
A: There’s always a time and a season for special meals—holidays, of course! And some cooks who delight in the process—and have time—can indulge their habits and use their skills daily. But more and more, cooks are finding ways to put together fabulous dishes with a little less effort. I call those “shortcuts to special”—and my rolls qualify as one those quick and easy tricks. I would love nothing more than for people to have the joy of kneading dough and talking with family like I got to do with my Gommey. But schedules and 21st-century living don’t always allow for that. So, I think however people can put together a meal can become meaningful. It’s the company, really, that makes a meal superb.

Q: How has your success surprised you the most?
A: What’s surprised me the most is that the business success has allowed me to help others on a grander scale than I ever imagined. I used to run pans of rolls around the corner to friends to brighten their day—and still do. Then I was in a position to stock local food banks. I’m so happy that now we have the Barnes Family Foundation and the means to support international causes and needs. I was given the opportunity to visit the Abandoned Baby Center (ABC) in the Ukraine, and there I met the child that my husband, George, and I adopted. Since then, we’ve invested in building an orphanage there. I mean, that’s the kind of blessing that Gommey’s Everlasting Roll recipe has brought into my life. I am so very grateful.



Sister’s Original Parker House Rolls

Patricia Barnes began her company using this simple recipe handwritten by her grandmother.

1 pkg. active dry yeast
1 1⁄2 cups warm water (105 to 115 degrees)
5 cups sifted all-purpose flour, divided
1⁄2 cup sugar
1 1⁄2 tsp. salt
1⁄2 cup shortening, melted and cooled to 105 to 115 degrees
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
1⁄2 cup butter, melted
1 1⁄4 cups unsifted all-purpose flour, divided
Combine yeast and warm water in a 2-cup liquid measuring cup; let stand for 5 minutes.
Combine 4 cups sifted flour, sugar and salt in a large bowl. Stir in yeast mixture and shortening. Add eggs and remaining 1 cup sifted flour; stir vigorously until well blended. Dough will be soft and sticky. Brush or lightly rub dough with some of the melted butter. Cover loosely with a damp tea towel and let rise in a warm place (85 degrees), free from drafts, for about 1 1⁄2 hours or until doubled in bulk.
Grease four 8-inch round foil cake pans and set aside.
Sift 3⁄4 cup of unsifted flour in a thick layer evenly over work surface; turn dough out onto flour. Dough will still be soft. Sift remaining 1⁄2 cup flour evenly over dough. Roll dough to 1⁄2-inch thickness; brush off excess flour.
Cut dough using a 2-inch floured biscuit cutter. Pull each round into an oval, approximately 2 1⁄2 inches long. Dip one side of the oval into melted butter. Fold oval in half with buttered side facing outward. The floured side will form the famous “Parker House pocket.”
For each pan, place the folds of 10 rolls against the side of the prepared pan, pressing center fronts of the rolls together to seal. Place 5 rolls in inner circle and 1 roll in the center for a total of 16 rolls in each pan.
Cover pans loosely with a damp tea towel and let rise in a warm, draft-free space for 1 hour or until doubled in bulk.
To bake, preheat oven to 400 degrees. Bake rolls, uncovered, for 12 to 15 minutes or until tops are lightly browned. Makes 64 rolls.