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Faces: The Sweet Life

Meet three locals who have made it their mission to satiate their sweet tooth.

Story by Barry Kaufman + Photography by Lisa Staff

February has arrived, which means we can now part ways with our New Year’s Resolutions, content in the fact that we had a good run. Sure, we tried. We hit the gym (a couple of times). We gave dry January a chance. We even cut out sweets.

And ultimately, that was our undoing. Because sweets are like enjoying a little mouthful of pure love. Deny it all you want, but the science backs it up. When we eat sweets, our brains release dopamine. Know what else releases dopamine? Falling in love. Case closed.

Even on chemical love, we’re hardwired to love our sweets. And this month, we’re spotlighting three locals who indulge our sweet tooth.

LOCAL SINCE 1964 • Pat Green opened Beaufort’s sweetest landmark, The Chocolate Tree, in 1980. Now retired, she enjoys music, traveling, live performances, reading, and spoiling her 23 grandchildren.

Pat Green

This Beaufort confectioner was inducted into the International Candy Hall of Fame. 

It’s become one of the most famous sayings in cinematic history: “Life is like a box of chocolates.” And when Forrest Gump shared that little pearl of his mama’s wisdom, he was in fact holding a box of Pat Green’s chocolates in his hands.

“Because they wanted to be historically accurate, and we weren’t in existence during the time period of the film, they used someone else’s box, but those were our chocolates,” she said. The founder of Beaufort’s iconic sweet shop The Chocolate Tree had already established her legacy when the producers of the Tom Hanks film came calling, although the reputation didn’t necessarily go both ways. “The producer wanted us to do a special order with big chocolate letters that spelled out, ‘Forrest Gump.’ I remember thinking, ‘What’s a Forrest Gump?’”

Over the course of her career, Green has been inducted into the Candy Hall of Fame, created delectable delights for the likes of Sally Field, Barbra Streisand and Viggo Mortenson, and established The Chocolate Tree as one of downtown Beaufort’s most iconic spots. In 1996, Green was named the Small Business Person of the Year for South Carolina. And it all started with a gift for her children’s teachers, “for putting up with our little darlings.”

“They asked me, ‘Would you teach us how to make this?’ and the seed was planted,” she said.

In April 1980, she and her business partner found a place to take their hobby to the next level, a tiny spot not far from where The Chocolate Tree currently sits. Originally it was just going to be a part-time gig. “I was sure the gentleman we rented it from thought we’d fix it up for him and then be gone in three months,” said Green. “You don’t tell a redheaded Irish girl she can’t do something.”

Whether it was her Irish stubbornness or the fact that she makes exquisite chocolate, the store thrived. Within two years they had outgrown their rental, purchased their current spot on Carteret and began the arduous task of building a legacy. Emphasis on building.

“It had been an appliance store, a paint store, and a building with just four bare walls. We had a big job ahead of us and no money,” she said. “We worked the whole summer to tear down some funky buildings in the back, and we did it ourselves. It was a labor of love; bittersweet, sometimes.”

The building itself has been expanded as The Chocolate Tree’s reputation grew nationally and mail orders started flying in. Up until she “retired,” you’d find her in there daily, creating sweet memories. She’s since handed the reins over to her son Gene, and her sister, Joy, but you’ll still find her indelible mark on each treat.

“It’s my baby,” she said. “They actually had me working a few days before Christmas, dipping chocolates. My hands are 10 years older than they were, and all that is done with wrists and hands. It was a real reawakening of all those arthritic joints, but it was fun.”

LOCAL SINCE 2016 • Philippe Feret is the owner of Hilton Head Social Bakery on Hilton Head Island. A second location on the South End will open soon. When he’s not baking, he enjoys collecting reclaimed artifacts, cooking and spending time with friends, family and his two dogs.

Philippe Feret

This highly decorated New York chef found a niche with European breads, pastries and desserts.

Make no mistake, despite demonstrating his absolute mastery of the art form every day at Hilton Head Social Bakery, Philippe Feret did not come to Hilton Head Island to open a bakery. Having made his mark on the New York City culinary scene with stints at the legendary Windows on the World, Tavern on the Green and in a trio of his own French eateries, he came down here with the intention of opening a restaurant.

It just didn’t work out that way, but he’ll be the first to tell you that was for the best.

“There are a lot of restaurants on the island, but there’s a little less competition in baking,” he said. “And I brought a new concept in baking to island (authentic French baked goods), which was a challenge in the beginning.”

Not many chefs could make the transition from cooking to baking – to the uninitiated, they might seem like two sides of the same coin, but they are vastly different art forms. Fortunately, Feret grew up with a foot in each world.

“It’s very rare to find a chef that knows how to bake,” he said. “A friend of mine in New York said that I was a pastry chef who went to the dark side, because I’d always do sugar sculptures or pastries in my demonstrations.”

That flair for pastries and sweets was drilled into Feret at an early age, working alongside his parents in the trio of bakeries they owned in Paris. Being a teenager, he didn’t care for working alongside his parents or learning their trade, but it did pay off when he began interning in kitchens at 16 and found he already had a lot of the skills he needed. “I knew I was different from other kids because I knew how to handle a knife, how to do different things. I had a better position in the kitchen.”

It led to a storied culinary career, one which has come full circle on Hilton Head Island.

“If I had listened to my dad, I would have been better off,” he said. “I feel like baking is what cooking was 30 years ago. More and more you have people interested in it. A lot of people realize you don’t just need a block of sugar, there are different flavors and textures — sweetness, sour, spicy. It’s the same as cooking.”

In just five years on Hilton Head, Philippe Feret has established himself as one of the island’s brightest culinary stars. One of five selected by the Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce as a chef ambassador, he takes seriously his role as the steward of not only our island’s reputation but its next generation.

“There are a lot of great restaurants on the island, but baking was really the missing link in the chain,” he said. “Our first goal is to share our knowledge.”

LOCAL SINCE 1966 • Signe Gardo is the owner of Signe’s Heaven Bound Bakery & Cafe on Hilton Head Island. When she’s not baking, she enjoys painting old furniture.

Signe Gardo

This beloved baker has been serving delicious memories since 1972.

For 49 years, Signe Gardo has been the standard bearer for fresh-baked sweets on Hilton Head Island. She’s been the darling of Southern Living, Rachael Ray and any number of outlets looking to find the tastiest treats in the Southeast.

And nearly every step of the way she’s had a cast of colorful characters to guide her. There’s Lydia, a bread slicer she purchased when UPS went on strike and she couldn’t get bread for her shop’s sandwiches. Maxine and Alice, a pair of 60-quart and 80-quart mixers. A reversible dough shooter named Portia. A walk-in oven named Brutus.

It may be a unique quirk, naming her appliances, but it’s one of many quirks that have guided Gardo through one of the longest restaurant careers in island history. Perhaps the quirk that has aided her the most is the ability to “taste test” flavors in her head, mixing them like a composer humming a tune before committing it to notation.

“They just come up when I’m thinking of a flavor or a taste or a texture,” she said. “I like to just have things in my head first. I always try to find something that’s interesting. Like our biscotti, there’s a cherry with rosemary or a hazelnut. One that’s blueberry almond with lavender. One is a standard European pistachio with rosewater.”

Having suffered a recent injury while working in the kitchen, Gardo has found herself taking a temporary step back from Signe’s Heaven Bound Bakery & Café. “So I have time to do nothing else but sit and dream.”

When we spoke, she had maple and bacon flavors dancing through her head, the first inklings of what could be a non-chocolate counterpart to her upside-down cupcake mud dauber. It sounds delicious, but she’ll tell you not all her dreams are winners. “The other night I dreamt I made a chicken cupcake,” she said, adding with a laugh, “It was closer to a nightmare.”

While she dreams, her bakery is in good hands. Along with her dedicated staff, her husband, Tom, has been pressed into service. “Tom is golden. He is just running around for me, closing machines at night, closing it down at night,” she said. “He never did it before, so this is a good experience for him.”

And beyond time to dream up new flavors, her recuperation period gives her a chance to take a brief break from the bakery she has grown from a single small shop in Harbour Town into one of the culinary experiences that have come to define Hilton Head Island. She can look ahead to her next creations, and muse on those that built her fame.

“People have always liked cheesecake. And pecan pie. I’ve used one company all these years. I get my pecans from a grower/packer in Georgia,” she said. “And of course, cookies. The old stuff is supposed to taste as good as the first day you started making it.”

We can’t wait to see what she dreams up when she’s back in her bakery with Lydia, Maxine, Alice and the whole gang.

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