Acadian Bakers’ Sandi Bubbert attributes it to one part: work, and the rest of the parts: passion.
By Brandon Wolf • Photo by Blase DiStefano
“A balanced diet is a cookie in each hand,” says Sandra Jean Bubbert, owner of Houston’s Acadian Bakers. Bubbert has just celebrated her 30th anniversary in the same location at 604 West Alabama, in the Montrose area.
Today Bubbert employs 10 people at two locations in Houston. Her retail store on West Alabama features soups, salads, and sandwiches, along with a wide variety of cookies, tarts, and other desserts. She services commercial customers from a large warehouse on Caroline. “We have a big carousel oven there,” she says. “There are trays on the carousel that move around like a Ferris wheel. We can cook up to a thousand cookies at one time.”
Marines, Missiles, and Military Life
Bubbert was born and reared in Fort Worth, Texas. “My father’s side was from Texas; my mother’s side was from Charleston, South Carolina. They met when my mother was a singer on tour and she sang at a military base in Fort Worth.”
“My father was a Marine,” she notes, “then he became a civil servant working with aircraft search and rescue missions. So we moved around a lot. I attended school in Fort Worth, Corpus Christi, and even Clovis, New Mexico.”
At one point, Bubbert’s father was stationed in Guantánamo, Cuba. “We were there when the Cuban missile crisis occurred,” she says. “The bay began to fill up with large American carriers. They quickly flew all the Americans off the island. I can remember seeing jet planes lined up one after the other, to relocate us to Norfolk, Virginia.”
Bubbert was athletic as a child and into her teenage years. “I ran track and played on the basketball team in high school,” she says. “I also liked softball and powder puff football. We were supposed to pull little pink rags out of each other’s back pockets, but we preferred to tackle. I always played quarterback.”
A ’60s Girl Group, Veterinarians, and Melvin
Music was also an important part of Bubbert’s life. “My mother didn’t tour anymore after she got married,” she says, “but she did have a Saturday TV show at the local station. I remember watching her on the little tiny screen of our early television set. My sisters, Sharon and Jan, and I also formed a girl group called The Hayes Sisters, and we took to the road on and off. We did all the current rock music and also folk music like Peter, Paul, and Mary.”
“One year in the mid 1960s we flew to Guantánamo for Christmas,” Bubbert recalls. “The admiral of a large cruiser knew that we sang because he had heard us in an officers’ club. He asked us to entertain on his ship, and we thought there would be a couple hundred people. We walked out to the deck and saw thousands of sailors. They were hanging from everywhere. The ship’s band accompanied us. As the waves were slapping both sides of the front of the ship, we sang songs like ‘Dancing in the Streets,’ and other current hits. Music is definitely a universal language.”
Due to their mother’s insistence that they continue their education, the girls eventually put their music aside. “I went to college in New Mexico,” Bubbert remembers. “Like everyone else back then I studied liberal arts. Then I moved to New York to live with one of my sisters who had become an Eastern Airlines stewardess.
“My father and uncles had been in the military, so I decided to join, too,” Bubbert says. “I served my country from 1968 to 1970 in the United States Medical Corp. during the grizzly Vietnam War era, ending my tour of duty at Valley Forge General Army Hospital in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania.”
Bubbert met fellow soldier Melvin Douglas Bubbert in the military, and he became her “best gay boyfriend.”
“There was a new regulation that if you were married, you did not have to go if you had already done one tour. So we decided to take advantage of it.It was great for him. He was a kind and gentle farm boy and did not want his mother to know he was gay.”
After leaving the military, Bubbert moved to Houston where another sister lived and described it as a city of opportunities. “Everyone assumed I would go into nursing,” she says, but Bubbert surprised everyone by finding a job in a local veterinarian office. “I thought, Oh boy, I can just work with cute little puppies. Little did I know I would end up assisting with the amputation of animal limbs—it wasn’t just spaying and neutering. After four years of that, I finally left the nursing field.”
In the early 1970s, Melvin followed Bubbert to Houston, where he met Jay Allen, the owner of several gay bars.“Melvin and Jay were together for nearly 30 years,” she says.“Unfortunately he passed away a couple of years ago.”
A Passion for Food
Having witnessed so much of life’s pain and grief, Bubbert sought out a career that dealt with life’s happier moments. She turned to another lifelong passion—cooking.
“My mother tells me that I started cooking at an early age,” she says. “I used to pull up an apple crate to the stove and fix eggs for my sisters. My mother was a good cook. But my grandmother was a great cook. Those sugar cookies in the front display case are from her recipe—lots of cinnamon and butter!”
Bubbert went to work for a local caterer. “I could cook for a few people,” she says. “But I wasn’t sure I could cook for 500 and more people. The batch sizes at a catering firm are enormous.” She eventually took on a position at Acadian Bakers on West Alabama. “It was owned by two gay men, one from Texas and one from Louisiana,” she says. “They had a wonderful bakery, and I helped them diversify by adding lunch meals to their products.”
In 1979, Bubbert bought the Acadian Bakers when the two owners decided to move to Louisiana. “They told me they would teach me how to bake cakes,” she remembers. “They told me it was easy. Well, don’t let anyone kid you. It isn’t! And you have to be very careful. You can have 40 pounds of cake mix, 70 eggs, and six pounds of butter in a big bowl, but if you don’t mix it correctly, you’ve just lost 40 pounds worth of cakes.”
Acadians were French people who originally settled in Nova Scotia, Bubbert says, explaining the bakery’s name. During times of religious and social persecution in the 1600s, they migrated down the east coast and settled in Louisiana. “It’s what most people think of as Cajuns,” she notes. “The original owners of the store were familiar with that area and that name.”
During the 1980s, Bubbert also ran a small restaurant called Sandi’s Teashop in the 1700 block of Bissonnet. “It was a precious little place,” she recalls. “It could only seat 40 people at a time. Everything we served was homemade. We had a salad bar, and besides lunch foods, we had daily specials like meatloaf and pork chops.”
On Thanksgiving Day in 1997, Bubbert was at home preparing lunch for friends when she received a phone call from the Houston Fire Department. “They told me that my store was on fire, and they were fighting the blaze. I immediately drove over and saw the store being consumed by the flames. We lost everything from what turned out to be an electrical fire. Insurance covered the loss of the store, but I’ll never be able to replace the family cookbooks that were destroyed.”
After the fire, Bubbert found an old warehouse on Caroline Avenue, in the vicinity of Houston Community College. “I called it the Black Pit of Calcutta,” she laughs. “We had to remodel it, but we now had a large kitchen facility. We also enlarged the Alabama location.”
Thinking back to earlier days, Bubbert remembers Houston hospitality icons with whom she often rubbed shoulders. “I knew Leonard Tharp, the florist,” she says. “He was a great talent. He did the floral arrangements at the White House many, many times. I also remember Lyndon Johnson, the ‘hairdresser to the stars,’ and, of course, Jackson Hicks, the finest caterer in Houston. We had a lot of talent in our community, but we have lost so much of it, too.” Both Tharp and Johnson succumbed to AIDS. Hicks currently runs a thriving catering service.
Everyone’s Favorite Cake Maker
Bubbert has talents that span the spectrum of the food-preparation field; however, she is best known for her cakes. The walls of her store are filled with photographs of specialty cakes from over the years, alongside pictures of her famous clients.
The most unusual ingredient Bubbert ever used in a cake was gold dust. “It was for an Asian couple’s 50th wedding anniversary,” she says. “We dusted everything with it. It’s expensive. We bought it at Texas Art Supply, where it was under lock and key.”
Bubbert now has her eye on a machine that can scan a photograph and reproduce the picture in sugar. “I will be able to put the sugar pictures on top of sheet cakes,” she explains with enthusiasm.
Bubbert’s weddings cakes are always in demand. “Most often they are multi-level,” she points out. “We make each layer on a cake board, and then transport them to the event site. We then build the cakes, placing them on a structure that supports each individual level. If we didn’t do it that way, the cakes would soon resemble the Leaning Tower of Pisa.” After the layers are assembled, she adds piping to give the cake its finished appearance.
“We are familiar with most of the local churches, so we know what dollies and other equipment to bring along for the big transfer ,” Bubbert says. “We are aware of all the strange staircases to traverse and we always get our cakes to their destinations.”
The cakes are transported in her two refrigerated trucks. “I’ve never lost a cake in 30 years!” she exclaims proudly. “A few years ago, a customer wanted to save the delivery cost and picked up a three-layer wedding cake. I tried to talk him out of it, but he said there would be no problem. Before he even got to Montrose, he had to slam on his brakes to avoid someone running a traffic light. The cake went everywhere in his car. Everywhere! He came back for another cake, but there was nothing I could do in time.”
Most of the local oil companies have contracted with Bubbert to supply them with personalized birthday cakes for their employees. “We were hit hard when Enron closed down; they had 40,000 employees and we supplied all the birthday cakes,” she says. Every business day, Bubbert’s bakers deliver a fresh new batch of cakes to their corporate clients.
During the 1988 Texas gubernatorial contest, candidate Ann Richards sampled one of Bubbert’s cakes. “Real estate professional Linda Hudson hosted a Richards fundraiser,” she remembers. “I baked a sheet cake that showed the governor’s mansion with the words ‘Future Home of Ann Richards.’ Richards talked about that cake all the way back to the airport.”
When Richards needed a cake for her 1989 inauguration, she turned to Bubbert. “We made a cake for over 500 people, shaped like the state capitol. We put it into our truck and drove at a crawl to Austin. I didn’t want to leave the cake overnight, so I slept in the cab all night, in a hotel parking garage.”
The new governor loved her cake, which was served at the first reception she held after the swearing in. Bubbert says that Richards told her in typically earthy language: “That is the best damn cake I’ve ever eaten!”
Bubbert thinks back on other famous clients. “Shirley MacLaine was at a party celebrating the completion of filming Evening Star . She is very remote. She doesn’t like having her picture taken or going to receptions. But Reba McIntire was just the opposite. She has such a sweet voice; she sounds just like you expect, asking all about the smallest details of the cake she had ordered. She’s very warm, and she’s cute as a bug’s ear. Judith Light was the best public speaker I’ve ever met. I heard her speak about AIDS at a black-tie dinner. She’s amazing.”
When Crossroads Bookstore was located just a few doors down from Acadian Bakers, Bubbert once made a black wedding cake for a book-signing party for author Anne Rice. “She wore a black wedding gown to that party,” Bubbert says. “Since she wrote vampire novels, I decided to dress as a priest for the party. She thought I really was one!”
Neiman Marcus once ordered a giant, white-chocolate cake, for an appearance by Elizabeth Taylor, who was promoting her new product, White Diamonds. “Executives from many different cities had flown in for the Houston reception,” Bubbert recalls, “but Taylor wasn’t feeling well and collapsed upon arrival at the party and had to be taken to a hospital. The reception had to go on without her.”
A long relationship with the Bush family began in the early 1980s when Bubbert provided a cake for a hospital fundraising event that Barbara Bush attended. “We had just finished stitching the decorative materials that hung down from a row of 20 tables, when her security group came in and looked under all of them,” Bubbert remembers. “We had to re-stitch everything. Then a second group came in and did the same thing, and so we re-stitched again. When a third group tried to do the same, I told them no! I didn’t have time to re-stitch those things again.”
When President George H. W. Bush held the Economic Summit in Houston in 1990, Bubbert was chosen to prepare cakes for a huge dinner in the Astrodome. “We created cakes for each country—with significance for each country—for example, German chocolate cake for the German flag,” she says. “The security was really tight. The Secret Service agents were standing around with what looked like medical supply boxes. I soon discovered there were Uzis in those boxes.”
Active in Houston’s GLBT Community
Bubbert has not only run a successful business for 30 years, but she has also given freely to help the Houston GLBT community. “Marion Coleman and I were members of the original Montrose Counseling Center [MCC] board of directors. Now MCC has been here for 30 years, and I’ve been here for 30 years.”
Sally Huffer, a community projects specialist at MCC, remembers: “Sandi donated a chocolate mousse cake when we honored Dalton DeHart with the Community Paragon Award in December 2007, recognizing his 30 years of chronicling the community with his camera. She baked a chocolate mousse cake resembling our building for our 2007 open house.”
A longtime fan of Miss Camp America (MCA), Bubbert was saddened when the group recently ended their annual pageants after 36 years of fun and songs. MCA founder Pat Petty says of Bubbert, “I have known Sandi for about 35 years. She is the most sincere and honest lady that I have ever met. She bought Acadian Bakers 30 years ago and has made it a Houston legend. She never meets a stranger. When we went on an R.S.V.P cruise several years ago, she knew every male and female on the ship within three days—and was buying them a cocktail. That good old southern charm just oozes from her pores. Sandi is a true Southern belle and I am proud to say a very good friend.”
Bubbert was also involved as a member of The Dianas organization for 15 years. She was once awarded a best-supporting-actor award, followed later by a best-actor award. She chuckles at memories of the past roasts, but says she can’t remember what trespasses she committed that landed her the two statuettes.
OutSmart readers have awarded Bubbert numerous annual Gayest and Greatest awards. “I was always runner-up for a business award,” she says. “Marion Coleman always took first place. But that’s okay. I admire Marion so much. It’s nice to be runner-up to her.”
Bubbert also was a member of the Executive and Professional Association of Houston (EPAH) for a number of years. Cindy Cuellar, a past EPAH president recalls, “Sandi has made the last two anniversary cakes for EPAH [the 25th and the 30th].I love Sandi. She has always gone that extra mile for EPAH and its members.She makes the best cakes and pastries in the world! She loves what she does and it shows.She is such an asset to our community.”
The Houston Women’s Center is another important organization in Bubbert’s life. “I’ve worked the crisis lines before, and the calls can be heartbreaking,” she says. Each year, Bubbert helps with the Decadent Desserts fundraiser for AssistHers, an organization which helps lesbians cope with life-threatening illnesses.
Community activist Deborah Bell speaks to Bubbert’s cooking and compassion: “I personally am a huge fan of the Italian crème cake, and I am not particularly a cake person. I can also attest to Sandi’s kindness and generosity, even though our political views may clash at times. When my former partner’s grandmother passed away, we needed to find a home for her ancient miniature poodle. Sandi took Snookie in and cared for her during the few more months she lived. I was very touched by that kind of compassion.”
The Power of Love and the Strength of Religion
With such intense professional and community involvement, it’s somewhat of a wonder that Bubbert has ever found time for a personal life. But she and Emily Jane Japhet were partners for nearly three decades. “I met Emily on August 8, 1978, at Marion & Lynn’s Club,” says Bubbert with fondness. Japhet recently suffered a series of strokes and eventually entered a nursing home shortly before her death.
During the 1980s, Bubbert and Japhet had businesses side by side on Bissonnet. “She owned Emily Jane’s Flower Shop and I owned Sandi’s Teashop,” she recalls. Late in that decade, Japhet suffered the first stroke. “People told me she would never walk or talk again, but I worked with her for over two years, and she did both, although she never regained much ability to use her left side.”
Thinking back to her childhood, Bubbert says she knew she was gay as early as four or five. “I used to fall in love with my babysitters,” she laughs, “and, of course, with my physical education teachers in high school. All lesbians did!”
Bubbert describes her family as very accepting and supportive. She never had to come out to her family, she says. “In the South, there are some things that people just don’t bother to talk about,” she notes. “You can say things discreetly. For example, people thought of me as ‘athletic’ and ‘a woman who dresses conservatively.’ That was all they needed to know.”
Religious faith is also central to Bubbert’s life. She attended Holy Rosary Church for two decades but then gravitated to All Saints Church in the Heights. “The paintings in the church are so beautiful,” she says. “I’m now involved in a year-long educational program to become a confirmed member of the Catholic Church.”
“I was attracted to the Catholic faith when the Kennedys were in the White House,” Bubbert says. “My father was Baptist and my mother was Methodist, but I came to like the Catholic faith. It’s true that the pope is quite negative about gays, but a lot of Catholics decide for themselves on that subject and are very accepting.”
Being Republican Doesn’t Mean Far Right
Politically, Bubbert often supports Republican candidates. “Marion Coleman and I have taken a lot of heat over the years for being Republicans,” she observes. “But I don’t support all Republicans; there are some I can’t stand. And I have no interest in Rush Limbaugh; he has very little respect for women.”
Bubbert maintains customers from across the political spectrum. “I just wish politics wasn’t so political!” she says with a note of humorous frustration. She has baked cakes for every Houston mayor since Kathy Whitmire. Current mayoral candidate and Acadian Bakers customer Annise Parker says of Bubbert, “She is a good business woman, a great supporter of the community, and makes outstanding cakes.I am a particular fan of Sandi’s Italian crème cake.”
Bubbert explains that her Republican leanings have mostly to do with small-business ownership. “Over the years, I think they’ve made it easier for us,” she says. “But I think the pulpit has now been allowed to take over the party. I also think war profiteering has occurred, and it’s tainted many officeholders.
“I’m tired of seeing our young men killed in wars,” Bubbert sighs. “We should try to help others, but not when the cost is young Americans. I knew that Saddam Hussein was a dictator, but I didn’t think he was any more out of control than he had been for the past 20 years when we invaded Iraq. I have always wanted what George H. W. Bush described as ‘a kinder, gentler world’ in his inaugural speech.”
Bubbert admits that she was caught by surprise with the current economic crisis. “The ship is sinking,” she says with concern. “But quite honestly, I didn’t even know we had hit an iceberg. Then suddenly, things started falling everywhere, and the situation kept getting worse.”
The current downturn has put somewhat of a dent in her business, but Bubbert says she hasn’t been hit as hard as many other businesses. “My grandfather used to tell me that when things get tight, there are still two things that people will always spend money on—whiskey and sweets. I’m glad I decided a long time ago to sell sweets.”
Recently Bubbert celebrated her 64th birthday. “But I don’t feel it,” she says. “It’s just a number.”