Every once in a while, your travels take you to places that you never knew existed. Often, this includes a variety of experiences, and food is one that we all cherish. After my first visit to Bartow, the locals gave me several recommendations of things we should do on our next visit. Sweet Magnolia’s was one of these suggestions, and we made it a point to eat lunch here to experience this local favorite.
So, what makes Sweet Magnolia’s so special? Several reasons, and it goes above and beyond the food. Let’s start with the bright décor that takes you back in time — a modern diner look coupled with an eclectic and mesmerizing collection of signage — the family story behind it. Then, there is the food. And, true to all the recommendations, the food holds its own!
Having experienced Sweet Magnolias, I wanted to talk to Sandy Mendez’s owner to capture the story behind this delightful family business to share it with the world.
Amy, this one is for you and your childhood friend Sandy. You were spot on; Sandy has poured her heart and soul into this charming place.
About the Owner of Sweet Magnolias Cafe & Gift Shop
Sandy Mendez is the brainchild behind Sweet Magnolias Cafe & Gift Shop. Sandy, a native Floridian from Palm Beach County, started her career as a professional water skier. She traveled doing shows until she was 22. Then she was accepted into the state police academy for Florida Marine Patrol, where she served in law enforcement for 20 years. Besides her career, Sandy is a mom to four children. Two are grown up; two still live at home – Clay 16 and Savannah 11.
Years before creating Sweet Magnolias Cafe & Gift Shop, Bartow, Sandy, and her mom owned a small gift shop. Their first gift shop ultimately became too much to manage once raising the kids became Sandy’s priority. Despite selling the gift shop, Sandy and her mom Libby vowed to have another Sweet Magnolias eventually.
Five years ago, Sandy’s father passed away. This left her and her mom looking for a new adventure. Both looked for a wholesome place for Clay and Savannah to grow up in, and Bartow fit the bill.
The Beginning of the Sweet Magnolias Cafe & Gift Shop
Sandy and Libby took a massive leap of faith, bought the building in downtown Bartow, and moved upstairs. A few weeks later, Sweet Magnolias opened their doors! Starting with 16 seats and now between the patio, café, and sweet shop, they have over 65 seats.
Sandy’s lifelong dream is to own bed and breakfast. And while Sweet Magnolias is not a B&B, it’s the first part of this family’s journey. Eventually, once the kids are in college, Sandy will look for options in the area that complement her existing business. Sweet Magnolias Cafe & Gift Shop is the first step of this family’s pursuit of their dreams!
Having been to this adorable café, I must tell you that I can only imagine what Sandy will create for a guest house. I’ll be in line to stay, that’s for sure!
I asked Sandy how they picked the name. Sandy said:
“We kicked names around years ago, and we just love being from the south, and Sweet Magnolias just felt right.”
It’s very fitting; it makes sense once you’ve experienced it for yourself.
Bartow Community Involvement
Sandy wanted her business to be a beacon for those in need, and it has become precisely that.
“Being able to open our doors and help others has allowed me to continue to serve others. More thanjust a good cup of soup. It’s not uncommon for families to pray at their tables and for people to gather in a prayer circle when the food arrives! “
Sandy is passionate about her hometown and is a firm believer that you must be involved. Sandy now serves on various boards and is the George Harris Youth Shelter’s chair that houses local youths in need. She also serves on the local CRA board to continue the revitalization of the downtown area. She has also served on the Main Street Bartow board for the past three years.
The Decorations of Sweet Magnolias Cafe & Gift Shop
Impressive, before we even get to the food, the decoration is worthy of a chapter! From the outside in, you are met with a rustic charm. An explosion of color followed by an overdose of happy signage that you will need time to take it all in.
Sandy wanted Sweet Magnolias to be her happy place after being in law enforcement for so long and seeing so much tragedy! Sandy enjoys being in an inspirational atmosphere. The signage has become a running joke. Sandy is famous for going clothes shopping and coming home with more signs.
In addition to the signs, there is a massive collection of tea party sets. When Sweet Magnolias hosted its first tea party, they only had five teapots. Sandy had to borrow one to have enough. This gave birth to the collection of dishes and teapots. This collection has now grown to over 70 teapots and 25 collections of different dish sets.
Sweet Magnolias Cafe Food
The menu is very casual. I would describe it as a classic southern bakery-style café. However, don’t misinterpret this. The food is modern and creative while maintaining traditional roots. It’s also clean, fresh food. There is no stove or fryer, and everything is made to order.
Sandy likes to try new things; she gets bored quickly, so the menu evolves along with the décor. The chicken salad croissant is famous in Bartow, and the ultimate grilled cheese is on its way to fame. Some customers come in 4-5 times a week, so Sweet Magnolias always have new items to try. And all are designed to be fresh and healthy. For further ideas, Sandy will ask customers what they would like to see then try it.
Sweet Magnolias serves the best-iced tea I have ever tasted. I had the raspberry tea, and it was to die for. Fresh tea is made every morning, and the flavors vary; they even have peach tea!
All meals are served with a small cupcake. I asked Sandy what the significance is:
“I want people to leave here with a smile and that little golden nugget as we call it makes so many people happy! It’s just the right amount of sweetness to finish your meal.”
My friend and I thoroughly enjoyed the food. I went for the gyro wrap, and it was delicious! The little golden nugget was indeed sweet.
Events at Sweet Magnolias Cafe
Perhaps as famous as the chicken salad croissant, Sweet Magnolias is well known for events. They do everything from baby showers, birthday parties to weddings, reunions, and more. Hosting an event will be unique; the sole goal is to make your event special. Sweet Magnolias have done caterings for as little as six people and up to 300 people.
Can you imagine having a bridal shower tea party? What woman would not appreciate this?
In addition to customers booking private events, Sweet Magnolias host many themed events. Here are a couple coming up in January:
In addition to the café, there’s a thriving gift shop. The gift shop sells a lot of gourmet chocolate and fudge. Hand-sewn pillows by Sandy’s mom Libby are also available. And, they make and sell a lot of gift baskets. Stop in and treat yourself or your loved ones to something special.
What You Need to Know
Address: Main Street Bartow, 180 S Central Ave
All meals are moderately priced and under $10
Everything is 100% fresh and made to order
There are plenty of baked goods on sale, including cupcakes
You can dine or take your food to go.
You can call in orders to pick up.
There is seating available inside and out.
Credit cards are accepted.
Café – 10:00 am -3:00 pm
Candy and ice cream shop – 11:00 am – 7:00 pm.
FYI: Sweet Magnolias hosts lots of private parties in the café. If you are planning to visit on a Saturday, make sure you call ahead for times.
I said it before, and I’ll repeat it. Bartow should be on anyone’s list of places to visit. I’ve come to appreciate Bartow and the people that live there. It’s a small town that embodies everything you imagine about a picturesque little town in Florida.
Both times we have visited, we have met people and heard their stories. Some readers may stick their noses in the air – it’s a small town. But guess what, these small towns are the backbone of our country. Many of which are attracting people back to a slower pace of life that’s family-oriented.
The people of Bartow have a real strong sense of community, family values, and tradition. Talk to any of the locals here, and you’ll hear wonderfully history-rich stories about generations past and present. Sandy and her family are just one example but a special one. Owning the café for them is like having friends over every day. What they have created is not just a café or gift shop; it’s a labor of love, a passion, a dream, and a staple part of Bartow.
Lastly, Sandy, like many locals, not only loves Bartow but loves the people. When I asked her what she loved the most about Bartow, she said:
“The people, hands down.”
I respect and appreciate this, and you will feel it for yourself if you venture into Bartow. You’ll taste it first hand if you eat at Sweet Magnolia’s Café because every meal is made with love.
Nikki Webster is a travel writer who covers how to travel while grinding a day job and travel without breaking the bank, hotels, cruising, and off-the-beaten-track experiences. She is particularly fond of Florida and writes extensively about the state. She flies around 60,000 miles per year and has visited 54 countries, 50 states, and six continents. You can read all about her travels at www.britonthemove.com.