Heidi Vukov

Hook & Barrel
Altoona, PA
Chef Swap Ingredient:
Fresh Shrimp
Cuisine Style:

About Heidi Vukov

Heidi Vukov is a boss – literally and figuratively. Meet her, and you may miss this fact because of her gentle demeanor, soothing voice, and refreshing modesty.

Still, she is what she is. Vukov is a respected woman in the restaurant industry known for building businesses that showcase good eats and charming décor. Currently, she owns and operates two restaurants in Myrtle Beach. Croissants Bistro & Bakery, a delicious French bakery and brunch spot, and Hook & Barrel is her foray into casual, fine dining. It is a sustainable restaurant boasting a green kitchen utilizing all-electric equipment instead of gas.

On this particular Thursday, she sat at the latter surrounded by fine wines in a space built for serenity and relaxation. She wore a light denim dress, wedge sandals, and bangs. Her look was laid-back and breezy like the interior design she produced for her eatery.

Myrtle Beach welcomed her as a resident in the early 1990s. She arrived divorced, with two toddlers and an idea.

“In 1994, I decided I was going to open a bakery,’’ Vukov said. “I had to take care of my babies, and I knew I could make cakes and bread. I felt there was a need for a bakery. At that time, Latif’s was the only bakery I was aware of. So, I went to Buzz Freeman at Conway National Bank and presented him with my business plan.”

She was nervous, but she knew she would be a hit in that niche. Years of learning had made her a supreme baker and a savvy would-be entrepreneur. Freeman agreed.

“He gave me $100,000,’’ said Vukov, still amazed by her fete and Freeman’s confidence in her. “I didn’t have any collateral. I didn’t have anything.’’

On the contrary, she had talent and plenty of it.

Before Myrtle Beach knew her, Vukov learned how to bake and cook from her grandmothers.

Esther Erb, her maternal grandmother based in Pennsylvania, was a genius at taking simple ingredients and turning them into magnificent meals.

“My grandmother Esther would take some flour, some lard, and some chicken bone and make something amazing out of it,’’ said Vukov, a native of Altoona, Penn. “So, I was greatly influenced by her.”

Anneliese Schreiner, her paternal grandmother who lived in Germany, ran the family’s leather company and still managed to grocery shop before arriving to work and then left work to make her midday supper.

Vukov would watch Schreiner use exotic ingredients and everyday staples in her approach to cooking. They made tarts and other baked goods, as well as hearty meals.

"My grandmother would start short ribs or chicken in the morning, and all of it would be ready by mealtime,'' Vukov said. "So, she was a heavy-duty cook."

Although the love of cooking and baking was instilled in her, when it was time to choose a career, Vukov decided she wanted to be an architect. Her parents gave that idea a big thumbs down. So, Vukov changed her mind about what she wanted to be.

She earned a marketing degree from Brandywine College in Delaware, moved to Florida, and got a job at Hilton.

“I was the front desk clerk, but then a position became available in the

catering department,’’ Vukov said. “The next thing you know, I am working in the kitchen.”

She worked with a “crazy French chef’ who threw pans across the kitchen in fits of rage.

“It was intense, but I loved working in the kitchen,’’ she said. “I realized that was my passion and that’s where I wanted to be.”

Eventually, she returned to Pennsylvania and worked for Bread & Company.

“I made all kinds of bread every day, but I also made cakes,” said Vukov, whose cookbook “Bonjour Y’all!” has a five-star rating on Amazon. “I liked the cake part better. I liked decorating cakes and putting them together.”

She preferred the artistic side of baking and found herself moving more toward that innovative part of the job.

“Baking is science, but decorating is art,’’ Vukov said.

Fast forward to March 20, 1995. That’s when she opened the original Croissants Bistro & Bakery. It was on 27th Avenue, across from Myrtle Square Mall. She baked and cooked for customers sitting at tables perched upon black and white checkerboard floors.

Her sandwiches, pastries, cookies, and other fare were hits as Myrtle Beach folks came to know her and loved what she offered to eat. Sometimes, her customers were also a source for recipes. Her pumpkin muffins, a star munchable during fall, are made from a recipe given to her by a customer.

Her ingenuity, and her ability to make a name for herself, in part, by visiting various businesses and leaving behind free trays of her food and baked goods, are core to her marketing juice.

Vukov always goes for the gold and understands that care and quality are pivotal when you want people to eat your talents. In her case, her innate gifts, work ethic, and vision have combined to make her eateries among the most accoladed on the Grand Strand.

“Myrtle Beach is up and coming,” said Vukov, who remarried in 2002 to a now retired gastroenterologist and has two of her children working with her in the industry. “We are beginning to see more and more people interested in the food scene here. The focus is on the beach, as it should be because we have an awesome beach. Yet from a culinary standpoint, we will see lots of cool things happen.”

Next year, she will expand her brand by adding a drive-through coffee house to her string of businesses.

Ann Brittain Lemay, a director at Brittain Hotels & Resorts, said Vukov is one of the people she admires most on Earth.

“She is beautiful inside and out,’’ said Lemay, Vukov’s friend of about 25 years. “She spends all of her waking hours trying to figure out how to serve others and then does it. Heidi gets more done in a day than many do in a lifetime.”

Meridith Swygert, the owner of Three Little Birds Café in Charleston and once a manager at Croissants Bistro & Bakery, was inspired by Vukov to become a business owner.

Swygert worked with Vukov in the early 2000s after graduating from the College of Charleston. She admired Vukov's ability to balance motherhood and operate a successful business.

“Heidi surrounded herself with employees that were good to her and devoted to her,” Swygert said. “Her clientele like her. Heidi is driven, friendly, and focused.”

By Johanna Wilson Jones, Local Food Writer and Judge on Chef Swap at The Beach

"In 1994, I decided I was going to open a bakery. I had to take care of my babies, and I knew I could make cakes and bread."

Heidi Vukov
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