Food TV has broadened its horizons, and media mogul Oprah Winfrey has certainly taken notice. And, with her successful series on OWN, “Welcome to Sweetie Pies,” she is putting St. Louis soul food on the map.
Of course, credit also goes to Miss Robbie Montgomery, the matriarch of the family and of the restaurant.
In fact, she says, “People always say we’re putting St. Louis on the map, but I like to say St. Louis is putting us on the map. They’ve been very supportive. We’re kind of looking out for each other.”
Unlike other reality shows, this one is filmed in an actual restaurant. The show is currently in production, preparing for its March 31, 2012 season debut, so the family is on set everyday—and it just happens to be the same place where they normally work, in the St. Louis restaurant. Montgomery says, “You actually see us working, getting down cooking, cleaning, mopping floors. I get out there every morning. Every day I’m at my business.”
Sweetie Pie’s is, at its heart, a family soul food restaurant. It was started by Montgomery after a career as an “Ikette,” singing with Ike and Tina Turner. When health problems took her away from full time singing, she said she still needed to work, and thought a family business might make long-term sense. She says, “I always wanted to look out for my family. I know how hard it is to find a job. In creating a business, I knew my family was behind me. I figured if I could employ my family, it was a good thing, and that when I’m gone they would continue to keep it moving.”
She talks about her touring days, comparing it to running a restaurant. “Ike and Tina were from St. Louis and I was in a local singing group,” she says. “They gave us the opportunity to sing background with them. Ike offered me a job. We were also a family. I learned to how stick together. We were self-contained. Ike was more like a father figure. I know we hear a lot of things, but that didn’t apply to us. He was a professional man and I try to run my business the way he ran the band. I don’t care if you have a Popsicle stand, business is business.” She adds, “We called it Turner University.”
The OWN series has led to business growth for the family, with a third restaurant now under construction, and a big part of the storyline for the upcoming season. “Be prepared to see us building our new location, and additional members of our family are coming on, especially my new little son, T.J.,” says Montgomery’s son and business manager, Tim Norman.
It’s Norman who has additional plans for expansion, including selling products branded to the Sweetie Pie’s name, and possible restaurant franchising to grow it to other cities. “Business has picked up,” he says, giving them “opportunities that have presented themselves to expand nationwide. We are a mom and pop business but are looking to expand into other areas.” That may include selling items such as breading or seasoning mixes, as well as franchising. And, a cookbook is a definite.
“Yes, definitely a cookbook and a story about my life,” says Montgomery, matter-of-factly. “I guess that’s going to come before I die.”
They are also looking at adding healthy food items to the soul food menu in their new location, their third. “We are going to add to the menu that we already have,” says Montgomery. “That seems to be working, but we are looking into some healthy options. We have people that come in and want something healthy, so we’re adding salads and sandwiches because sometimes people don’t want that heavy food all day.” This, too, is part of the new season—in fact, you can expect a cooking competition between mother and son as part of the new menu creation. (spoiler alert: Robbie says her son cheated!)
The soul food, however, stays on the menu (see our review of “Welcome to Sweetie Pies”).
It includes fried chicken with some of the biggest wings you’ll ever see. Norman explains, “We don’t make money off that fried chicken. We look at chicken like a cut of beef. The wings are the best part. We like serving them.” As for most popular items? The wings, the macaroni and cheese, and the peach cobbler.
The new season will introduce the baby of the family, Tim’s son, T.J., also known as Timmy. Born prematurely, the baby is now nine months old. “I’m an old time grandmother,” says Montgomery. “I sneak him table food whenever I can.”
Norman acknowledges that they plan to close two of the restaurants “eventually,” once they get the new one open, because they’ve been able to build it on property they own and to their own specifications. “It has all the things that I’ve ever wanted,” says Montgomery . . . including her own bathroom! “This is my dream,” she adds. “It’s finally becoming a reality.”
As for the reality show, Montgomery gives credit to God and hard work. She says, “I’m a firm believer in dreams, and I’m a firm believer in prayer. We’re very grateful that it is successful. I think it’s that people can relate to us. Unlike other shows, we actually work at our business. Everyone has a Tim or a Charles in their family; it’s something the American family can relate to. We struggle with our ups and downs, and everybody’s had them.”
As for being selected by Oprah Winfrey for her network, Montgomery says, “I cannot believe it. I feel like I’m still dreaming. I’m excited and thankful that she’s picked us. There’s a million black restaurants in the world, and they didn’t have to pick us.”
Norman adds, “What you see in other shows—well, you don’t see a lot of positive black television out there. People would come in the restaurant and tell us we were funny. So we shot the pilot and it went from there.” His fiancée and mother of T.J., Jenae Wallick, also chimes in, saying, “Our family goes through things that other families do. We just try to be respectful. We definitely have drama. There is always something going on. But we handle it as a family and that’s what makes it a little different from what other shows do.”
The 71-year-old Montgomery says, “I get up in the morning, start out with a prayer, and just take whatever the day brings. Every day is not a good day, but whatever the problem, I just keep going. I know I gotta do it, and I just get up and do it.” She adds a word of advice: “Stay focused and prayerful; keep your eye on the prize. Without God none of this is possible.”
The one-hour show airs on the Oprah Winfrey Network Saturdays at 9 pm Eastern time.