Oprah Winfrey pays a surprise visit to Robbie Montgomery and her family at Sweetie Pie's in St. Louis. (George Burns/Harpo Inc.)

Oprah Winfrey pays a surprise visit to Robbie Montgomery and her family at Sweetie Pie’s in St. Louis. (George Burns/Harpo Inc.)

Robbie Montgomery squeezed out money from her paycheck as a dialysis technician to buy a chair here and some garage-sale dishes there. Slowly, without much encouragement, she pulled together pieces of her dream to open Sweetie Pie’s, a soul food restaurant in her native St. Louis.

“I couldn’t get a loan or anything, but I didn’t let any of that discourage me,” Montgomery said. “I walked by faith.”

After nearly two decades, she is contemplating whether to open a fourth location in Houston, Los Angeles — or a city suggested by tourists who have drooled over her recipes on OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network, which airs her reality show, “Welcome to Sweetie Pie’s.”

The location debate between Montgomery and her son, Tim Norman, is the focus of the season opener, which airs at 9 p.m. ET Saturday, March 15, on OWN.

“I’m for Los Angeles; Tim’s for Houston,” Montgomery says, acknowledging that the dilemma is a good one as dilemmas go.

In fact, lots of good things have come her way throughout the ups and downs of her 73 years on earth.

aboutIkettesHer first “opportunity of a lifetime” came after she transitioned

from doo-wopping on the streets of St. Louis into its music clubs. After singing on Ike and Tina Turner’s breakout hit, “A Fool in Love,” Ike hired her as an Ikette. She doubled occasionally as chef, testing out some of her mother’s recipes on her band mates that she whipped up on hot plates in their hotel rooms. (See Sweetie Pie’s Recipe for Green Beans, below.)

Montgomery also picked up some business skills as part of what the Ikettes called Turner University. “I apply everything I learned then to my life now.”

Robbie Montgomery, center, as an Ikette.

Robbie Montgomery, center, as an Ikette.

“Ike was firm when I was out there as an Ikette,” she recalls. “We all thought that Ike was too strict, but now that I have my own business, I understand where he was coming from. This was his business, and we were employees. So now I see why he didn’t want runs in our stockings and he wanted you to be on time to rehearsals.”

She later moved to California and sang as a Night Tripper with Dr. John for eight years. She also did studio work and background singing with a variety of artists, including James Brown, Joe Cocker, Patti LaBelle, the Rolling Stones, Barbara Streisand, the Supremes and Stevie Wonder.

A collapsed lung forced her off the road in 1979. She returned home to St. Louis, found a day job and began thinking of how to turn her cooking skills into a viable business, having dabbled with a Wings and Things eatery in Pomona, Calif., during the late seventies.

“I’m a people person,” says Montgomery, also known as Miss Robbie. “I kinda miss the singing, but I’m happy in my life now.”

Her life changed in a big way once Oprah Winfrey took an interest in showcasing her business as a reality show, “Welcome to Sweetie Pie’s.”

“Actually, I did not want to do this show,” Montgomery says. “It was my son’s idea.” She didn’t want to do the pilot that Norman proposed, didn’t think it would go anywhere and didn’t believe her ears when she heard that it was picked up in record time by one of the most visible role models for women entrepreneurs.

Oprah visits sweetie pies in ST. Louis, MO“I was so excited,” she says. “I was so thankful that she would take a chance on us.”

Thanks to the so-called Oprah effect, “the business has increased three or four times,” she adds.

Montgomery encourages women to go into business and offers her recipe for success:

Believe in yourself, and focus on your passion. “If you make quilts, make your quilts and pursue an avenue to get them out to the public,” Montgomery says. “I don’t care whatever it is. It can be a lemonade stand; make the best lemonade. Put all of your heart into it. Do it with love. It’s not about money all the time; it’s about doing what you want to do and believing in yourself.”

Tap into your transferrable skills and determination. “It was my survival mode that came in,” Montgomery explains in discussing her level of determination. “A lot of women have that, and they don’t realize it until a crisis happens.” Montgomery reminds women that they instinctively know how to make a way out of no way and that they have transferrable skills essential for entrepreneurship. If you can manage a household budget and keep the lights on, you can manage a business budget. “We’re financial experts,” she says. “You can do the same thing for yourself.”

Ignore naysayers. “I didn’t get one encouraging word,” Montgomery recalls when trying to launch Sweetie Pie’s. “Everybody was negative and tried to beat me down.”

Don’t be discouraged by obstacles and setbacks. “You have to be able to withstand the hard times and keeping going,” advises Montgomery, who still worries on slow days at her restaurants.

“It’s like riding a bike — you fall and get back up.” And despite her experience, she worried each time she opened a new location. “It was easier, but I still had that fear,” she admits. “The fear of failing is always there.”

Listen to your customers. Sweetie Pie’s has expanded based on customer feedback. Since the first restaurant was located on the north side of St. Louis, diners from the south side wanted a site close to their homes, too. After several of them suggested the same dilapidated building, she considered it a sign to go for it.

Reach back as you climb. “At Sweetie Pie’s, we believe in second chances,” Montgomery says. “After my singing career, God offered me second chances.” People who were formerly homeless or incarcerated have turned out to be model employees.

Put family first. “That’s where I feel my strength,” Montgomery says. “There’s nothing like family, even though you fuss and fight.” Sweetie Pie’s staff includes Montgomery’s brother, nieces and cousins in addition to her son. When a family member is in need, she will drop everything or postpone business decisions. And when they get out of line, she’ll fire them. “I’ve fired my son. I’ve fired my nephew. I’ve fired everybody that’s not doing what they’re supposed to do. And I tell them you can fire me if I’m not doing what I’m supposed to do.”

Welcome_to_Sweetie_PiesHave a succession plan. “I want to make sure that my family is OK after I’m gone.” She looks forward to turning over the business to her son one day — when she’s good and ready. She describes him as her rock, but also as her “hard place” when they clash. “I could kill him everyday if I wouldn’t go to jail for murder,” she said jokingly. Norman has great ideas, she admits, but sometimes too many of them. “He thinks he knows more than me. … I’ve been in the restaurant business 18 years, and he’s been in five.”

Relieve the stress. This is an area for improvement, Montgomery admits. “I just deal with the issues that life brings me,” she says. “I pray and keep going. I do a lot of praying.” On Mondays, you can find her rolling around the skating rink during a session for those 40 and up. “I’m one of the upper ones,” she says with a laugh.

If Montgomery could go back in time, she would have gone into business earlier.

“If you have a dream, go for it.”

Yanick Rice Lamb, an associate professor at Howard University, is co-founder and publisher of FierceforBlackWomen.com.

Sweetie Pie’s Recipe for Green Beans

Photo Credit: Simon Speed (Creative Commons)

Photo Credit: Simon Speed (Creative Commons)

Ingredients:

  • 6 cups fresh or frozen green beans
  • 1 small russet potato peeled and cubed
  • 1 1/2 cup of water
  • 5 tablespoons chicken stock
  • 4 tablespoons butter
  • 1 1/3 teaspoon granulated garlic
  • 2 tablespoons chopped onions
  • 1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper
  • 4 tablespoons sugar
  • salt and pepper to taste

Directions:

In a medium pot bring water, butter and chicken stock to a boil.

Add garlic and potato. Boil until potato begin to soften, approximately 10 minutes.

Reduce heat and add green beans, onions, red pepper and sugar.

Simmer for 10 minutes or until green beans are tender.

Serves 4.