Miss Robbie Montgomery has done it all. She’s toured the country as a background singer for Ike and Tina Turner in the 1960s, enjoyed a twenty-year singing career and launched two soul food restaurants in St. Louis — Sweetie Pies and Sweetie Pies at the Mangrove. And the 71-year-old matriarch shows no signs of slowing down.
Miss Robbie currently stars in the second season of her popular reality show on the Oprah Winfrey Network, Welcome to Sweetie Pies, and is in the process of building her third business, Sweetie Pies: The Upper Crust, which will be a restaurant, performing arts center, cooking school and banquet hall in one location. And with her only son and business partner Tim Norman, the rest of their family and Oprah Winfrey by her side, Miss Robbie plans to keep rising to the top.
In an interview with EBONY, she dishes on what makes her show such a hit.
EBONY: Your Sweetie Pies soul food restaurants have people lined up around the block in St. Louis and your show is a ratings hit for OWN and has been nominated for a 2012 Vision Award. When you opened your first restaurant back in 1996, did you ever see this level of success and a reality show for Oprah Winfrey in your future?
RM: Never. It actually was my son’s idea [to do the show] and in the process of doing it I prayed that this would be a success — because nobody wants to be a part of a failure — and thank God it ended up being successful! It’s so exciting and to be one of the highest rated shows, it’s unbelievable. We’re truly blessed and thankful. My son had this vision that it would be a funny thing to show the behind-the-scenes of being a family and what it takes to run a restaurant.
EBONY: Why do you think so many people are gravitating towards your show and your family?
RM: I think the reason the show works is because families relate to us. We are a struggling Black family just like many families out there. Everybody has a Miss Robbie in their family and a Lil’ Charles [her restless nephew] and a son telling the mom what to do like he knows the most. People tell me all the time, “I feel like I’m a part of your family.” And with [her grandson] Baby TJ being born 3 months early, people tell me, “I have a preemie too.”
When people watch us, they don’t see the partying and drinking you see on other shows. They just see a real family figuring it out through the ups and downs in our life.
EBONY: Speaking of Baby TJ, we saw on the last season of the show that your family went through so much with him, praying for his health and waiting to bring him home from the hospital. How is TJ doing now?
RM: He is doing just fine! Baby TJ is so cute; he looks just like his grandmother! [laughs] He is 9-months-old now and just had his check-up and he’s doing good. He’s free from the hospital and healthy, thank God. We prayed for him and the world prayed for him with us and we are so grateful to God.
EBONY: That is so good to hear! It’s really incredible to know the things you’ve survived and experienced in your life. Another interesting thing you’ve talked about is your experience touring with Ike and Tina Turner as a background singer. Tell us something we’d be surprised to learn about those two.
RM:Well one thing is that nobody out there touring knew how to cook! I was the only person who could cook in the whole place, so I cooked for everybody. I taught Tina how to make hot water cornbread. So if you ever go to her house and she fixes hot water cornbread for you, know that I taught her how! [Laughs]
And you know, Ike and Tina had their problems but it wasn’t ever our problem [as a group]. A lot of the stuff that happened between them didn’t happen in front of us. Ike was a business man and a professional and Tina was an employee, just like we were employees. Being around Ike, we called it the Turner University because we learned so much. A lot of the stuff Ike taught us about business, I’ve applied to my own business: being on time, being prepared, and being professional. And I think Tina runs her ship today with some of the things Ike taught too.
EBONY: Well it is obvious you are running a very tight ship and you’ve been very successful. What would you say has been the biggest challenge for you?
RM: The challenge is trying to keep up with all of it! On top of everything, we’re filming seven days a week in our house and at the business. We get a little stressed and the challenge is to get up and still do this every day and at the same time not neglect your business, because that’s easily done. You can forget that the show and every other opportunity have come about because of [the restaurant], so we can’t lose sight of that. [The restaurant] is the dream.
EBONY: What can we expect to see on the show this season?
RM: Well as Dela Reese says, “People are only nice for a little while.” With the cameras rolling, you see our good side, but we also have our negative stuff going on too. It’s real, it’s not scripted. You’ll see Tim put his hands on Charles. You’ll see Tim trying to buy a big house for all of us to live in, which I’m against. You’ll see Tim and I are going to counseling because he thinks he knows more than me. He thinks I’m too old to know anything and I think he’s too young to know everything! And we’re constructing the new restaurant and Jenae [Tim’s fiancée and TJ’s mom] is looking for a place to have the wedding. There’s a lot going on, a lot of drama. You know, we have our ups and downs, but at the end of it, we’re a real family. At the end of the day we mean business. We plan on making it work.
EBONY: You’re a single mother running two restaurants, building a third and managing your family and a reality show. What advice do you have for other single mothers out there who are struggling to provide for their families and fulfill their own dreams at the same time?
RM: Well, you know I’m crazy! And you have to be crazy to try and do all of this; it’s not an easy job. But if it’s something you want to do, it’s not a hard job either. I mean, it won’t be too much for you because you enjoy the work. I love cooking for people, I’m a people person, I always have been, and I wanted to work with people and create something for my family to have at the same time [which is why I started Sweetie Pies].
Some days I don’t want to be the strongest person in the family. Some days I want to take a break. But you just have to keep going. I get weak sometimes. The staff beats me down the world beats me down, but you’ve got to keep looking at the light at the end of the tunnel.
EBONY: It also can’t hurt to work for someone as positive and uplifting as Oprah. What’s that like?
RM:I actually only spoke with her once on the phone before we started the show but I got to meet her finally in person [just a few weeks ago] because she kicked off her Lifeclass [series] here in St. Louis and she came to Sweetie Pies at a time when the line was around the block. She stood in that line, anyway, didn’t ask for special treatment and then when she got up to me [in the cafeteria-style line] I heard a voice saying [imitating Oprah] “Where’s Miss Robbie?” [Laughs] And she gave me a high five — you know how she does it! — and people were screaming. I was elated. And she just grabbed me and gave me this incredible hug. It was the first time in my life where somebody made me feel like, “I got you.” [That was] the first time I’ve ever felt like that.
EBONY: You’ve achieved so much success already and have made such an impact, first with your voice and now with your food. What do you hope your legacy will be?
RM: I just want people to remember me as being a fair person and a lovable person and a family person. I’m building this [business] all for my family now. When I die, they might not want this, and that’s fine ‘cause when I’m dead and gone I won’t know anything about it! But as long as I’m here, I’m going to make sure they have something.
Catch Welcome to Sweetie Pies on OWN on Saturdays at 9/8c.