It’s a little before two o’clock on a Saturday afternoon when I get to the new Sweetie Pie’s Upper Crust restaurant on Delmar Boulevard in Grand Center. I figured the lunch rush would be over so it’d be a good time to have a taste of Robbie Montgomery’s now-famous soul food. I walk in and hear Welcome to Sweetie Pie’s, and there’s a TV crew from the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN) setting up. The place is full of people, and the line is soon out the door.
Montgomery is a huge success because she says she never gave up. Her reality television show is the highest-rated program on OWN, and her three Sweetie Pie’s soul food restaurants are becoming legendary.
Montgomery sits down at a booth to talk with me but before she can, everybody wants to say hello—and everybody gets a big smile and a hug. She’s more famous now than she was as a back-up singer for the Ike and Tina Turner Revue during the early glory days of the Motown sound. Montgomery was one of the first ‘Ikettes,’ but today, her TV show fans around the country know her as Miss Robbie. “It’s amazing how many people know me—little kids even come up to me. It’s a blessing.”
Born in Mississippi, she moved to St. Louis just after World War II when she was 6 years old. She wasn’t allowed to go to the whites-only schools until they were integrated, which happened during her teenage years. She sang in church choirs, and then caught a big break with Ike and Tina Turner. She went on to a solo career and sang with some of the biggest names in the business.
But Montgomery’s singing career was cut short because of a collapsed lung and asthma. She tells me how she came back to St. Louis almost broke and homeless. “I didn’t have any place to live. I slept on my sister’s sofa for I don’t know how long,” she remembers. “I finally got an apartment but I didn’t have any furniture, so I slept on the floor.”
She found a job at then-Jewish Hospital and trained to be a dialysis technician, but she still had a dream to once again be a big success.
Having learned how to cook with her momma’s Mississippi recipes, she wanted to open a restaurant. At first, she made food at home and sold it out of her car. Her plan was to bake pies and sell them to Schnucks, but that never worked out. “I knew they wouldn’t take ‘em ‘cause I was making them out of my house, so I found a location just to do my pies,” she explains. “I started making soul food to help the pie business, and the soul food took off.”
I ask her how the TV show started, and she says it was actually her son Tim’s idea. “My son had been in prison, and when he came home to help me in the restaurant, he observed all the funny things that were happening with the way I interacted with the employees,” she recalls. “He thought it would be a good idea for a TV show, so he tried to get some film company to come in and make a pilot. But at the time, nobody thought a show about a black family cookin’ in a restaurant would be a hit.”
Not long after the launch of the Oprah Winfrey Network, a production company did come to St. Louis looking for show ideas. They heard about Tim and Miss Robbie, and the rest of the story—as they say—is history. Welcome to Sweetie Pie’s is such a success that Oprah herself came to town recently for a soul food dinner.
Miss Robbie is still talking, and customers are still pouring in as I savor my meal. It’s fried chicken, rib tips, okra, spicy greens, sweet potatoes and cornbread. For dessert, I have Miss Robbie’s favorite dish: pear cobbler. Suddenly I realize that I’ve been eating soul food for years but just didn’t know it. I tell her this is the same kind of food ‘Mamaw’ used to cook for us in Kentucky. She’s not surprised. “It doesn’t matter what race you are, it’s home cookin’,” she explains. “What your Mamaw made was soul food. My mom had nine kids so she had to be creative. It’s making a meal out of whatever you got and making it taste wonderful.”
I learn that the secret to soul food isn’t the food, it’s the soul who prepares it. “The soul comes in with the love that you have when you’re making it, ‘cause you’re putting your all in it and your soul into it—because maybe that’s all you got.”
I finish off the last bite of my pear cobbler and Miss Robbie gets back to work. I took the back way home through parts of North St. Louis. I drive through neighborhoods that are scarred by the ravages of neglect and poverty. This is where Robbie Montgomery grew up and where her soul emerged. I’m amazed at how far she came after such humble beginnings. I go past a grocery store and it makes me think that someday, I probably will see Sweetie Pie’s at Schnucks, because it’s obvious: Miss Robbie never gives up.
Native St. Louisan Paul Brown is a lifelong journalist, and previously served as a broadcaster for KMOX and KTRS radios and ABC 30. He also worked as a freelance producer for programs on the Speed TV network and as a media relations consultant specializing in political campaigns.