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Welcome to Sweetie Pie’s… Where Reality Meets Soul
By: Kristian Rose-Anderson
On any given day, Sweetie Pie’s at the Mangrove is overflowing with hundreds of guests patiently waiting in line for their tasty selection of soul food. “On a slow day we see 300 to 600 people, and on the weekend you can’t count,” says the owner Miss Robbie. To step inside Sweetie Pie’s is like stepping inside your grandmother’s kitchen; this place is brimming with familiar warmth, love and laughter. The atmosphere is so infectious and the food is well worth the hype. “People come from all over,” says Miss Robbie. “That’s really an honor when people say they brought their wife here for their anniversary or that they drove from out of town just for the food.”
Forget about “frou-frou” dishes with minuscule portions you find at swanky restaurants, here you get the real deal from perfectly flaky and moist catfish, to the fried chicken, to black-eyed peas and okra. I personally had the meatloaf, green beans, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes and, my favorite, the ever so creamy macaroni and cheese. Miss Robbie jokingly scolded me for having too many starches on my tray. But like I said, this place is like family.
Robbie Montgomery (Miss Robbie) grew up in Mississippi before her family moved to St. Louis. As the oldest of nine children she was expected to help with putting meals on the family table. She learned to prepare her mother’s soul food dishes by working side by side with her in their kitchen. While touring as an Ikette with Ike and Tina Turner, Robbie’s skills in the kitchen proved useful as she often prepared meals for the band on hot plates in hotel rooms. Robbie moved to California to go on to tour with Dr. John as a “Night Tripper” and did session work with Stevie Wonder, Barbara Streisand, Joe Cocker and the Rolling Stones among others. A collapsed lung abruptly ended her singing career forcing her to retire in 1979. After returning to St. Louis she did a stint as a dialysis technician, but in her heart was the drive to open a restaurant in her hometown. So along with her son, Tim Norman, they opened Sweetie Pie’s. “When I was singing, I was used to people waiting on me,” Miss Robbie says. “Now, I’m waiting on people. But I enjoy it! This is my first love.”
The Mangrove is now the location of the second Sweetie Pie’s restaurant opened by Robbie Montgomery and her son, Tim. The restaurant has brought much deserved attention to this up and coming neighborhood. The Mangrove redevelopment is recognized as a leader in the renaissance of St. Louis’ Forest Park Southeast neighborhood. The signature building, known as The Mangrove (located at Manchester Avenue and Tower Grove) is at the "heart of the Grove" district. It served the neighborhood as a department store for fifty years until 1970. This is now the home of Sweetie Pie’s who has become a staple in the community and helped ignite the redevelopment efforts over the years.
“This wasn’t the best neighborhood in the city and a lot of these buildings around here were vacant,” explains Norman. “When mom came here there was just the just a barbershop. Now we have a yogurt shop across the street and all sorts of tapas bars. In about eight years this whole street has redeveloped.” Today, you’ll find boutiques, salons and restaurants sprouting up everywhere throughout the area. “It feels good to say I was sort of a pioneer in this neighborhood,” states Miss Robbie.
The third restaurant is set to open this spring. “My vision for the new building is that people will be able to have private parties there,” Miss Robbie says. “I have a banquet room. I even have my own bathroom, that’s very important [laughs].” This new location is an exciting development for the family and the Sweetie Pie’s brand. “New restaurant, new beginnings.” says Jenae (Norman’s fiancé).The new restaurant is located in St. Louis’ Midtown Upper Crust which is nestled near the famous Fox Theater and St. Louis University. This area is significant to Miss Robbie because it was once a segregated part of town where Blacks weren’t allowed. This location is also significant because of its connection to developer Leon Strauss, a former dialysis patient of Miss Robbie. In the 80s, Strauss saw the once neglected Fox Theatre and decided to redevelop it into the landmark it is today. “Mr. Strauss gave mom $10,000 which helped her to start to piece together her first restaurant,” says Norman.
Sweetie Pie’s serves up that serious soul food Robbie’s mother taught her to make when she was just a girl. Sweetie Pie’s has been featured on the Food Network’s Diners, Drive-ins and Dives, but its national claim to fame comes from its’ debut on Oprah Winfrey’s OWN network. The hour-long series that follows Miss Robbie Montgomery and her family at their famous restaurant Sweetie Pie’s, premiered last October and is now the network’s top-rated show. The series stars Miss Robbie (owner), Tim Norman (general manager and Robbie’s son), Jenae (Norman’s fiancé) and Charles aka Lil’ Charles (Miss Robbie’s nephew).
The docu-series was the brain-child of Norman who, like his mother, has always had the flavor for entertaining in his blood. Everyone thinks their family is crazy and Norman recognized the entertainment value that they had especially with hilarious and true antics between he, Miss Robbie, Lil’ Charles’ ability to get fired and re-hired in the same week, Jenae’s strength becoming a new mom (and bride), and not to forget the amusing characters from their restaurant staff and their interactions with the customers who love them like family.
Although the restaurant always had a steady flow of foot traffic, the presence of cameras and a film crew makes it a prime stop for tourists visiting St. Louis. “[The show] increased our business 100 fold and that was one of my reasons for doing it,” says Miss Robbie. Since crew shoots two weeks of footage per episode, sometimes more than twelve hours per day, the family had to quickly adjust to life in front of cameras. Although there are some limits to where they’ll allow the film crew, Miss Robbie quips, “They go with me everywhere—well they can’t go with me to the bathroom or to bed. That’s off limits [laughs].” But it is understandable how having a doc-series has impacted the family and the business. “I have been getting a lot of attention. People come up to me asking when the next season will start,” says Lil’ Charles.
“This is a show that people really relate to, Miss Robbie is so sassy and independent—she reminds me of my own grandmother,” says OWN Network Communications Manager, Jessica Boyer.
The show’s Executive Producer, Jenn Duncan exclaims, “It’s a great show! Its fun when you love your cast members. I love them. I’m protective over them.”
Stay tuned for ten all new episodes of Welcome to Sweetie Pie’s, beginning March 31 at 9 PM EST.