Oprah Winfrey Network’s (OWN) original docuseries Welcome to Sweetie Pie’s just entered its ninth season. The TV series that chronicles the family of Ike and Tina Turner Revue background singer-turned-feisty soul food restaurant proprietor “Ms. Robbie” Montgomery is now focusing on the opening of her first (fourth overall) establishment on the West Coast.
Set in Los Angeles as opposed to St. Louis, the five-year-old hit show’s story arcs will also now concentrate more on the interpersonal relationships between the down home eatery’s employees. The cast also adjusts to the Left Coast’s high maintenance lifestyle culture and dietary consciousness.
“We’re expanding the viewers’ sights on the other workers,” states Tim Norman, Ms. Robbie’s son, right hand man and Sweetie Pie’s co-owner. “It’s a culture shock for us. You can kinda imagine us [St. Louis] hillbillies out here trying to figure things out with all the gluten-free, sugar-free and salt-free world.” Packing up and migrating to California wasn’t easy for Norman and his staff.
Norman frequently found himself coaching an influx of new hires in the kitchen about adding more seasoning and ingredients to the restaurant’s staple dishes. Logistics and inspections brought along more issues off-camera, creating more hassles for Norman’s relocation.
“We had things in autopilot,” he utters with his heavy Midwestern (slightly Southern) accent and arms crossed resting on the head of a conference table. “When you move to a different city, especially the West Coast, it’s totally different with vendors, permitting processes and just being in a whole different world and different mindset out there.”
It’s customary for Norman to convince his no-nonsense former Ikette mother to support any of his ideas for the business. The towering businessman stands six-feet-five-inches and sports shaved designs flanking his mohawk, which reflects his homegrown personality. Business is always at the forefront of his mind. Norman’s vision for Sweetie Pie’s ultimately led to three St. Louis-area locations currently employing 250 people. He’s also responsible for the almost two decade-old restaurant bottling its sweet tea for selected retailers and publishing a cookbook full of Ms. Robbie’s famous recipes.
Both Norman and his 75-year-old mother are releasing new music soon. “Mom is always real slow to make these moves,” continues Norman still speaking in his hospitable twang, “so I kinda drag her along with me. She was kicking and screaming the whole way there.”
Welcome to Sweetie Pie’s is one of very few unscripted cable programs with a leading African-American family portrayed in a positive light. When the TV show originally premiered, Norman feared the show would become another melodramatic cliché featuring erratic, bottle throwing characters of color. Ongoing conversations with OWN executives and Oprah Winfrey, the network’s iconic owner, managed to keep Welcome to Sweetie Pie’s subject matter full of dignity and integrity.
“Television doesn’t always have to be about popping bottles or bouncing off in the club,” asserts Norman. “People wanna see positive things sometimes. They wanna see stories about people trying to change their lives or being helped.”
“When OWN picked the series up,” continues Norman, “it got turned into more of a family-oriented show. It’s bigger than Tim. It’s bigger than Ms. Robbie. There are other people in this thing. We gon’ keep on telling good stories, good positive stories about black people.” Norman knows just how important it is to focus on the positive having served a 10-and-a-half-year prison sentence for armed robbery.
Norman never imagined that he would become instrumental in Sweetie Pie’s growth and development. Upon being released from prison, Norman enrolled in college to pursue his passions in entertainment and the arts. He made countless attempts to become a self-sufficient, reformed citizen but encountered a few obstacles.
“When I first came home from prison,” recalls Norman, “I was trying not to work in a restaurant. I was trying to do things on my own: get a job at Wal-Mart or Home Depot but nobody would hire me because of that felony.” Norman swallowed his pride, starting out at Sweetie Pie’s washing dishes, taking out trash, cooking a few dishes but admits he was nervous about waiting tables.
Those humbling experiences prompted Norman to find the missing link to Sweetie Pie’s success. “I made a decision to pull myself into that while I was still trying to explore my passions,” he continues. “I started going all around the restaurant doing every job. What I saw was we lacked a real marketing strategy, so that’s what I took on.”
Part of Norman’s outreach was to spread the word about Sweetie Pie’s to other non-black patrons. “It opened other eyes,” he says. Another remarkable effort he implemented was employing ex-felons. He is pleased to have assisted 70 percent of his employees, both men and women, becoming reformed citizens.
“I’m not afraid to take a shot,” warns the socially conscious supervisor, who doesn’t consider himself “fearless.” Norman’s staffing decisions, he adds, will continue in Los Angeles and subsequent locations. “We believe your past shouldn’t dictate your future,” he says. “We open our arms to the people that come and have backgrounds that most business people would turn away.”
A big disadvantage for Norman’s relocation is being a distant co-parent. His on-and-off again fiancée, Jenae, and the couple’s four-year-old son, TJ, both still live in St. Louis. Despite proximity, Norman is still present and active in his child’s life. “We’re missing each other,” says Norman. “It’s a hit-and-miss. Every time I’m in St. Louis, I get my son.”
In the meantime, an ambitious Norman still has major plans for Sweetie Pie’s empire. He wants the restaurant to have franchises in various American cities, hopefully becoming a successful African-American owned and operated restaurant franchise. More importantly, Norman’s primary objective for the restaurant and its byproducts is to keep family and community at the core of its business practices.
“I want to continue to open stores and employ troubled people or people with a past,” proclaims Norman. “The more people I can employ, the more families I can help.”
Welcome to Sweetie Pie’s airs Saturdays at 9:00 p.m. ET on OWN. Check local listings for time and air dates.
This post was written by Christopher A. Daniel, pop cultural critic and music editor for the Burton Wire. He is also contributing writer for Urban Lux Magazine and Blues & Soul Magazine. Follow Christopher @Journalistorian on Twitter.