By Lynda L. Jones
The African American Chamber of Commerce held its ‘Women in Business’ Luncheon last week at the Women’s Club of Wisconsin. Featured speakers included local business woman Lazonnie Belton, president/CEO of Visions in Hair Design Institute of Cosmetology located on Milwaukee’s northwest side. And the second featured speaker was Miss Robbie Montgomery, owner of St. Louis’ popular restaurant chain Sweetie Pie’s.
Belton, known to many Milwaukeeans as “Ms. B” is a 35 year veteran in the cosmetology business. She is known for her character, appeal, precision service and quality instruction. Her school is the only African American owned cosmetology school in Milwaukee.
Belton also owns and operates Visions II, an exquisite salon she launched 20 years ago. In three decades she has created two full-service salons and the school.
She is not only an entrepreneur, but she and her husband, Apostle Dam Belton also serve as senior pastors of Spirit of Truth World Ministries.
She is an example of a local business success story.
Following Belton’s inspirational story was the story of the journey of Miss Robbie Montgomery and her road to success in the restaurant business.
Miss Robbie, as everyone affectionately calls her began her career as a backup singer back in St. Louis with the legendary Ike Turner.
Yes, Miss Robbie was a legendary Ikette. Being an Ikette as well as a background singer for The Supremes, Stevie Wonder, James Brown, Pattie Labelle and even The Rolling Stones took her around the world touring.
She admits that she learned some hard lessons from the music business, that many times left her not being paid during the days as a Ikette.
Miss Robbie also shared that she witnessed some of the abuse that the legendary Tina Turner endured, and often asked Tina, “Why don’t you leave?”
Well, Miss Robbie did leave and at the same time so did Tina’s sister. Robbie says that she learned just recently from an interview that Oprah did with Tina how much she really meant to Tina.
Oprah asked Tina if she remembered Robbie, and Tina immediately stated what a true friend and ally Robbie had been to her, and how lost she was when she left.
Robbie says, “I felt sad when I heard her say that, but I had to leave for me.
I am sorry that I had to leave her”.
She jokingly added, “Maybe I should have stayed by her side longer, because today she is retired and I am still working!”
Her singing career ended after suffering from a collapsed lung.
Growing up in a family of nine children, Robbie was used to working through life’s obstacles. And she learned early on to turn obstacles into opportunities.
She knew that she could cook, and she had a wealth of knowledge growing up with her mom’s recipes.
When she returned to St. Louis after an unsuccessful attempt at opening a restaurant in California, she was determined to give it another try.
She came across many naysayers, “Oh nobody’s going to buy that greasy chicken.
You should open a salad bar.” “Where is your business plan?” “How much capital do you have?”
She was hit with discouraging words everywhere, but she did not let it stop her.
With the help of her son, Tim, she opened the first Sweetie Pie’s in 1996.
Eight years later, her second location, Sweetie Pie’s at The Mangrove, opened its doors as well.
And then at the age of 71, she undertook her most ambitious endeavor yet-Sweetie Pie’s: The Upper Crust.
Her son Tim, works along side her at every step, and he is a major part of what drives her.
Tim was arrested at 17 years-old and convicted to serve 10 years in jail.
His experience made her even more determined to build a business that would allow Tim to be a major part of it.
And the restaurant believes in giving second chances based on Tim’s experience and even her own.
“There are not many places of employment that people can go to if they have a criminal record, or if they have run into some of life’s obstacles, where they need a hand up not a hand out.” Robbie believes.
Today, Robbie is active in charity outreach programs, and she helps provide job training to formerly incarcerated men and women and food to those in need.