By Lynette Parker
Sweet Success for Mommie Helen’s Bakery
It's not uncommon to see people waiting outside Mommie Helen's Bakery before it opens. During the Thanksgiving and Christmas season, people often wait in their cars to be the first to get the bakery's pies, which have become famous around the country.
Celebrities and athletes such as Shaquille O'Neal contact her for special orders, sometimes for events, sometimes just because they have a craving for her famous sweet potato pies, made from owner Dorothy Pryor Rose's mother's recipe.
"People end up meeting in the parking lot," said Rose, 61, who runs the bakery with her daughter, husband and six other employees.
One couple even began dating after the woman missed out on getting one of the sweet potato pies. In the ultimate act of romance, the man gave her one of his pies - a prized possession since the bakery puts a two-pie limit on customers during busy times. The rest is sweet history.
"He promised me and let me know when he proposed," Rose said.
While local people are really just getting to know about the bakery, others have known for years about the love and care that goes into making peach cobblers, pecan pies, the "Sok it to me cake," sugar-free cobblers and others. The walls of the bakery are lined with pictures of people such as Laila Ali, Tom Arnold, John Salley, Shaq, Magic Johnson and other celebrities.
On a recent Tuesday, a line formed to the door with faithful customers who don't mind traveling from as far away as Nevada and Arizona to fill up their coolers with Rose's sweets. Hilton Bullard, 66, John Bullard, 69, and Roy Williams, 60, of Pomona stopped by the bakery to pick up their pies before heading to Moreno Valley to pick up food from one of their favorite soul food restaurants.
"We started talking and Roy said to let him know when we were going to drive to get something to eat, and I said we're going out there today," said Hilton Bullard, who along with his brother John are retired.
"These guys are regulars," Rose says from behind the bakery counter.
What makes people drive hundreds of miles, place next-day mail orders and even send messengers to pick up Rose's pastries?
"You do it the way your mommy does," she said. "Don't skimp, don't cheat your people and use the best ingredients."
The bakery began operating on a very small scale in 1999 after Rose took a peach cobbler to a potluck at her job at South Pacific Bell.
"After that, they were like you don't bring anything else to potlucks, you always just make this cobbler," she said with a chuckle.
She began making pies and cakes for friends and soon the clientele began to grow. That's when she got a powerful message.
"God told me to leave my job and open a bakery," she said.
So after 30 years, Rose left her job and took on the task of baking full-time. She began with her two sisters, a cousin and her husband. But it wasn't until God led her to an event that Shaq was sponsoring that things began to take off. Rose said she contacted an assistant of Shaq's and pleaded with him to allow her to be one of the caterers. He immediately declined, having never heard of Rose or her pies before.
But again, God was on her side, she said.
"He called back the very next day and said Shaq wants you," Rose said.
Shaq fell in love with the sweet potato pies, and the two are now friends. Even when he went to Miami, the orders continued. Other celebrities followed suit - Penny Marshall, Angela Bassett, Kathy Ireland, Stevie Wonder and James Worthy. She even sent a pie to a soldier serving in the Iraq war.
Even though her new kitchen can make 300 pies a day, Rose envisions the day she will be able to make 2,000 pies a day. She has turned down franchise offers because she wants to keep the recipes as they are. She has had offers to take the pies to Costco and Sam's Club.
"We're known around the world because they want the best sweet potato pies in the world," Rose said.
With all of her blessings, Rose hasn't forgotten how she was helped by others when she was just beginning. She began supporting Little League clubs and started a scholarship foundation. One of her recipients is now pursuing his master's degree.
Rose also has had some hard times -- she lost her mother this year and her sisters within a span of two years. Then she was diagnosed with breast cancer.
"But I never once had to have treatment, radiation or chemotherapy," she said. "God is good."
God has more in store for her she says, she is scheduled to appear on the Dr. Phil Show to talk about couples and businesses, and she's also in talks to make an appearance on The Oprah Show. Eventually, Rose said she would like to see Mommie Helen's distribution centers in every state.
That seems a little daunting to the employees who were working diligently, recently packaging and making cobblers. But, they say they have fun and the best part is they get to sample the products.
"You eat them every day, it's an every day thing and before you know it, a sample becomes a meal," said Martha Godinez, 28, who has worked at the bakery for one and a half years.
Rose's daughter, Tedra Rose, 29, also works at the bakery and still can't get enough of her mother's pies.
"When we were little, she would only make the sweet potato pies at Christmas and Thanksgiving and we would want them all year," she said.
That may have been a lesson Dorothy Pryor Rose learned from her mother.
"We didn't have a lot of money when we were growing up and we didn't get toys for Christmas, but we would each get our own sweet potato pie," she said.
There were never any complaints from the children about the pies, but it did pose a problem if one child finished her pie before the others, Dorothy Rose said.
For now, she said she is waiting to see what God has in store for her. She envisions lines wrapped around the corner every day, not just during the holiday season.
"You know how you go by an In & Out drive-through and there's always a line?" She said. "That's what I want to see -- lines every day."
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