Watching Vicie Williams pour her fruit-flavored barbecue sauces over savory meatballs at the St. Louis Park Byerly's, I resisted distracting her to run off with the whole cart.
I also resisted pulling lunch-hour shoppers aside to say, "You have no idea how far she's come."
Williams' story is the stuff that dreams and "Oprah" episodes are made of.
Abused by her stepfather, pregnant at 12, Williams dropped out of seventh grade and ran away to Florida. By 20, she was the mother of three. She knew crack and homelessness and, after one of her two sons was killed in gun violence, hopelessness, too. She said she never felt freer than during her two stints in prison.
It's fair to say that Williams' stunning turnaround is due largely to others. To a judge who told her, "You don't need prison. You need direction." To business mentors, social services providers and family. Certainly to her faith.
But the biggest driver in Williams' life is Williams herself. "I had a dream, a goal, but I couldn't see it," she said. "I didn't have the vision yet."
Sitting last week in the upstairs office of her north Minneapolis home, tears flow as she covers her face with her hands. "Look at me. Look. At. Me," she said, pointing to a wall plaque honoring her as Neighborhood Development Center 2010 Small Business of the Year. There's not an ounce of bravado in her words.
"It's been like watching a miracle," said Kathy Olson, executive director of Small Sums (www.smallsums.org). Olson's Minneapolis-based nonprofit, which offers people a bridge out of homelessness, gave Williams $500 in 2010 for liability insurance and to keep Williams' website and phone bills paid. "Vicie proves that faith and determination can change your life."
Williams, 51, was born in the Chicago projects. After moving to Florida, she returned to Chicago, "but I didn't want my daughter to be the pregnant project-girl, looking at me as an example. I didn't want my sons in gangs."
A cousin lived in the Twin Cities. She got off the bus and found an affordable apartment in Bloomington with a swimming pool. She says the two words with awe usually reserved for private plane or French chateau. "That swimming pool was precious to my children," Williams said. She put them in good schools; she graduated from Kennedy High School in Bloomington at 24.
Then her 10-year relationship ended and she spiraled down. Her children were taken away as she went into rehab for crack. During that time, her 14-year-old son was killed. Williams said he was punished for refusing to join a gang.
She served four months in Shakopee in 1996 for a drug offense. That December she cooked Christmas dinner for her fellow inmates. "Greens, ham hocks, dressing. They hadn't had that for years," she said delightedly.
She served another 23 months in Wisconsin from 2005-07 for check forgery and other charges. Her Wisconsin judge told her she needed direction. But for Williams, prison provided structure, safety and possibilities.
Six months before her release, she researched her fruit-flavored sauces in the prison library. She was released in 2007 with $160 to her name, selling baskets with bath products and scripture on Nicollet Mall.
In 2008, her daughter, Lucretia Gill, received an anonymous $2,000 check and shared it with her mother. Williams bought canning bottles and experimented with pineapple, banana, mango, coconut and kiwi. She made colorful labels on her computer and taped them on by hand: "Sister Chris's Fruit-Flavored BBQ Sauce." (Christine is her middle name).
She took a food-safety course, and wrote a business plan with the help of pro bono attorneys and accountants. She was given space to cook at the Kids Against Hunger kitchen in New Ulm, making a donation to them as thanks.
Then she headed out to farmers markets. "I walked the streets with my bottles," Williams said. "I rode the bus with my bottles."
One day in the fall of 2010, she walked into the corporate offices of Lunds & Byerly's and gave manager Steve Sorensen some samples. "He fell in love with the coconut," Williams said of Sorensen, whom she calls her hero. The company carries her sauces in 22 locations, selling bottles for $7. They've re-ordered six times (www.sisterchrisfruitybbqsauce.com).
Shopper Dianne Rivkin proclaims the banana and pineapple "to die for. And she presented with such panache."
Williams has a new dream to find investors and a production facility in north Minneapolis where she can create jobs for "people who live the way I used to live. I was not a bad person," Williams said.
"Some people just need a second chance."