Tia Molly to Close Due to Retirement

Tia Molly, a fixture in the Price Center since 1989, will close its burrito station and grills this summer when its owner and chief of operations, Molly Lee, retires.

The story of Tia Molly does not start with her move to UCSD 12 years ago. Her first restaurant venture, Chung King Loh in Solana Beach, was a great success for Lee in the ’80s. The family-run business had the opportunity to expand to San Diego State University and the San Diego airport at around the same time as it opened in the Price Center, but Lee turned down these opportunities each time they came up.

“”I did not like all the politics [of the airport site], and the students are different over [at SDSU],”” Lee said.

Lee sold the space now occupied by Wok’s Up, changed the name of the restaurant from Chung King Loh to Tia Molly, and moved into its current space because of the business’ rapid growth.

“”We needed more space,”” Lee said. “”So we replaced Taco Bell.””

The interesting blend of flavors, ranging from Peruvian rotisserie chicken to moo-shoo burritos, distinguishes Tia Molly from the franchise and corporate residents on either side of it.

“”I care about the customers,”” Lee said. “”That’s why I serve the vegetarian food. We have a personal knowledge of our people. When I see a certain professor coming, I know he likes mushrooms, so we make him a mushroom burrito. When I see this guy coming, I know he’s allergic to onions and garlic, so we make a special burrito for him.””

Such concern for the well-being of her customers has characterized the Lee’s philosophy throughout her years here. When asked what her marketing strategy was by the 10-person panel that approved new ventures in the Price Center food court, Lee recalled her reply: “”What’s a market[ing] strategy? We just want to offer quality food that the students can afford.””

The quality of the restaurant is usually attributed to Lee, but she is quick to credit her partners “”Uncle”” and Sophia Fong. Uncle Fong takes care of the cooking and Sophia assumes the business role, manning the cash registers, keeping up with cleaning and other duties.

Molly considers herself the “”fighter,”” ensuring that her employees succeed in life and do not catch any flak from administration.

Though Tia Molly has never been able to pay its employees the highest wages (the founders still work for around $6 per hour), Molly has been able to give big Christmas bonuses and connect students with jobs for the summer.

She expressed gratitude toward the students of the university for making her time here so pleasant.

The question of what she will do with herself after what she calls an “”honorable retirement”” was met only with her ready chuckle.

“”I’ll be a lady of leisure,”” she said. “”I still want to be a local hostess. Students can come walk with me on Del Mar beach. I’ll enjoy my home more.””

Her reasons for retirement are straight-forward as she tells them, but veiled in explicit detail. She is too old, she said, to continue the hard work of running a restaurant.

“”I don’t need the small amount of money Tia Molly’s makes; I have rich kids,”” Lee said with a grin.

There was sadness in her voice as she described leaving.

“”We are not getting shut down, because we are still doing OK,”” she said. “”But the university didn’t support us. They don’t look at what we do for the students.””

The replacement restaurant will be chosen by students later this year. Though most freshmen have offered suggestions like In-N-Out Burger or Baja Fresh, many upperclassmen have captured Tia Molly’s vision for eating at Price Center.

A Marshall senior said, “”I want another independent, family-run restaurant, not fast food and not a corporation.””

For herself, Tia Molly just wants someone who will care about students. Though her investment in the student body of UCSD will not be easily replaced, she hopes that the flavor Tia Molly brought to Price Center dining will linger on the palates of staff and students alike.

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