Molly’s Souper in the House

Evan Velasquez/SAConScene

Evan Velasquez/SAConScene

Tucked into a corner of a residential area in Upland, there’s a restaurant where the walls probably look like yours. Your whole family – including your dogs – is invited. You can nestle into a window bench while you eat, and the kitchen is the size of your mom’s.

It is surrounded on two sides by a white picket fence with an “Open” sign that features a black Scottish terrier. The fence closes in a patio dining area lined with string lights hanging from an awning that follows the side of the building. At the end of the awning hangs a birdhouse with silverware wind chimes hanging below it.

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On the side of the building is a large sign that once invited customers into Atwood’s of Upland, a booming department store that would eventually burn down. A walkway at the front leads you to a modest porch with a bench – good for sitting and gossiping about the neighbors – and the cash register that doubles as a host’s station.

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To the right of the walkway, stone pugs and a mixture of living and artificial plants populate a small garden area complete with a large, stuffed dog draped over an oversized chair. If you walk up to the porch, you’ll find a solid wood door stands between you and the dining room.

Inside, you’ll tiptoe between tables along the hardwood floor while you try not to stare too hard at the decorations along the walls. The dining room features a large mantle covered with flowers and old photos, and also has an open view of the kitchen, which has just enough room for the workers themselves to move around in.

There are painted plates of various colors along the top of the walls, odd clocks in each room and signs that remind you to “be thankful,” “help others,” keep your faith, and “do all the good you can.” A painted mural of an orange grove covers cabinet doors in what resembles a living room.

Windows that would run floor-to-ceiling if not for the bench below it, now used as a restaurant-style booth bench, line the living room. The only things that look modern are the fire extinguishers and exit signs.

Inside and out, Molly’s Souper looks like a house. A big house. And for good reason, too: it originally was.

In 1912, William and Mary Stewart, prominent members of the citrus shipping industry, decided to build a mansion for their family to settle into. The two-story house featured a wide living room, a gratuitous dining room, and six bedrooms – two downstairs and four upstairs. The kitchen, however, didn’t receive as much consideration.

The Stewarts became well-known in the neighborhood for their hospitality. Mary would frequently invite others over for tea, and she became engrossed in helping Koreans who were beginning to immigrate to the United States.

She took the initiative to teach them English and encouraged them to attend church, and would often treat them when they were sick or hurt. This wasn’t popular amongst neighbors, though, so Stewart sought and was granted permission to arm the Koreans in order to protect themselves.

In turn, the Koreans shared their culture with the Stewarts, and that influence seeped into their business practices – specifically, their advertising. Even though they owned an American citrus shipping company, most of their promotional materials featured lilies or other staples of Korean culture along with the obligatory orange in the foreground. As a nod to their history, a number of their promotional materials can still be seen along the walls of Molly’s Souper.

The Stewarts lived there until they passed, and the house was sold to different buyers who chose to use it in different ways until 1973, when the Mielke family, who were German immigrants, decided to use it as a restaurant.

Harold and Unda Mielke wanted an activity they could do together as a family, and since they loved making soup, they decided to open a “souper” downstairs while they still lived upstairs. Though the restaurant has since changed hands – and specialties – the “souper” has stuck around.

Then, in 1988, Molly Brouse decided that after working in the restaurant industry, it was her turn to run her own restaurant. She drove by the house everyday on her way home, and eventually stepped inside to ask the owners of the restaurant how much they would sell for.

At the time, they told her she could buy the business for $35,000, but Brouse was weary of buying the business without owning the building. So she waited, and a year later they had left the building without informing the building owner.

The owner, who had also worked there before leasing it to others, was shocked to see the lack of care the previous renters had shown for the piece of history, and Brouse knew this was her opportunity.

She convinced him that she would love the house and take care of it, but insisted that she be able to purchase the entire building rather than rent. In 1989, he agreed to sell the building for $225,000 if she was able to keep her business running for five years first. She agreed, but negotiated her rent down from $2,000 per month to $1,500 so that she could use the extra $500 monthly to improve the house.

“My first month, at the end of the month, I had $8,000 left,” Brouse said. “Five years later, he sold me the building.”

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By the time she was able to purchase the building, she had restored it so much that it was worth much more than the initial sale price, but the owner still honored his agreement with Brouse.

Brouse, now 61, is tall and slender with neck-length blond hair, but her smile is her most noticeable trait. That is, she makes sure to share it with everyone she interacts with, and even if you couldn’t see her you’d know she was wearing one simply by the sound of her voice.

From Molly, you won’t get the stale “How many?” that you might be asked by a typical restaurant hostess before being led to your table and passed off to a waiter. Instead, you’ll likely be invited into whatever conversation she might be having with a regular, or be implored to talk about your own life in a way that shows she genuinely cares.

Brouse says that about 70 percent of her customers choose to sit outside, where they’ll find blankets draped over the white patio chairs for your warming pleasure.

If you have small children, “Will we be having tea today?” Brouse will ask before bringing out a small tea set to help keep them entertained and feel included in the whole restaurant experience.

Brouse does everything she can to make sure no one in your family feels like an afterthought – especially your dogs.

One day while driving home from work, she drove by someone trying to find homes for a litter of corgis. There, she met Mimi, whom she knew her twin granddaughters, Grace and Sofia, would fall in love with as quickly as she had.

Brouse would often bring Mimi to work and let her run around the side patio which is mostly used for storage, which drew the eye of many of her customers. However, Brouse couldn’t allow customers to also bring their dogs due to health regulations.

But Brouse was determined to find a way to change that. So, in 2005, she introduced a special section in the back part of the patio specifically designed to accommodate pets while also adhering to health codes.

There, you enter past a cart with a jar of dog treats to make your pooch feel welcome, water bowls free for you to use while you’re there and complimentary water, which leads to a seating area featuring dog rules for your little one to follow and a menu designed just for them.

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Next to it is a small dirt area featuring a large magnolia tree which blooms light pink flowers surrounded by various potted plants. What to do with that is up to your dog’s imagination, but there are also other fixtures – a small tepee, an old fire hydrant, bright orange cones scattered about, an old kids’ imitation gas range play set – that are sure to keep your pet entertained while you dine.

This hospitality isn’t limited to those who can afford it. Brouse has created a few programs, like Share Your Toast and Heart to Heart, to help the homeless community and those in need.

Before, Brouse was so focused on working and making her restaurant a success that she neglected her sense of community. That is, until she met Frank, a homeless man who would often sleep near a dumpster near the restaurant. He and his wife were owners of a restaurant in Rancho Cucamonga until it closed down and Frank found himself without a source of income.

Still, despite his proximity, he never visited Molly’s. When he showed up one day to the church that Molly attends, she was surprised by what she saw – or didn’t see. Rather than being looked down on or treated as though he wasn’t welcome, Frank was treated the same as everybody else.

Frank eventually did come around to Molly’s, where he dined on a meal given to him for free by Molly. A week later, he passed away. From that moment, Brouse knew she had a duty to serve not just herself, but the community.

“They are all our brothers. That’s someone’s dad,” she said. “They all belong to someone.”

Since then, she’s participated in various outreach programs, but found that most of them were too focused on giving to the homeless rather than helping them transition out of homelessness. So, she started her own.

One of those programs is called Share Your Toast. The menu lets customers know that if they order one slice of toast instead of two, they’ll put the savings towards hunger programs. This way, if customers know they won’t be able to finish all of their food, they could have some of it used for good rather than being thrown away.

Brouse says that when she started the program, not many people participated because they didn’t realize all that they were wasting.

“I think it’s all unconscious, people just don’t think about it,” she said.

Unfazed, she began collecting all of the pieces of toast that people left untouched on their plate for one weekend, and then showed the collection to customers when describing the program for the next week. In that first weekend, she had collected about 10 loaves of toast that had been wasted.

Contrary to that first visual, the program doesn’t save and donate physical pieces of toast. Instead, they set aside 20 cents for every piece of toast saved, which adds up to about $100 per month saved. A sign that greets you as you walk up to the front porch of the restaurant tells you that in 2014, the program saved the equivalent of 300 loaves of bread, and 447 loaves in 2015.

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Another program designed to assist the homeless Brouse calls the “Heart to Heart Burrito.” Though she says she doesn’t openly feed the homeless as much as she used to, she retains this item – a breakfast burrito with ham, egg, potato and cheese – in order to provide a meal to someone who may need it the most. It also comes with a side of fresh fruit because, Brouse says, homeless and low-income individuals often choose to buy food that will last over a long period of time rather than spoil easily like fruit.

“We will always help, always. It’s what we’re supposed to do,” she added. “I will always feed someone.”

Because of her hospitality, Brouse has been able to draw people to continue coming to her restaurant no matter what economic background they come from.

“Thanks Molly,” Patrick Furois, 49, peeks outside from the front door, “Love ya.”

“Hi, Pat, It was nice seeing you!” she replies.

“See ya tomorrow.”

Furois is one recipient of Brouse’s generosity. In 2011, he lost his job as a renovator, and hasn’t been able to find steady work since. His girlfriend recently had open-heart surgery, and she stays at a nearby convalescent home because they do not have a home where she would be able to rehabilitate safely otherwise.

Patrick Furois, 49, and his Chihuahua, Gigi. Evan Velasquez/SAConScene

Through the Step Up program, he will be moving into an apartment soon, but until then he has no place to live. When he first met Brouse, she offered to help him out by giving him a free meal in the mornings while he continued his transition out of homelessness.

“She’s always helped us out. Not just me, the whole community,” Furois said.

He says that in contrast to most people in Upland who look down on the homeless community and make them feel unwelcome and unloved, Molly’s Souper provides them with a loving home and a family of people to support and encourage them to improve their situation.

“[But] I didn’t want to keep doing that. That’s why I help out here,” he added. “I feel bad about it. I’m not crippled, but I’m not alright up here. I have to admit that.”

Furois is an example of the picture Brouse would rather people paint of homeless people. He didn’t choose homelessness, and he would rather not have to be given things for free. He’s ready and willing to do what he can, but he can’t fight his way out of homelessness himself; he needs a little help.

Every morning, Furois – who wears a shirt and plaid shorts, black shoes and calf-height white socks – brings his own blanket despite the fact that blankets will be set out in the patio for customers. It’s not for him, though, it’s for his tan Chihuahua, Gigi, who accompanies him everywhere.

After placing Gigi in the blanket on a chair in the pet area, he gets to work helping to set up the patio area. He brings the white patio chairs, stacked inside overnight, outside and places them at each table. Then, he goes to work helping place red vinyl tablecloths – which are removed and rolled together after each day – over each table and cleaning them off. He finishes off each table by grabbing an umbrella, placing it in the center, and opening it to provide shade to diners.

Once the patio has been set up, he’ll check with the wait staff to see if they need help with anything else before settling into a table with Gigi, who is only barely awake while all of this is going on. He’ll drink a coffee and be served a hot meal, give Gigi her share, and then leave to go visit his wife.

Before, he might visit friends or hang out in various parts of the city, but he realized that was just getting him into more trouble and making his situation worse. When he found Molly’s, he finally found a place that felt like a home and treated him like family.

Now, Furois – who was denied Supplemental Security income because he couldn’t get a ride to Orange County for his hearing – spends every morning at Molly’s and then goes straight to the convalescent home his girlfriend stays at. He’s not sure what he’ll do when he moves into his new apartment located miles away from the only place he really knows and feels comfortable at.

The food, by the way, is not spectacular. It’s not bad, but it won’t leave you clamoring for another round. In that sense, it’s similar to a meal your mom might make for a family gathering, and that’s not totally on accident.

Molly’s doesn’t buy ingredients in bulk. They also don’t make anything before it’s ordered. Instead, up to five chefs at a time cram into a small kitchen – which was given a much-needed needed extension in the 1970s that still doesn’t bring it up to par with the kitchens in most restaurants – and serve up to 700 guests per day. Still, on their busiest days, most parties only have to wait about 20 minutes to be seated.

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Most people don’t come for the meal, though, but for the environment and the sense that everyone is welcome there.

“My employees are just so lovely and gracious,” Brouse said. “You’ll get positive attention from people who are lovely and kind.”

Ben Ballesteros, 59, a regular who spends most of his mornings hanging around the restaurant and chatting up the employees, loves the way customers are treated there.

“Everyone’s so friendly, and Molly’s the best!” he said.

Ballesteros often finds himself sitting on a bench on the front porch of the restaurant with Molly, talking to her when she’s not greeting diners and helping them to their tables or ringing them up for their purchase.

He remembers a time when paranormal investigators asked to stake out the restaurant overnight to see if any paranormal activity existed in the building. Molly’s is a regular on lists of the most haunted places in Upland despite the fact that it is only open until 2 p.m. and is open seven days a week.

He said that she wanted them to finally prove to people that the restaurant is not haunted, and asked him to accompany her when they came so that she wouldn’t have to be there alone all night.

Still, while they may not be haunted, Brouse acknowledges that they stand out as a unique dining option for people looking to ditch the traditional breakfast or brunch locations.

“We’re not typical in any way, and we don’t try to be,” she said. “We’re funky!”