If someone had ONE morning in Santa Fe, and asked me for a breakfast recommendation, I’d very likely send them to Tia Sophia’s. Located two blocks from the plaza, in a quaint, old building, it is an unpretentious, reasonably-priced, friendly place to have a great breakfast burrito in an atmosphere locals love. When Linda True, a family friend, and Tia’s employee since the 1970’s (she’s also part of the family that owns it), told me that they were celebrating their 40th anniversary on Cinco de Mayo, I wanted to share the celebration, and get to the bottom of just “who is Tia Sophia?” Below is my interview with Nick Maryol, the second-gereration to own the downtown institution!
Tia Sophia’s is celebrating 40 years anniversary on Cinco de Mayo. So, let’s start with the first question that comes to mind… who is Tia Sophia?
Sophia was my father’s mother. When my parents were thinking of names for the restaurant, my father’s cousin Iggy suggested that they name it after her. My parents loved the idea, of course. So they called it ‘tia’ – aunt – Sophia’s from Iggy’s perspective.
What brought her to New Mexico?
My grandfather Tony had left the Greek island they were both from to make his way in the new world. Like many old worlders, the idea was that he would establish himself and then come back to the island to find a bride. Well, Sophia was so beautiful that she didn’t have a dowry. On Sophia’s words ‘she married America’. They originally lived in New York, but Tony developed a lung sickness, and his doctors told him he needed to move somewhere with clean air. Well, he had actually lived in New Mexico before, so he came back, Sophia in tow.
There seems to be a pretty strong Greek community in this area. Why do you think that is?
It was a simple matter of the mining industry. It needed hard working migrants. A couple of Greeks started working up north, and, when their cousins wanted to come to the states, they got them jobs in the same mining pit. Then those fellas brought their cousins. And so on.
Was she in the restaurant business before coming here?
Sophia hadn’t. Something I learned from an ‘encyclopedia of Santa Fe’, published a year or two ago, is that Tony worked on the Santa Fe plaza, selling ice cream. So he had had some experience. Of course, he passed away before Sophia ever opened her restaurant. But it didn’t matter; Greeks who came to the USA all got into the restaurant business because it was the one industry whee they could use the only two skills they had – cooking and working hard.
Was it intentional to originally open the restaurant on Cinco de Mayo? Do you have anything special planned for your 40th anniversary?
I have no idea what my parents original plans were. My suspicion is that it was a coincidence, honestly. My parents weren’t big partiers, and I don’t think cinco de mayo held any special importance. I don’t have any big plans for the 40th; I ordered some cake from Albertsons, and bought some air time on KSWV (810 AM local talk radio). Now, come fifty years, I’m going to do something HUGE. That’ll be the real land mark!
What is your relationship to Tia Sophia?
I grew up in this restaurant. It is my second home. The people are my second family. She provided for me over the years. Put food in my belly – figuratively and literally. She gave me my first job at six. She taught me how to work hard. She gave me some extra leverage when looking for a date in high school.
When did you take over the restaurant?
January 1, 2005. This year is also the tenth anniversary of owning Tia’s.
What is different at Tia’s today, versus 40 years ago?
Forty years ago we were actually at a (slightly) different location. We were at 125 W San Francisco St (today we’re at 210). It felt a lot more dinner-ish. There was a 12 seat counter, with a long row of tables and booths. We had a number of different plates, including a spaghetti special (I believe that was the Wednesday special) and a protein plate (featuring a scoop of cottage cheese and a scoop of tuna salad). We had desserts (ice cream and grandma’s no-bake cheese cake – my mother’ mother, that is). We also had a pay phone and a cigarette machine. We have always served breakfast and lunch, and there was a brief time when we owned two restaurants were we opened for dinner, too.
How long have you been in your current location, and why did you leave the last one?
We’ve been here since either 81 or 82 (can’t quite remember which). We left because the previous landlord (whose name I don’t remember) wanted to triple the rent. It was around the time that downtown Santa Fe was really changing from a locals’ hangout to a tourist destination. My parents were ready to pack it in until John Greer invited him to move into El Patio – a restaurant that had been owned by another Greek, Mr John Komis.
Why do you think Tia Sophias is so popular?
It’s a simple yet magical combination: good food, good prices, and good service. It sounds easy, doesn’t it? I don’t know why more restaurants aren’t capable of it. Seriously, though, the food are recipes from an old northern New Mexico family, so it’s authentic comfort food. I keep the prices as reasonable as possible, and I’m helped out here by the fact that I have a reasonable land lord (John Greer’s niece, Diane). And I have the absolutely best staff I could possibly ask for, a very very friendly lot!
What are your most popular dishes?
The breakfast burrito is probably my most popular and well known meal. Of course, my chile, both red and green, are very good. Also, the sopaipillas I serve are some of the best in town – we make the dough fresh daily, by hand.
You don’t have very high “turn over” with your employees. Why do you think people like working there so much?
Well, that’s a fairly simple formula, too – we pay people as much as we can afford, while making an atmosphere as friendly and fun as possible. I hire people who are good people, and then give them a working atmosphere were their personalities can shine through. (Compare this with large corporations who hire whoever and then try to give them scripts to homogenize their personalities).
Who is the employee who has been there the longest?
Right now that honor goes to Carl Schoepke. He has been here since I was a freshman in college, 1991. He is legend; I’ve seen him remember the order that a customer who was in once years before made. He remembers the names of most people. There are young people have grown up here with him here. He is a wonderful and delightful human being.
A Few Insights from Nick’s aunt, “Tia” Linda True:
How long have you been with the restaurant?
I started working here I the summer of 77.
How have you seen the restaurant or its clientele change over the years?
The local clientele coming in as children and then growing up and bringing in their children. The tourists come in and then they become regulars, either within the span of their visit or over many visits. The biggest change is when Nick took over; he tweaked some things but didn’t change anything tried and true.
What keeps you there, after all this time?
Working for people who care and are fair. Being a member of a hard-working and fun-loving crew. Enjoying the diversity of the people whom walk through the door.