Erica and Roberto Molina Pay it Forward
Their Passions Are Reflected In Their Community Service
By Mara Soloway
When he moved out to the country from Houston in 1989, Roberto Molina could never have predicted how passionate he would become about rural life and how deeply connected he and his wife Erica would become to their community, the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, the Navy Seal Danny Dietz Memorial Classic, and the Fort Bend County Fair. He hadn’t ridden horses since attending Camp Fern in Marshall as a kid. He and Erica – another city dweller – married in 1991 and stayed in Simonton where they raised their 24-year-old daughter, Mary.
“Moving to Simonton was the best decision I ever made, besides marrying Erica! Even though Fulshear has grown so much in the last 27 years, Simonton is still small-town USA, and I love that we have raised our family here,” Roberto said.
The country life rekindled his love of horses, which led to him taking up roping. He and his neighbors use grounds near their homes to rope whenever they can.
“We have a cool group of friends in Fort Bend County that we’ve met through roping who we’ve known for almost 25 years. When we get together, the guys rope and the women watch and visit. We have lots of fun,” Erica said. The couple also currently has four horses, Maverick, Mano, Ace and Comanche Uno, all of which they adore. Erica says her role is to groom and saddle the horses.
For Roberto, it’s a nice balance to his hectic job as operations manager for Molina’s Cantina, the Houston Tex-Mex restaurant group that is celebrating its 75th anniversary this June. Some of the fans who have helped Molina’s Cantina reach this milestone include former President George H.W. and First Lady Barbara Bush. When they couldn’t come in person to enjoy their favorite Tex-Mex food during his administration, the restaurant’s dishes were airlifted to the White House. And, proving that good food can bridge any political divide, former President Bill Clinton also had Molina’s food flown in.
While numerous local celebrities also enjoy the ambiance of the three Molina locations in Houston, it’s been the legions of loyal local customers whose patronage helped make it the longest continuously running restaurant in Houston. Fans have followed as the locations changed so they could savor community favorites such as the plentiful CW special, Jose’s queso with taco meat and cheese enchiladas.
The third generation of Molinas – Roberto and his brothers Ricardo and Raul III – run the business these days. Their paternal grandparents, Raul Sr. and Mary Molina, opened their first restaurant on West Gray in 1941. They lived above it, raising the second generation that included the men’s father, Raul Jr., now 87 and actively working on his ranch. It remains to be seen if the fourth generation, ranging in age from 10 to 30, will take over the business.
“We’re really proud of it, all the generations are. It’s a big accomplishment. We support our families with it,” said Erica, who isn’t officially employed by Molina’s but contributes by assisting Roberto whenever he needs it.
Owning a restaurant means long hours. On the Friday and Saturday of Final Four weekend in March, Roberto worked overtime in the outdoor food venue at NRG Park. Then as part of FanFest at Discovery Green on Sunday, he served some of the 20,000 attendees with Molina’s offerings.
But these types of efforts are far more than just a job. Roberto sees them as continuing the legacy of community service and family loyalty. “One of the most important things I’ve learned is that family is always first. Business is important, but at the end of the day, my partners are my brothers first,” he said.
It was a natural fit for Roberto to become a member of Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo almost 30 years ago because his grandparents were longtime supporters, too. Roberto originally started with the Corral Club and then moved to the livestock committee. He is currently serving on the Armed Forces Appreciation, Grand Entry and Quarter Horse committees.
He started trail riding and team penning, which involves moving specific calves out of a group into a pen. “He started roping in 1992 right after our daughter Mary was born and has roped ever since,” said Erica, who joined HLSR as a volunteer in 1993. “He’s a natural athlete and loves to compete.” Roberto adds that they have found camaraderie and many longtime friends through team roping and a chance to travel around Texas and see some beautiful places.
His participation in team roping was a natural lead-in to the couple’s involvement in the Navy Seal Danny Dietz Memorial Classic, which raises funds for the Navy Seal Foundation. In its seventh year, it is held at the Fort Bend County Fairgrounds every Memorial Day weekend and this year a record crowd is expected. Roberto will be participating in the team roping portion. New this year is a two-part rough stock event with bull riding and bareback riding. For the first time, the event is sanctioned by the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA).
In 2011, when Erica and Roberto first saw the event advertised, they were intrigued. Roberto started out participating as a roper in the event’s second year and hasn’t missed a year since then. “Little did I know the event’s founder, Danny Quinlan, was a friend of my cousin. He introduced me to Patsy Dietz, Danny’s widow and cofounder of the event, and to his parents. I also met other widows and listened to their stories. I am not too proud to say it made me tear up – it was an emotional weekend,” Roberto said.
“I am not from a military family. You just have no idea the sacrifices that these families make in order for all of us to enjoy our freedom.”
Roberto and Erica also met some active duty Navy SEALs and retired SEAL, Marcus Luttrell, the lone survivor from Operation Red Wings, the ill-fated mission that took the life of Danny Dietz and 18 others. They also met Marcus’ wife and infant.
Now both Erica and Roberto are deeply involved and committed to the Danny Dietz Memorial Classic, with Roberto on the board of directors and Erica in charge of volunteer sponsorships, ticketing and VIP hospitality.
“It is awesome to see the volunteers, local community and the SEAL community come out every year and support the cause. The Navy SEAL Foundation is an amazing organization, and we are proud to show them how much we care about the fallen and their families! They have welcomed us in, and we feel like a big family,” Roberto said.
Erica agrees that supporting the organization is very gratifying. “I love doing it. It has become something that is a big part of our life now – planning, getting people involved and trying to make it grow.”
Both Erica and Roberto are also volunteers on Fort Bend County Fair committees. Their lives are filled with hard work and respect for others. Their efforts to give back to the community mirror the giving hearts of grandparents Raul Sr. and Mary, who affected so many more people than they could have imagined in their lives.
“I learned from watching my grandfather and father how to treat all of our employees with respect. They really are the heart of our company and showing you care about them is an important ingredient to our success,” Roberto explained. “When my grandfather passed away, a really elderly gentleman was sitting with his granddaughter in a pew at the funeral home. None of us recognized him, so we went over to introduce ourselves. It was a man who had been a dishwasher at one of the first Molina’s, and he said that my grandfather had always been so kind to him that he wanted to bring his granddaughter to pay their respects.
“And that’s such a great reminder of why kindness matters, in business and in life!”