Nicole Ix, a restaurant owner who infused the popular Cafe Soleil in downtown Sacramento with a sunny disposition that turned customers into friends, died Feb. 16 of cancer, her family said. She was 46.
Mrs. Ix and her husband, Jorge, worked as chefs in San Francisco before moving to Sacramento to open Cafe Soleil in a cozy brick building in Cesar Chavez Plaza in 1993. The eatery in the park is a favorite lunch spot for nearby office workers, who line up for quick, hearty meals of specialty salads, savory soups and diverse daily specials.
Despite long hours, Mrs. Ix enjoyed cooking and serving people. She rose by 4:30 a.m. every day to make her signature scones and coffee cake. She often rode her bicycle from her South Land Park home to the restaurant, where she welcomed customers by name with a radiant smile.
Upbeat and friendly, she asked regulars about family, work and home. A natural storyteller with talent for accents and impersonations, she entertained strangers with witty stories and impressions about famous and everyday people.
She chatted with callers while scribbling takeout orders and ended every conversation with "Right on!" She made time amid the rush of business to listen and connect with customers as friends.
"A lot of people confided in her," said her daughter Yesenia. "She was like a hairstylist or someone you go to all the time. She just really liked to know about people and how they are, and she wanted to make them feel good."
Ms. Ix's kindness led to an outpouring of support after she was diagnosed with cancer 14 months ago. Customers set up an account to help her family make ends meet. Regulars launched a Facebook campaign to drum up business at Cafe Soleil and raised money to replace broken equipment.
"They just said, 'Why don't we help our friends, people that we love, that we've been using for 18 years?' " Mrs. Ix told The Bee last year. "My husband and I are just blown away."
Nicole Heather Molloy was born in 1966 in Dublin, Ireland, to a family of actors and playwrights who inspired her to be open and curious about people. Her father, John, was a writer and actor who starred on an Irish TV soap opera. Her mother, Yvonne, was a scholar of Irish theater who also directed plays in Dublin.
In 1969, Mrs. Ix moved with her parents and five siblings to Allentown, Pa. She spent a summer at 14 working in the kitchen of a hotel in Switzerland and became interested in French cuisine. She moved to San Francisco after high school and graduated from California Culinary Academy.
She worked as a baker and chef at upscale San Francisco restaurants and met another chef, Jorge Ix. They married in 1987 and accepted an offer to move to Sacramento and open Cafe Soleil. The couple later purchased the restaurant, which her husband plans to continue operating.
Mrs. Ix enjoyed getting to know her customers and stories about their lives. She loved meeting people so much that she considered pursuing work as a train conductor or operations manager. She recently was taking classes in railroad operations at Sacramento City College.
"She had this wonderful way of making everybody a friend," her mother said. "When you went to her cafe, it was like a little theater and she was on stage with all these colorful characters. Then the customers would come in, and they were characters too."
Call The Bee's Robert D. Dávila, (916) 321-1077. Follow him on Twitter @Bob_Davila.