The First Families of Houston Food: Why We Eat the Way We Eat in H-Town
Ninfa Rodriguez Laurenzo moved to Houston in 1949 with her husband, Domenic Tommy Laurenzo, and the two started a life selling tortillas and pizza dough out of a little shop on Navigation. Domenic died young, leaving Ninfa a widow at 46 with children to look after and a business that didn't make much money.
Photo courtesy Ninfa's Mama Ninfa outside her restaurant.
In 1973, Ninfa established Ninfa's restaurant in the front of the tortilla factory. Using loans from a friend in Mexico, Ninfa was able to open a 40-seat restaurant that almost succumbed to a fire a week after opening. But Ninfa rallied, and the restaurant in the bad part of town became known for its cheap, hearty Tex-Mex and its ever-welcoming owner and hostess.
It was the fajitas that initially made Ninfa -- now referred to lovingly as Mama Ninfa -- famous in Houston, and then throughout Texas and the rest of the country. The restaurant became so popular that Ninfa was able to close the tortilla factory, expand the first location and open a second on Westheimer in 1975.
By 1980, the Ninfa's boom was in full swing. There were seven restaurants in Houston, so the family decided to expand to other cities. Branches in Dallas and San Antonio were less successful, but in 1983 Ninfa's empire was the largest Hispanic-owned business in Houston.
Things started to go downhill in 1985, when Ninfa's partnered with McFaddin Ventures to protect themselves from some of the risks involved in opening new restaurants. Not long after deals were signed, the relationship between the Laurenzos and McFaddin soured, with McFaddin suing the Laurenzos for allegedly trying to hurt service at McFaddin restaurants. The Laurenzos counter-sued, and both parties eventually agreed to a settlement.
Moving past the litigation, the Laurenzos founded RioStar Corporation, which set about expanding the Ninfa's name even further -- all the way to Leipzig, Germany. Unfortunately, the quick expansion caused RioStar to build up major debts with Sysco, the primary supplier of non-food goods for the restaurants. In 1996, the restaurant group, which now owned 40 restaurants around the country, was sued by Sysco for $2.8 million, which forced RioStar to file for chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.
Two years later, Serrano's Cafe out of Austin bought RioStar, and the Laurenzos, who had worked so tirelessly to create an empire, were no longer involved with Ninfa's. In spite of agreeing to a non-compete clause in the deal, in which Ninfa may "not engage, directly or indirectly, as a consultant, employee, officer, director, owner, shareholder or investor in any business which owns, operates, provides or designs restaurants, cafes, bars, catering services, food delivery, or any other food business...," the Laurenzos opened El Tiempo on Richmond in 1998. In name, Ninfa was not involved, but as the Houston Press reported that same year, that didn't seem to be quite the case in practice.
Photo courtesy El Tiempo Mama Ninfa's legacy lives on through El Tiempo.
Still, El Tiempo thrived, and it now has five locations throughout Houston, including one right next to the original Ninfa's on Navigation. The family also owns Laurenzo's, a steak and seafood restaurant on Washington.
Mama Ninfa passed away from bone cancer in 2001, but her legacy lives on through El Tiempo and all the fajitas in Texas. As a sidenote, Ninfa's daughter, Phyllis, married Tony Mandola, so now the Laurenzos and Mandolas are related as well.