Mama Ninfa and her Comeback Kids

Ninfa Laurenzo's children return to the kitchen

And considering that Morgan, under the purchase agreement, pays Mama sweet piles of money for, among other things, the right to her "name and likeness" and her adherence to a strict non-compete clause, this makes the latest chapter in the Ninfa novel either very sneaky, very funny or just plain inspiringly resilient.

Ninfa's is the face and the voice made recognizable by countless advertisements over the past quarter-century for her family's Mexican-food restaurant chain. It was she who, widowed at 46, borrowed the pots and pans from her home kitchen and "gathered her chicks" from widespread universities in 1973 to transform the front room of her struggling tortilla and pizza-dough factory on Navigation Street into a ten-table restaurant in a bad part of town. It was she who rallied the troops and supervised the homemade repairs when a fire nearly burned the place down, a week later. And it was she who traveled from these unpromising beginnings to contemporary times, from which vantage she looks back proudly on personal memories as diversely satisfying as having greeted the Pope in Puerto Rico as a goodwill emissary of her country, and having delivered a nominating speech for soon-to-be-President George Bush at a Republican convention in New Orleans.

Yes, as she likes to say, she's had a good life, and along the way, there were restaurant openings, over 30 of them, in two states and one foreign country, an expansion of empire, and the opportunities to do everything she'd dreamt of as a child: travel, mostly, and bring her children into the family business, and their children too, and the whole extended family of employees, some 4,000 at the peak, and countless friends and admirers, who came to call Ninfa Laurenzo, simply, respectfully and often gratefully, Mama.

And then, suddenly, it seemed, there was the end. In 1996. When the empire came crumbling down and Ninfa's filed for bankruptcy; only to have the company purchased out of court by investors extending their own empire; only to see the name Ninfa's splashed in bright colors on buildings all over town -- to have that be Mama's name up there, the name she would pass on to her family, and yet to no longer own it, to no longer even own what the lawyers quite literally refer to as her "likeness."

It's a hard blow, on a par perhaps with an early widowhood and inopportune fire, and it was made no easier by having arrived at a precariously healthy 75 years of age. Under such circumstances, you might well claim satisfaction with what you have achieved and plead retirement because you're old now, and tired. Houston, which has watched your rise with pleasure and your fall with sadness, would understand.

That's what you might claim.
And Mama Ninfa claims the same things, because in many ways -- and this is what gives the myth its resonance -- she is just like you and me; or at least just like you and I would like to think we would be, if we were faced with the same challenges and opportunities, and faced them with the same ambition and skill, which of course we aren't, and don't.

Because Mama Ninfa Laurenzo isn't just like you and me, and when she tells you that she's more or less retired, that her run through Houston's restaurant world and beyond is more or less through, you'd be wise to take the words with a grain of salt. Because for Mama Ninfa, family is just an extension of self, and though Mama may no longer be able to take the literal heat in the kitchen, and though she may in fact be bound to avoid any activity that could be interpreted as consultation, the Laurenzos are hardly through, neither more nor less. Mama, retired or otherwise, is quite cleverly helping make sure of that.

"I don't think we're stupid people. I don't think it was because we're dumb. I don't think it was because we didn't work hard. I don't think it was because we didn't try. I don't think it was that we were irresponsible." This is Roland Laurenzo, age 46, looking older and sounding both humbler and wiser than the precociously ambitious young man of Laurenzo family legend. Mama Ninfa's eldest son, a graduate of the United States Naval Academy, Roland was named president of the budding RioStar Corporation, Ninfa's corporate face, at the age of 24.

But if the Laurenzos were neither stupid nor lazy, it remains that, according to Roland, "The story of Ninfa's is basically the story of tremendous financial distress for at least the last 15 years."

There are people who will suggest, though never on the record, that it was Roland who beached Ninfa's, Roland who got greedy, Roland whose ambition screwed the pooch. During the salad days, it was younger brother Jack, today the seemingly happy-go-luckier of the two, who cautioned against over-expansion, and in retrospect, it's easy to guess that Jack was closer to right (though he did himself launch Laurenzo's Italian Bar and Grille, which flopped ignominiously after just three months and a reported $461,000 in losses).

But it seems somehow unjust to accuse a businessman of greed, the restaurant business being just like any other business, and business being what it is. And in any case, it was still and always Mama's company, Mama at whose desk the buck stopped, and if you ask Mama whose side she was on in the fight for the direction of the company, she doesn't hesitate in answering "with Roland!" chased by a but-of-course laugh. "I'm not afraid of anything. I know how to be poor, you know?" Whatever family battles may have brewed, whatever relationships may have been strained, whatever blame may have been cast within the Laurenzo clan as the company foundered, it won't be aired by a Laurenzo. The Laurenzo clan has always, in more ways than one, kept it in the family.

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