Mama Ninfa and her Comeback Kids

Ninfa Laurenzo's children return to the kitchen

What happened to Ninfa's, in any case, is not much in dispute. It expanded, too far and too fast. Even as Mama Ninfa was taking on her mantle of local sainthood as a community leader and iconic Hispanic businesswoman -- role-model roles that encouraged the bigger-and-better ethos -- her company was moving from charm to chain. Second restaurants, like movie sequels and sophomore albums, are rarely as inspired as the original offering, and if the reviews of Ninfa's second location focused on the remarkable extent to which the spirit and food of the Navigation location had been preserved, a third restaurant marked the beginning of the slide in earnest.

"If we had it to do over again," says Roland, "maybe we'd go beyond Ninfa's Navigation, but I don't think we'd build a 30-unit chain."

Yet that's just what they did, and the chain thrived in the '70s and early '80s. There were well-wishers and fans and fawners from the beginning, and many of them -- sycophantic, opportunistic or merely shrewd -- egged the Laurenzos on, cramming stars into their already star-riddled eyes.

New owner Morgan suggests that "They had a lot of people, especially back in the early '70s when they were a big success and Houston was really booming, who wanted to help them out and encouraged them to expand. I don't know the history that well, but I know they got involved with some people who said, you know, let's put Ninfa's all over the place. I think if they had been left alone they might have done better, if they had tended to grow as they could really support it."

Roland, more circumspect, says, "One of the things that misled us, in all honesty, was that ... you know, you read about other restaurant chains that are expanding rapidly, and so you begin to emulate, at least superficially, the concept that you can expand and have a lot of restaurants, and they can all be great restaurants."

These encouragers and emulatees, whoever they were, and there were surely many, are spoken of peripherally, without the naming of names, and never by the Laurenzos themselves. If one thing has characterized much of the Laurenzo saga, it is a lack of public blame-placing. "Gracias!" was an early and successful advertising slogan, and the Laurenzos remain, on the face of it, grateful.

Restaurants -- some owned by the Laurenzos, others independently owned but licensing the name and recipes -- opened in Dallas, in Louisiana, in Germany. They all cost money. One proposed restaurant in California generated $1 million in spending and didn't open.

RioStar bought the Atchafalaya River Cafes and branched into Cajun food. It launched the doomed Laurenzo's. When Laurenzo's failed, the family almost immediately retooled the concept as Bambolino's, a series of cheapo drive-through Coke-and-a-slice pizza joints, of which a mere licensed one, on Montrose at Richmond, continues hawking fine frozen lemonade.

Roland's idea, which must have seemed the only option at the time, was to grow out of debt. If one restaurant, even one whole restaurant concept, failed, try again, just as soon as you can borrow the money. If 28 Ninfa's are making money, why not license another two or three for the trademark payments? Houston must have seemed in those days like a limitless mouth with a taste for tacos al carbon.

But the mouth didn't stay open through the '80s, and the money got harder and harder to borrow as the debt mounted.

"The growth was a thing of desperation in the latter years," says Roland. "We had gotten ourselves into financial trouble when we expanded to Dallas in the early '80s, and never recovered. But the fallacy of growing our way out of financial distress was that we had to hit all home runs. We couldn't have any mediocre restaurants."

Yet mediocre restaurants they had. Some dozen Ninfa's were licensed to operators over whom the Laurenzos had little influence. And even the restaurants owned by the family were too many, and too far-flung, for direct oversight. Roland again: "When I was in the position of president of Ninfa's, and no longer, you know, watching the food come out the window, I just couldn't go to the restaurants. We always had trained cooks, but the reality of it is, you can't get around to all the restaurants."

You could see the desperation in the corporate maneuverings that began to make the Houston Chronicle's business pages. In late 1985, Ninfa's sold operating rights to Houston's McFaddin Ventures, which operated nightclubs, and Roland and Jack went to work for McFaddin. By January 1987, McFaddin and Ninfa's had filed suit against each other for a variety of grievances, none of which was softened by the facts that McFaddin had fired Roland only nine months after his hiring, and that McFaddin had lost close to $20 million in 1986.

Then, in September 1993, it was announced that Ninfa's intended to sell half the company to San Antonio-based Billy Blues, in a move that was touted as a "strategic alliance." Four months later, the proposed deal was canceled because nobody could agree on organizational and operational details.

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