By Chris Lane
By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
And so here's Mama Ninfa, name, likeness, actual presence and everything, sitting at a front table at El Tiempo Cantina.
"Well, well, you know, oh, what else can I do? I want to see my kids. I enjoy them. I love them. They're my world, you know? So I go there and the boys say, 'Try this, try that. You think we're doing okay?' "
Sound like consulting?
For a random three consecutive days of observation, her black Lincoln Town Car is parked in El Tiempo's lot by 10:30 and until the lunch rush is over. Most of this time she's out of sight, in the back office. A dinner visit to sample the food, which is wonderful: Mama Ninfa is there, having dinner. Yet another interview at the restaurant: Roland says again that Mama Ninfa comes by with encouragement, to see her children, to have lunch maybe. She's got nothing to do with the restaurant. As he says this, Roland has been delayed 15 minutes in our meeting. He was busy in the back office, with Mama. It is 9 a.m.
Even a smoker's nose can detect something fishy in the scenario. All these Laurenzos everywhere, and clean-cut 28-year-old Dominic, veteran of two years selling burgers out the window of a Second Ward walkup, is the owner. It's his restaurant. And Mama Ninfa is there nearly every day. Just to say hola.
It gets fishier, and funnier, as you take a close look at the sale agreement. That's where you'll find a section, within a section titled "Employment Agreement with Ninfa Laurenzo," that specifies Mama's right to "designate one or more persons to be employed by her from time to time during 1998. The total compensation to be paid to such persons during 1998 shall not exceed $100, 000."
Well, Mama designated the person, and it isn't Angel, her ever-present helper and companion of 20 years. It's Dominic, Mama's 28-year-old grandson, namesake of Mama's deceased husband, and the guy who opened the not-at-all cut-rate El Tiempo with his proceeds from the sale of a Second Ward burger joint and help from unspecified investors. The amount he's being paid does not exceed $100,000, but it doesn't add up to any less, either. And the man paying Dominic the money, via his agreement with Mama, is Niel Morgan.
To an outsider, that might look an awful lot like seed money. And if you think the presence of seven Laurenzos (We're not counting Mama. Plausible deniability...) in a Mexican-food venture is potentially competitive with, say, Ninfa's, then you might think of it as seed money for a competing restaurant, and if you thought of it that way, you might ask Mr. Morgan, who is paying a lot of money for Mama Ninfa's continuing endorsement of Ninfa's, why he's funding, directly or indirectly, El Tiempo.
"It's just something we did for Mama" is Morgan's slightly embarrassed assessment. El Tiempo was, of course, never a stated beneficiary of Morgan's money, but "money is fungible, as they say." As to whether or not El Tiempo, a single restaurant, is competitive with the Ninfa's chain, Morgan says no, but it might be instructive to hear from former Ninfa's president Roland Laurenzo: "It's not meant to be competitive with Ninfa's, but on the other hand, I guess we can't help but be. Because in reaching for the discriminating diner, there are going to be some people who prefer El Tiempo. And I'm certain there'll be some people who prefer Ninfa's. But we're going for the high end."
Exceptionally polite fighting words, perhaps, but fighting words nonetheless, and never mind that El Tiempo is located on Richmond Avenue so close to Ninfa's popular Kirby location that you could almost walk back and forth from one to the other comparing red sauces.
Ask Morgan what Roland is up to (nobody really thinks of El Tiempo as Dominic's restaurant) and he acknowledges that Roland told him during the bankruptcy of his plans to open El Tiempo.
Roland says, "I just don't think he thought it would be so soon."
Morgan says, "I think Roland probably would have been smarter, in the sense that it'd have been a more certain success, if he'd opened another Ninfa's and been a licensee."
But ask Morgan if he's got a problem with the goings-on at El Tiempo, with regard to the non-compete clause, and he's diplomatic: "We've satisfied ourselves in terms of the overall relationship that that's not going to be a problem, that whatever problem that is, we can live with it." Would you want to take on Mama Ninfa, one of the city's most beloved icons, in the court of public opinion?
Tell him how often Mama Ninfa's been on El Tiempo's premises, and his chuckle moves from embarrassed to something slightly more awkward, as he asks, "Oh really?"
Meanwhile, the family Laurenzo keeps on doing what it apparently knows best, running a family restaurant as a family, and failing to discourage suggestions that what's happening now at El Tiempo has almost eerie parallels to the early days of the original Ninfa's on Navigation. Aside from those family members who have chosen to license back the name that was once theirs and continue operating Ninfa's locations, the Laurenzos were pretty much out of their jobs once Ninfa's was sold. They need to make a living to support their families, in much the same way that Mama had to find a way to support hers. "That's exactly what it is," says Roland. "In my eyes, if there's anything in my life that it reminds me of, that's what it reminds me of."