Mama Ninfa and her Comeback Kids

Ninfa Laurenzo's children return to the kitchen

Once upon a time in Houston, a humble and proud Hispanic family earned fame and fortune on the backs of well-grilled beef strips wrapped in a lardy flour tortilla with a side of avocado sauce. And though this history omits a good many contributing factors -- hard work, determination, family unity, timing, good luck, lots of borrowed money -- the essential truth of it affirms one of the finer possibilities of Houston itself: Fairy-tale lives, and fairy-tale family sagas, even, thrive on this paved plain.

But since real-life fairy tales, unlike their printed counterparts, are rarely abridged, they sometimes grow beyond the bounds of their genre and into the realm of myth. Did you hear the one about the boy who flew on wax wings too close to the sun and took a dunking? How about Sisyphus, perpetually rolling his rock up the hill? And then there's that bird that rises from its own ashes.

Meet, probably not for the first time, the Laurenzos.

Here's Roland, a solid man with a bit of sadness around the mouth but a twinkle yet in his eye, wearing a chef's smock and a starched white toque and passing judgment with practiced eye as hot plates of food pass beneath his nose on their way from kitchen to waitperson. Now and then he slides a plate back to one of the four sneaker-and-cap-wearing guys in the kitchen for another shred of Cheddar, or another 45 seconds in the oven, or because of who-knows-what perceived imperfection.

Here's his younger brother Jack, with a belly like a hog, sweating, grinning compulsively and rushing out to the floor with a basket of fried chips and a private joke to be shared with whatever hapless diner happens to currently be unable to keep up with his relentlessly good cheer.

Here's Roland's wife, Blanca, working the books in a back office, and her sister Mary Santos, and Mary's husband, Richard, who's helping with the floor operations. And here's Roland's son Dominic, who, at 28, nominally, at least, owns this restaurant, and hell, there's Dominic's 18-year-old brother, Joey, busing tables for good measure.

And if you don't know who these people are, you might glance across the room some noontime and see Roland's and Jack's mother, Blanca's mother-in-law, Dominic's and Joey's grandmother. Her name is Ninfa Laurenzo, and if you've eaten, or even thought about eating, Mexican food in Houston anytime in the past quarter-century, you'll probably recognize her, even though everyone calls her just plain Mama. Maybe she'll walk past you, cane in hand, as you sip a margarita at the bar, say hello and ask Roland if he's treating you right.

Two years ago, these people were collectively and, in more than one case, individually, as bankrupt as bankrupt can be, a state they had achieved at the tail end of one of Houston's great entrepreneurial success stories. It was a story that hammered hard on the elements that Houston holds dear: hard work and bootstrapping, family, upward mobility, self-invention, Growth with a capital G, fame and fortune, celebrity even, and the eventual approval of Republicans.

It's not very Houston Proud to linger over the elements of greed, ineptitude, decline, distress and failure that characterize what we'll call the Lately Period, but we'll need to touch on those for the sake of continuity, since the story doesn't seem ready to end in bankruptcy after all. That's why Roland and Jack and Blanca and Mary and Richard and Dominic and Joey all seem to be working their mostly not-so-young butts off at a new Mexican-food restaurant called El Tiempo Cantina. Mama, all say, isn't working. "She's supportive because we're family," explains Roland, "and in her heart she would like to see us do well. She doesn't want to see us not having a job or not being able to make a living. That's a mother, you know?"

Roland explains all this because it is important that plausible deniability be established, because Mama simply can't be seen as being involved in El Tiempo, which you will notice is not the restaurant that restaurant people associate with this particular family. Which is to say, not Ninfa's.

Ninfa's now belongs to other people, four of whom are principals of the Austin-based Cafe Serranos chain of Mexican-food restaurants, and one of whom is local investor Niel Morgan, whose real estate ventures have fueled a variety of interests over the years, including publishing (Morgan was the financier of the Houston Press during its first five years) and, more recently, restaurants (he recently bought a stake in the Antone's chain of delis).

So if you go looking for the Ninfa's of multiple outlets and brightly colored parrots and famous green sauce and trademarked menu items like tacos a la Ninfa and Ninfaritas, you'll find them in the hands of Morgan and Serranos. But if you go looking for an inkling of the legendary Ninfa's born of necessity on Navigation Street, the Ninfa's of a bustling family presence and careful family oversight, if you go looking for the Laurenzos, or the palpable magnetism of Mama Ninfa herself, you'll have to go to El Tiempo Cantina.

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.

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.

At one point, backs against the wall, RioStar borrowed $2 million at 20 percent interest.

"We needed financing desperately, long-term financing, but we never could arrange for it. Many times we tried, we went up to New York a couple of times and tried to arrange for big financing: 15 million, 20 million," says Roland. Pre-bankruptcy, Morgan and Roland talked about a financing deal. "We just couldn't get it done."

By October 1996, RioStar owed Sysco, its largest food and equipment supplier, $2.8 million, and after five years in which 140 RioStar checks bounced, Sysco forced the company into Chapter 7 bankruptcy. Ninfa's responded by filing suit against Sysco for allegedly overcharging for supplies (Mama later dropped the suit and issued an apology), and filed for reorganization under Chapter 11 of the bankruptcy laws, to give the family just a little bit of breathing room, an opportunity to somehow reorganize the piling-up debt. That's also when Mama herself discovered how deep a hole the family was in.

"We had been struggling for some time with our finances, so I'm sure that was always in the back of our mind: 'Are we going to be able to make it?' But to me it was a great shock, very much so. In '95, early '96, I was very ill for several months, so I really wasn't involved on a day-to-day basis. My job was really in the area of PR, you know, it wasn't in management. I was aware that there were some difficulties, but I think the guys tried to protect me from a lot of that."

What the guys couldn't protect Mama from was the suitors.
There were five of them, restaurateurs Tony Vallone and Ghulam Bombaywala, a partnership of Dallas investor Larry Leal and Black-Eyed Pea owner Gene Street, and Serranos and Morgan, who originally made separate offers.

"We could have bought it ourselves, reorganized it and paid off our debts," Roland speculates, "but we had lost credibility."

All the suitors had plans, but in the end, it was the plan presented by the partnership of Serranos and Morgan that was approved by the creditor committee and the Laurenzos themselves, and accepted by Judge William Greendyke. Theirs was the plan that offered to pay 100 cents on the dollar to RioStar's creditors, though it's not precisely 100 cents on the dollar, because it could be a decade or more before the last creditor is, as they say, satisfied. There has been some grumbling -- again officially nameless (such a polite brouhaha...) -- to the effect that much of the money is spread too thin, payable in percentages of projected profits, and that little of it is in actual equity. Morgan got himself a sweetheart deal, is the word on the street, and maybe he did. Now he and his partners have a struggling chain to rehabilitate, a lot of financial obligations over a long haul, and the incoming licensing fees of some dozen Mexican-food restaurants carrying the Ninfa's name but under little obligation to bring themselves in line with any new and improved management attempts at consistency of quality.

Mama Ninfa, and through her, her family, came out not so bad, too. She retains an investor's interest in two licensed Houston Ninfa's, one at the Park Shops and another inside the Galleria. She retains the right, transferable to her children, to license and open as many as six new Ninfa's restaurants, and her sons Tommy and Gino have already taken advantage of the opportunity, opening Austin's first Ninfa's in 1997.

According to the Second Amended Joint Plan of Reorganization that effected the sale (one of almost 2,000 documents on file at the Federal Building pertaining to the extremely complex bankruptcy proceedings), Mama herself gets paid, by Morgan's group, $16,500 a month for 1998, $15,500 a month for 1999, $14,500 a month for 2000, $13,500 a month for 2001, $12,500 a month for 2002, $8,500 a month for 2003, $7,500 a month for 2004, and $6,666.67 a month thereafter, as long as she might live.

For this money she is expected to do next to nothing aside from being available as a spokesperson for the Ninfa's she no longer owns and adhering to a non-compete clause stating that she shall "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...," etc. etc.

It sounds like the legal language of someone with a sincere and thorough interest in making sure that Mama Ninfa doesn't compete.

"Because she's a local personality," says Morgan, "the non-compete part is very important, and her being identified with the company as a real person. An actual presence."

"It's very limited," says Mama Ninfa, "because I'm not involved in management anymore, at all. So I'm not notified about nothing. These people that have come in are very nice people, from what contact I've had with them. At Serranos and Mr. Morgan too. All of them have been very decent with me. But I'm sure they have their own management style that they want to implement, their own ideas, so I don't think to tell them anymore. They're not going to go by what I say, let's say, or what I would want, or what I would like in the way of dealing with everyone at the company, or dealing with my ideas."

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."

And those eyes: Are there any more stars in them? If El Tiempo takes off, may Houston expect expansion?

"Not gonna do it," says Roland. "We're real firm on that." And then, without even a pause for breath: "If we do it, it'll be in Chicago. Or Los Angeles, whatever. One store that a Laurenzo is going to run."

Which seems a plausible denial, don't you think?

E-mail Brad Tyer at brad_tyer@houstonpress.com.

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