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Will Mama Ninfa Laurenzo become the burrito baroness of Dallas overnight?

It’s an average Monday evening at Ninfas on Greenville Avenue and the place is teeming with well-dressed patrons eating Mexican food American-style while the sun sets over Diamond Jim’s and the street traffic relaxes to a leisurely post rush-hour pace. These people dine at Ninfas because it is an attractively decorated North Dallas restaurant serving Mexican food at moderate prices. A lot of people don’t dine at Ninfas for the same reason. Good Mexican food, the purists claim, is never delivered to the table by a waitress wearing a gimmicky name tag that says “Gracias!” Good Mexican meals, they say, don’t need catchy, federally registered trademark names. Good Mexican restaurants, they believe, are singular things; There’s no such beast as a great Mexican restaurant chain.

Ninfas defies all that. And while the people who run tried-and-true Dallas-based establishments like El Chico and El Fenix won’t admit that Ninfas’ seating capacity alone has got them scared, they will imply that Ninfas appears to be hotter than a good picante. The popularity of Ninfas restaurants isn’t really rooted in the quality of the food or the friendliness of the service. It stems from something more intangible than that. It’s Ninfa herself as portrayed in the madonna-like photograph hanging in each restaurant’s foyer: she sits ensconced in a spreading peacock chair, lit by an overhead spotlight and occasionally flanked by little urns of ivy. She is the perfect heroine, larger than life and almost too good, and kind, and rich to be … well, believed.

It’s been eight years since Ninfa Laurenzo, a widowed mother of five, converted a failing tortilla and pizza dough factory into a 10-table neighborhood restaurant. Since the day she went into business, she has assembled an army of 1600 faithful employees spread over eight locations in Houston, four in the Dallas area, and one in San Antonio. Ninfas has recently crossed state lines for the first time: the carafes of potent margaritas (now dubbed “Ninfaritas” by the trademark-conscious corporation), and the stainless steel pitchers of green and red salsas now grace tables at a new Ninfas restaurant in Beverly Hills. Plans are in the works for units in Los Angeles and Las Vegas. Long-range projections include a network of 135 Ninfas throughout the country by the end of the decade. Estimated total sales for this year are said to be $30 million (with each Dallas-area unit ringing up an annual $2 million in sales). The corporation also claims to be interested in entering the hotel and frozen foods industries, and the Laurenzo family speculates grandly that by 1990 the combined annual sales revenue of all three endeavors could hit a cool $500 million. It may all sound like too much too soon, but the Laurenzo’s mega-success story is the kind of stuff of which Texas folklore is made.

NINFA MARIA RODRIQUEZ grew up in Harlingen, in the Rio Grande Valley. She was the daughter of a plumbing contractor who went into political exile when Mexican President Francesco Madera fell from power in 1911. There were 12 children in her family: six boys and six girls; she and her twin sister, Pilar, were the next to youngest. Pilar married a young man named Anthony DiMeo who was stationed at nearby Harlingen Army Air Field, and the couple moved to his hometown, Providence, Rhode Island. When Ninfa visited her sister, she was introduced to a distant relative of DiMeo’s, a baseball player of Italian/Jewish extraction named Dominic Laurenzo. His friends called him Tommy.

Ninfa and Tommy were married a year later in Harlingen, and she followed him to Rhode Island. But the cold weather turned out to be more than Ninfa could bear, and she insisted they relocate in sunnier climes. Tommy suggested Los Angeles, where he had relatives in the funeral business. Ninfa, who had read that Houston was the fastest-growing city in the U.S., reasoned that business opportunities would be better there. Unable to agree, they decided to flip a coin. Heads it was Houston; tails, Los Angeles.

The coin came up heads.

The year was 1948; Ninfa was a bride of 23. Drawing from their Mexican and Italian ethnicities, the couple started the hybrid Rio Grande Food Products Company, manufacturing and wholesaling pizza dough and tortillas in Houston’s drab eastside barrio. The venture eventually produced a comfortable income for the couple and the five children they would raise in the rambling, two-story frame house next door to the factory.

Though he harbored thoughts of someday opening a restaurant with his wife, Tommy didn’t live long enough to see the dream realized. In 1969, at age 49, he died suddenly of a massive cerebral hemorrhage. His presence, however, has continued to loom large among his survivors.

“He demanded a high standard, and that was it,” says the oldest son, Roland. “He didn’t say very much, but whatever he said, you knew you had to do it. There was no way I could measure up to my father’s standards. I’m probably a lot more ostentatious than he was-a lot more outspoken, a lot more outgoing. He was not looking for any recognition; he was very humble and reserved. But powerful. You meet these characters. He was one of them. When he walked into a room, he didn’t have to say a word. You knew somebody powerful had walked into that room.”

Tommy, the second youngest, says his father “instilled in us a real competitive spirit. One of the biggest thrills of my life was seeing a film of him at 18 hitting a home run.” (The elder Laurenzo played briefly for a New York Giants farm team in the early Forties.)

Observes his daughter, Phyllis, “It amazes me to think that, as forceful a personality as my mother is, she was all woman to my father. He was the only person she could ever take a back seat to. She did all the spanking, but all my father had to do was give you that look.”

And says Ninfa herself, “I’ve always felt. he’s had a lot to do with our success. He’s among us. Somehow, he knows we’ve succeeded. One day I had a friend come visit me, a man who worked for Kraft and sold us cheese when we were in the pizza business. He said, ’Ninfa, I had a dream, and I didn’t go to work today because I wanted to talk to you about it. I dreamed Tommy was smiling and so happy because his family has done so well. He comes to see the place at night. He just roams around and has fun.’

“It’s the kind of thing,” says Ninfa, “that if someone else hears me, they’ll say, ’She’s nuts.’ But you’ve got to feel these things. I feel, and the children feel, deeply and strongly, that his love is with us. He was a man of high principles, he made us strong.”

For four years after her husband’s death, Ninfa struggled to keep the business alive on her own. But numerous obstacles, including new, stricter federal regulations that would require retooling the factory, made it tough going. As a last resort Ninfa mortgaged the two-story clapboard house-which along with the factory and two nearby vacant lots formed her husband’s entire estate-for $13,000. Then a family friend kicked in a $5000 loan. Ninfa wanted to open a small restaurant with the money, one just big enough to generate cash to plow back into the ailing factory. One of her sisters had a small restaurant in Kingsville, Texas, called El Jardin, and before World War II another sister owned a restaurant in Harlingen called El Patio. Ninfa had only worked as a cashier in a restaurant. Her college training, at Texas A&I, was in education. Undeterred by her lack of experience – and the fact that most of the cooking she had done for her own family was Italian-Ninfa carved out a small section of the factory and converted it into a 10-table Mexican restaurant. She opened the doors in July 1973 with only her children to help her, and with a total of $16 in the cash register. She cannibalized her own kitchen for pots, pans, kitchen utensils, silverware, plates, and glasses.

As though to test the family’s resolve, a fire destroyed the kitchen just one week into the new venture. Ninfa supervised the messy cleanup operation, and they were back in business a week later.

BECAUSE SHE WAS WELL known and respected in the community, Ninfa got immediate support from the locals. Situated in an industrial area, the restaurant began to attract customers from nearby firms such as Brown & Root, Cameron Iron Works, and Hughes Tool Company, who passed the little cafe on the way to work and decided to try it for lunch. Many first-time customers were surprised to find a polite, college-educated, English-speaking staff.

The restaurant’s greatest selling point at that time was its food, which was unlike the traditional Tex-Mex combination plates Houston was too well acquainted with. The menu included items unknown at the time in Houston: flautas de polio (deep-fried chicken tacos), chilpanzin-gas (ham-and-cheese turnovers), innocent enough in their mantle of sour cream and parmesan, but possessing a feisty green-chile kick); and desserts such as sopapillas (a fragile, crisp, hand-rolled pastry drizzled with honey) or flan (caramel custard). Ninfa pioneered the use of fresh cilantro leaves, with their unforgettably clean, piercing flavor; previously you might have found cilantro in certain Indian or oriental dishes, but in 1973 Houston those cuisines were in their infancy. Then there was Nin-fa’s signature green sauce, that smooth, avocado-green miracle that nobody could ever quite believe was free. Knock back a few baby pitchers of that stuff with Ninfa’s impeccable tortilla chips, and you might not even want dinner. The Lauren-zos’ Italian heritage added yet another dimension to their cooking. Mozzarella and parmesan cheeses would pop up in their recipes, and even now their carne Neapoli-tano is a dead ringer for steak pizzaola.

But the real coup de grace was an item called tacos al carbon, which Ninfa’s second son Jack and his pal Tony Mandola discovered on a vacation in Mexico City. They fell in love with a chain of restaurants there called Parilla Suiza (Swiss Grill), which served specially marinated and charcoal-broiled beef or pork wrapped in homemade, soft flour tortillas. Before Ninfas opened for business, Tony, Jack, and his sister Phyllis (who later married Tony) slaved over the hot charbroiler at Ray Hay’s Broiler Burger near Tony’s house (Ray Hay being an old neighborhood friend) trying to perfect tacos al carbon. The kids envisioned opening not a full-scale sit-down restaurant but merely a tacos-to-go stand. Mama’s plan prevailed, of course, but it was the tacos al carbon that instantly became Ninfas’ most famous offering.

At the outset, Ninfas was open for breakfast at 7 a.m. six days a week and didn’t close on weekends until a last-ditch 3 a.m. Jack would be back at the produce market as early as 6 a.m., functioning on reserve adrenaline. Business continued to be steady throughout the first year, as word of mouth attracted more and more waves of curiosity-seekers. Since downtown Houston workers were at most a mile or two away, for them Ninfas was a convenient and unusual lunch spot.

As word spread about the funky little Mexican restaurant in the barrio, the clientele gradually began to shift. Neighborhood browns competed for tables with retail and corporate executive types who came back in the evening with their dates or families. At night it became common for groups of people in carpools or caravans to trek across town. Best of all, Nin-fas was an inexpensive place to impress a guest, particularly if you could speak some Spanish.

And so the off-the-beaten-path location turned out to be serendipitous. Ninfas’ early customers from across town inevitably had to be taken by the hand and led to the spot by a friend in the know. Once someone entered the neighborhood, there was a certain frisson . . . a wee misgiving about the safety of the car, perhaps, or even one’s well being.

Once inside Ninfas’ doors, though, the fears were assuaged. Though not as glossy as places in the “right” part of town, the restaurant was festively decorated, and the staff exuded warmth and graciousness. Jack might greet you at the door, take your order, go into the kitchen and cook your meal, then come out and chat with you while you ate. If you became a familiar face, you might be invited to sample whatever creations the family was testing before adding them to the menu.

After four months, Jack and Tony were at last able to draw a salary of $75 a week – and Ninfa was in a position to hire her first employee. A woman named Lydia Rubio, who couldn’t speak a word of English, walked in off the street one day and told Ninfa that she had no way to support her children and badly needed a job. Sounding the proper chord, she said she had prayed to the good Lord that very morning that she would get one. “I don’t know anything about cooking,” Lydia told Ninfa, “but if you help me, I will stay and help you.” The long hours in the kitchen were beginning to take their toll on Ninfa, so she hired Lydia. Lydia Rubio is with the company to this day, traveling from restaurant to restaurant as a cook trainer and quality control inspector. Her kids, now grown, work for Ninfas as well.

Word of mouth is a difficult phenomenon to chronicle, but the Laurenzos were able to pinpoint some of its sources. One week they began noticing an influx of out-of-town businessmen pulling up in taxis. Where had these people heard of Ninfas? It turned out that a bartender at the Hyatt Regency Hotel had eaten there and was recommending it to all who would listen. Those businessmen, in turn, would return to Dallas, Chicago, or Kansas City and tell their colleagues about Ninfas.

One early customer was Fred Mosk, of Fred Mosk Clothiers. When Mosk celebrated his wife’s birthday party at Ninfas in 1975, his press agent, Ted Roggen, contacted Houston Post gossip columnist Marge Crumbaker, who wrote a small item about the event. That very day people walked into the restaurant with the column in their hands, asking if this was the right place. Mosk introduced the Lauren-zos to Roggen, who offered to write a press release about Ninfas in exchange for free food. The family consented, and when the story appeared in the Post, the restaurant began doing a record business. Suddenly Ninfas had become a chic, trendy place.

Then came the celebrities. On one occasion, actor Rock Hudson arrived at the restaurant straight from the airport, suitcase in hand, and the incident was duly publicized by Houston’s press. More celebrities followed. Early on, Jack befriended local rock concert promoters, who would bring performers like Paul Simon and George Benson to the restaurant when they came to town. Stargazing became another of Ninfas’ attractions.

After a year in business, Ninfa remodeled yet another chunk of the factory and added 24 tables to accommodate the swelling crowds. Finally, after two years in business, she was able to obtain a $20,000 loan that enabled her to double the size of the restaurant-to 3500 square feet with 175 chairs. Her success snowballed. The lines stretched out the door and down the street. When the line outside grew especially large or restive, the family would dispatch someone to dole out chips and green sauce from a sidewalk stand-just like street vendors at a Mexican fiesta. Ninfas was the party that everyone wanted to get into.

One evening when Tony Mandola was waiting on tables, two bankers handed him their cards and said they’d like to do business with the restaurant. Tony informed them they had missed their chance months ago, when one of their loan officers had laughed in Mama’s face. He politely returned their cards.

THE LAURENZOS HAD AT LAST achieved their goal of getting out of debt. Tony Mandola had made his affiliation with the family permanent by marrying Phyllis. Jack and Tony, eager to return to their graduate studies, tried to persuade Ninfa to sell the operation-Southwest Wheel, which owned adjacent property, had offered $100,000 for the land-but Ninfa declined. Where else could she find the sort of gratification and prestige her restaurant provided? Besides, business was getting better every day. She decided to roll with her good fortune while it lasted.

One day in the spring of 1976, a regular customer named Lenny Friedman called Roland to his table and told him that the tenants of a building he owned on West-heimer were moving out. Judging from the size of the overflowing crowds, said Friedman, Roland might consider opening a second restaurant in an area that would serve the customers who now traveled all the way across town to sample Ninfas delicacies. After they’d come so far out of their way, was it fair to make them spend an hour finding a parking place and waiting in line? Didn’t they deserve a less congested dining room?

The idea of a second Ninfas had never occurred to Roland or to any of the other Laurenzos. They had expanded the little restaurant to its limit and were now committing themselves to sustaining its popularity beyond the short-lived trendy stage. Knowing it would be only a matter of time before the cognoscenti discovered another small eatery, they compensated by refusing to cut corners on quantity of food or freshness of ingredients. To Lenny Friedman’s way of thinking, it was almost a disservice to Ninfas customers not to open a second outlet.

Roland immediately thought it was a great idea. Two Ninfas! Enthusiastically he approached the family. His mother was elated at the prospect of duplicating their success, but the others were less excited. Jack, the most conservative of the clan, argued that they should be pleased with what they already had. Why be greedy? It was a position he would adopt again and again through the years, questioning corporate growth, tugging at the reins, playing devil’s advocate, tempering Roland’s gung ho dynastic plans. To Jack, opening a second Ninfas seemed foolish. How could the down-home aura be replicated? Ninfas would no longer be a one-of-a-kind institution. Besides, the family had accomplished what they had set out to do – getting back on their feet and keeping together. They had surpassed their original objective. Why risk losing everything they had worked so hard for?

His mother disagreed. “The others were afraid we’d lose everything,” she says now. “I thought, ’I know how to be poor. What was the difference?’ ” She and her children had a product and a service they were proud of, she reasoned, so why not share it with as many people as possible?

Roland returned to Ninfas one afternoon smiling like mad. When Tony and Jack looked up from the steam table and saw him, they thought to themselves, “He’s just signed our lives away for the next 10 years.”

And so the family geared up; they would go for two. Jack, the homey traditionalist, would stay behind and manage the original restaurant. With a Small Business Administration loan of $190,000, Roland, the go-getter, would open a new one.

WHEN THE LAURENZOS opened a sec- ond restaurant in 1976, in a space more than twice the size of the original, it joined a legion of prefab franchise operations. The one good thing going for it was a ready-made clientele-but the regulars lined up at the door with mixed feelings. On the one hand, they were glad to have a Ninfas close by. On the other, they were no longer conspirators protecting a great secret. Moreover, they feared Ninfas would take the all-too-predictable downhill slide that so often accompanies expansion.

But Ninfas confounded the cynics. Restaurant reviewers, knives unsheathed and ready to do damage, were disarmed. One typical critique: “It was hard to tell whether this sister operation would be a solution or the beginning of the end. Huge volume, a divided management task, a pricey location: It seemed almost inevitable that the restaurant’s unusually high standards would be compromised. Instead, Ninfas has performed the rare feat of expanding on a large scale while maintaining the quality of its food and service.”

As Roland built the Ninfas empire, he had to start thinking about advertising and marketing, concepts that had seemed ludicrously grandiose in the early days. Shopping for an agency in the spring of 1977, he visited Larry Sachnowitz of Gulf State Advertising. Roland knew of Sach-nowitz’s reputation as one of the city’s most touted copywriters. Gulf State’s most visible campaign at that time was for Sage department stores; it consisted of billboarded two-liners such as “Patton saved at Sage. Many Tanks,” and “Drac-ula didn’t shop at Sage. Sucker.” Thousands of people wrote to Sage with suggestions for similar puns.

The pair hit it off immediately, but Sachnowitz wondered why the Laurenzos thought Ninfas needed to advertise. Every time he visited either location he had to wait in long lines-surely Ninfas had all the business it could handle. True, responded Roland, but the company was about to open a third location that fall. Also, envious of Ninfas success, other Mexican chains were beginning to eye the Houston market, so there would soon be competition.

Sachnowitz mulled this over. Rather than try to lure more diners into an already packed house, he told Roland, you should let your current customers know how grateful you are for their business. That way, when the competition arrives you’ll still be sitting pretty. Roland asked Sachnowitz what he had in mind. Why not simply say thank you, Sachnowitz suggested. Better yet, say it in Spanish. Say “!Gracias!” Roland smiled and told him to proceed.

Within three weeks, 250 billboards and buses were carrying the now-famous Nin-fas poster, featuring a festively colored parrot, the word !Gracias!, and the name Ninfas in bright red, all against a solid black background. That was it. Sachnowitz reasoned that anybody who had been to Ninfas would know why the restaurant was saying thank you, and anybody who hadn’t been would wonder why and go find out. He was right. Two weeks after the campaign began, sales rose substantially. Ninfas has remained with Gulf State ever since.

In 1978 Roland negotiated with Lenny Friedman to build and lease Ninfas’ fourth and most spacious site on land Friedman owned off the Gulf Freeway near Hobby Airport. Ad man Larry Sachnowitz composed a new slogan for the company – “Ahora Quatro,” which translates to “Now Four.” Roland didn’t like it. It made him wonder-Now Four What? Four Tacos? Four O’Clock?

“Ahora Quatro” was consigned to the scrap heap. Sachnowitz would go back to the drawing board and devise a campaign so effective that both parties would later wonder where on earth an idea like “Ahora Quatro” had come from.

Jack finally moved to corporate headquarters, where for two years he helped select sites for new restaurants, worked with architects and designers, and headed purchasing operations. Around that time his mother left the simple house she had lived in for nearly three decades. Tired of having to drive home every night at 10 or 11 p.m. from her office on the far side of town, she decided it was time to leave memories and barrio neighbors behind. She moved to a four-bedroom house in southwest Houston, where she still lives with her youngest sons, Tommy and Gino, and a housekeeper.

For a millionairess in money-happy Houston, Ninfa’s tastes aren’t what you’d call extravagant. She may drive a black Cadillac Seville these days, but she insists, “Money’s never gonna change me. I’ve always wanted wheels, a clean home, and nice clothes. I want to stay humble, or it won’t be me. I thank God I can eat well, drive a car, and dress okay. And that’s it.” With paint peeling, her old house next to the original Ninfas still serves as an office and warehouse.

Her best friends, though, are the ones from the old days-among them Mary Medina, who still runs the flower shop across the street from the original restaurant, and Spring Branch secretary Ann Wood, who met the Laurenzos in 1959 when her then-husband was plastic-packaging their pizza products. Ninfa has been known to take one or two of her old friends along on her vacations to Mexico, the British Isles, Rumania, the Holy Land, and Spain (where she started buying her saffron in 1978, after her Mexican supplier began diluting the spice). Ninfa has remained a devout Catholic, and makes a habit of visiting the basilica whenever she is in Mexico City. She worships at tiny St. Raphael’s in Houston, where the parishioners are mostly undocumented aliens and the service is in Spanish, the language in which she had been accustomed to hearing it as a girl.

Ninfa’s nonstop schedule and high community profile represent perhaps the most drastic changes in her life. Appointed in 1977 to the Metropolitan Transit Authority board, Ninfa is now pondering whether to resign the post, since she barely has time for the semi-monthly meetings. Her days are an endless round of business trips, public appearances, award ceremonies, speaking engagements, church activities, charity functions, banquets, and balls.

One may reasonably ask how Ninfa can possibly be the paragon that she appears to be: so loyal and pious and unflaggingly optimistic, so maternal and effusive and sentimental, so hard-working and generous, so damnably virtuous – as if she sprang straight from the combined imaginations of Norman Vincent Peale and the Mexican-American Chamber of Commerce. But where Ninfa is concerned, what you see and hear is pretty well what you get. Even her friend of 20-plus years, Ann Wood, says that she’s seen Ninfa’s feathers ruffled only once.

At a party, a guest asked Ninfa for her famous green sauce recipe. Ninfa was not amused. “Can you believe the nerve?” she exclaimed to Wood. Recipes are personal, family things, she told Wood, and besides that, they are the heart of her business.

THE OPENING OF THE FIFTH Ninfas in September 1979 was the company’s boldest move of all, for this latest outlet was launched, not in the comfortable surroundings of Houston with a ready-made clientele, but in San Antonio, where Ninfas’ reputation was virtually unknown. To open in San Antonio-a market already gutted with Mexican restaurants of every description – required sheer chutzpah. Yet the Laurenzos invested $2 million, threw a grand opening party attended by 1800 well-wishers from around the state, and gave the wheel of fortune its most ambitious spin to date.

For Tommy, just 20, the San Antonio endeavor showed that the company had gone big time. “This is really something,” he thought. “This is crazy!” He recalled a family friend urging the Laurenzos to put a lid on growth. Get yourselves one restaurant apiece, he counseled. Otherwise you’ll have too many headaches, there’ll be too much bickering and fighting. With this fifth Ninfas, Tommy thought, there should be plenty to go around. But here was Roland planning a foray into Dallas in just a year.

Sure enough, 1980 saw the addition of five more Ninfas, three of which are in Dallas (on Greenville Avenue, Inwood Road, and Quorum Road in Addison). Jack, who had personally served hundreds of Dallasites at the original location alone, calculated that Ninfas had already developed a following here. Within three months the family opened three Dallas restaurants with a combined seating capacity of 800. To ensure consistency in their food and service, they staffed the new restaurants with only trained and experienced employees.

In that one year Ninfas doubled in size. To accompany this growth Sachnowitz created Ninfas’ first television advertising campaign. The theme came to him one evening while introducing an out-of-town visitor to Ninfas. Sachnowitz asked his friend if he’d ever tasted any Mexican food like this before. No, the friend responded, he’d never tasted anything like this. A slogan was born.

For the TV spots, Sachnowitz wanted Ninfa herself to stand before the cameras, not only so the audience would identify the company with a personality, but because Ninfa, he believed, expressed herself as a warm, trustworthy, maternal restaurateur better than any actress could.

On camera, Ninfa was a natural. She impressed the members of the production crew as a “live wire” who projected her personality like mad. When the spots were marketed before a group of schoolchildren, the kids said the woman on the screen looked “kind,” “generous,” and “happy.” They also said Ninfa looked and sounded like their idea of what a mother should be. Indeed, the mother image is a large part of Ninfa’s public persona, and one that she takes very seriously. “Even on the street, people call me ’Mama Ninfa, Mama Ninfa,’ ” she says. “I don’t feel offended by that. It’s a great honor to be called Mother. Mother is something very sacred.”

And qué madre! The Ninfas matriarchy is a formidable thing, including not only Ninfa’s natural children, but friends and relatives by marriage, not to mention the 1600-plus employees.

Virtually every twig of Ninfas’ organizational tree is inhabited by yet another cousin, in-law, or family friend. The vice-president for planning and quality control, for instance, is Lee Kelleher, a buddy of Roland’s from the Naval Academy. Froilan Hernandez, a childhood friend of Roland’s (who is nicknamed Froggy), once headed the training program and now supervises the quality assurance department. He is practically a brother to the Laurenzo kids. Froggy’s younger brother, Roland Hernandez, is the general manager of the original location. Richard and Mary Santos have worked for the Laurenzos since the tortilla factory days.

To Ninfa Laurenzo it makes sense to employ relatives and friends in an organization that she hopes will expand rapidly while retaining its family-operated flavor. Inevitably a time will come when there are more Ninfas restaurants than there are Laurenzos, even counting cousins by marriage, so the family has made an all-out effort to train and treat every employee as if he or she were a valued member of this great extended family. To Ninfa, even the busboys are her adopted sons-they wear the same guayabera shirts and the same prominently displayed name tags as the waiters. Salaries are consistently above the industry average, and everyone on the payroll takes part in the company’s profit-sharing plan. Employees speak of a feeling of belonging, and indeed Ninfas’ turnover rate is significantly below the industry norm. Since a large share of those applying for kitchen jobs at Ninfas are undocumented aliens, the company retains a lawyer to help them obtain immigration green cards-yet another instance of maternal protectiveness.

Awarding jobs to friends and relatives could have its dangers, of course, particularly if a position is filled by a family member who lacks the necessary background, training, or capability for the task. So far, Ninfas seems to have avoided this problem. Everyone in a position of responsibility has invariably worked his or her way up through the ranks, and has learned the job from the bottom up. Some of the company’s general managers, now earning as much as $37,000, started as waiters a few years ago.

Roland, who determines who will work where and in what capacity, insists that his decisions are based on performance, family members or no. He recalls his brother Jack’s stint as purchasing director; when Jack lost interest in his work and it began to show, Roland called him on the carpet and offered to put him back in the field again as manager of the original location, where Roland felt Jack’s strengths would be better utilized. And who is Roland accountable to? Solamente Ninfa.

ON FEBRUARY I8 OF THIS year, there was a corporate board meeting-a noteworthy one because, for the first time, non-Laurenzos were included. As part of its expansion program the family elected four members to the board: chief financial officer Leon Ster-ret, corporate attorney Albert Weycer, vice-president for planning and quality assurance Lee Kelleher, and MESBIC Financial Corporation of Dallas president Walter Durham.

MESBIC is an acronym for Minority Enterprise Small Business Investment Company, which is essentially a venture capital firm owned by a group of banks and major corporations. There are currently 100 MESBICs throughout the country, but Dallas’ (created in 1970), is the oldest. Last fall it invested $400,000 in Ninfas, its largest investment in a single company to date. Of that sum, $350,000 was a 10-year debenture that could be later converted to stock, and $50,000 was an outright purchase of 1 per cent of Ninfas corporate stock, making MESBIC the first holder of Ninfas stock outside the immediate family.

Roland had sought the money as equity to obtain a $1.5 million line of credit to implement expansion plans in the Dallas/ Fort Worth area. MESBIC president Durham serves as a director on several major bank and corporate boards, but he says he has never been so impressed with the way a board meeting was conducted as he was when he joined the Laurenzos for their February 18 meeting. Earlier, when only Ninfa, Roland, Jack, Phyllis, and Tommy attended, the quarterly meetings resembled a formalized dinner table conversation. Regardless, the family adhered to Robert’s Rules of Order, and Phyllis took minutes. They distributed and followed an agenda, complete with old and new business. They made and seconded motions, opened the floor to discussion, and voted on each issue as it arose. When Tommy turned 18 and attended his first board meeting, he remembered thinking that it all seemed like a game to him. He got a kick, though, knowing that none of his high school classmates sat on corporate boards.

Discussions in the early days typically focused on the topic of growth-should we or shouldn’t we? Now it was no longer an issue. The question was not why, but when and where.

Now that the Laurenzos have decided to conquer the Southern California Mexican restaurant market, they will have to make the risky move work. Spoiled by their ready-made clientele in Texas, they have to engineer a new marketing strategy. They will be strangers in a strange land.

Not only is the name Ninfas obscure, but because of regional differences in Mexican food, concessions will have to be made in the menu. Californians’ tastes for cream sauces, red and green sauces, cheese sauces, and lots of pimientos and chopped black olives will have to be considered. Still the Laurenzos think they can beat the Californians at their own game.

HOW FAR CAN NINFAS grow and still maintain its surprisingly high standards? So far, Ninfa has resisted selling out to any of the major conglomerates that have approached her; she believes that her family’s management principles would be compromised. Ninfa had a bad experience in this regard several years ago when the family entered into a partnership operating a Mexican fast-food restaurant called Diego’s. The Laurenzos provided the food and expertise, their partners provided the financing, and Larry Sachnowitz provided the slogan: “Say Adios to Hamburgers!” In its first month, Diego’s was successful and another was in the works. But the operation ran into a snag when Roland began to recognize that there was a clash in the management philosophies. The Laurenzos espoused a management style that encourages employees to control and motivate themselves. Their Diego’s partners were more autocratic. With no compromise in sight, the Laurenzos sold back their share of the corporation, and Diego’s went under soon after. The family has not entered into a joint venture since. Even when they launch Ninfas Hotels and Ninfas Frozen Foods, as they plan to do in the mid-Eighties, they say that it will be entirely on their own.

Not all Ninfas predecessors followed that approach. In 1940, five Mexican brothers named Cuellar opened a restaurant in Dallas called El Chico, the first step in the development of a Mexican restaurant chain that today extends to 11 states and includes more than 100 outlets. By 1977, the Cuellar brothers were getting old, so they sold the company to Campbell Taggart, a bread and frozen-dough manufacturer. One of the brothers later told Ninfa that he had never been so sorry in his life. It took everything away from them, he said. Yes, they got the money, but what was money?

Under the new management it all became numbers. Gone were the personalities that gave the family business its flair and distinction.

Could this happen to Ninfas? More than a few Texans think it already has. It has become almost as fashionable to put the restaurant down as it once was to crowd into its tiny original location. Detractors cluck over those tepid enchiladas verdes they had last time out, or over a lack of palpable family presence at new locations. Still, it seems premature to write off an organization that – in the midst of pell-mell expansion – keeps right on cooking its own fresh tomatoes for its red salsa, and persists in making its flour tortillas by hand.

Houstonians nostalgic for the old days can still repair to Navigation Boulevard, which sports its original Rio Grande Food Products sign and that good old jerry-built ambience. None of the angles is exactly flush, the exposed air-conditioning ducts are tatty with electrician’s tape, and an amiable maitre d’ named Mauricio is on hand to cajole friends and interested parties to try special treats (“We just got in some oysters,” he murmers significantly, “and we’re serving them with a butter sauce”). The fond customer is lulled, only to be jolted back to mercantile reality by the Ninfas T-shirts, Ninfas gimme caps, and Ninfas gift certificates at the cash register, perhaps a faint foreshadowing of The Fall, an adumbration of Paradise Lost.

And perhaps not.

It’s easy to wonder why the Laurenzo family feels compelled to push its enterprise to the limit. Acquisitiveness has nothing to do with it: None of the family lives lavishly, and Ninfa might not have even her prized Cadillac if her kids hadn’t finally surprised her with it in honor of the San Antonio opening. What it does involve is an impulse of old-fashioned entre-preneurship, a drive to achieve.

Not only are the Laurenzos demons for work, they manifestly love what they’re doing. The family’s new-found prestige in the community fuels that drive, and the clout that could come with operating what may turn out to be the biggest and best chain of Mexican restaurants in the country must be enticing to a clan so respectful of respect.

“So many people say, ’Why can’t you stop? You’ve got enough restaurants,’” says Ninfa. “But I think once you have a mechanism going that is successful, once you have a concept you feel you can take all over the nation and be respected, why not open more operations when you can open up more jobs?”

This open-handed spirit extends to those who helped put her on the map. “God has been good to me,” says Ninfa, “and I couldn’t sleep at night if I didn’t share my good fortune with the people who helped me get where I am today.”

The tantalizing question, of course, is whether Ninfas can outlive Ninfa. Roland may make the day-to-day corporate decisions, but Ninfa is the symbol-the glue that holds the whole thing together, the presence that ensures harmony among the brood.

Will the rest of the family be content to see Roland emerge as emperor, or will there be a splintering effect, an impulse to sell out to a conglomerate? For those inclined to speculation, it’s more immediately rewarding (not to mention more cheerful) to consider just how much the quality of life will be improved in New York, London, or Peoria when there are some decent tacos al carbon around.

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