Biographical / Historical
In 1969, Ninfa’s husband died suddenly, and she was left to raise five children. Ninfa mortgaged her house and opened a little taqueria on the site of the tortilla factory. In 1973, she opened a ten-table restaurant, serving her mother’s recipes and adding her own. With money from a friend in Mexico, Ninfa soon opened a second dining room and later pushed out a wall to expand again. Within ten years, the single restaurant expanded into a multi-million dollar business with nine restaurants in Houston and one in Dallas. In 1985, Ninfa employed 800-1000 people and served about two million people per year. Some believe that Ninfa Laurenzo laid the foundation for the Mexican restaurant industry in Houston.
Ninfa’s restaurants were so successful that expansion came fast and led to excessive debt. Restaurants opened too quickly and without reliable store managers. In 1985, Ninfa, USA became a subsidiary of McFaddin, which employed her sons as executives. Ninfa remained with Ninfa’s Inc. That arrangement did not last. By 1997, an Austin restaurant chain bought the company to pull it out of bankruptcy.
With her success, Ninfa gave back to the community with nonprofit service. She served on the boards of the Gulf Coast Regional Blood Center, Houston Community College System, Houston Metropolitan Transit Authority and Houston Hispanic Forum. She received many rewards as well, the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce’s Business Recognition Award, for example. In 1984, Vice-President George Bush appointed Ninfa to be one of five goodwill ambassadors to welcome Pope John Paul II to Puerto Rico. In 1996, Ninfa Laurenzo was named one of eight Legends of Texas along with Walter Cronkite and Barbara Jordan, for their impact on Texas and their local communities. Ninfa was inducted into the Texas Women’s Hall of Fame in 1998, and Theater under the Stars made her life into a musical.
Ninfa Laurenzo represented her community politically as well. In 1988, Ninfa seconded George H. W. Bush’s nomination for president in the Republican Convention in New Orleans. In 1992, Ninfa was co-chair of the hospitality committee for the Republican Convention in Houston where she opened the convention with a speech in both English and Spanish, and she led the delegates in the Pledge of Allegiance.
Through marriage, the Laurenzo family is tied to both the Mandolas and Carrabas. At the opening of a new restaurant, one of Ninfa’s sons, Tom Laurenzo said, “We have a story to tell about a woman who is a great cook and about her family that followed her into the business.” Ninfa Laurenzo died in 2001, but her restaurants and her children’s restaurants continue as landmarks in Houston’s cultural history.