Women is...: Restaurateur "Mama" Ninfa Laurenzo

Restaurateur "Mama" Ninfa Laurenzo

profession: Founder & chair of the Board of Ninfa's Mexican Restaurants -- "An institution in Houston."

company's annual revenue: Around $75 million.

the basic story: Started with one small taco stand at the age of 49. Turned it into a 51-restaurant, diversified chain.

born: May 11, 1924 in Harlingen, Texas. (That's in the Rio Grande Valley, partner). She was the fifth of six children.

education: "Most of my education has been life. It taught me a lot of things. It was a different world. We were taught to cook in the house. I think most women weren't aware of careers back then."
beginnings: Humble ones, indeed. She and her husband, an Italian-American named Tommy Laurenzo, opened a pizza and tortilla plant in Houston in 1948. "We were making the bread of our peoples." When Tommy suddenly died in 1949, Mama Ninfa was left struggling to make ends meet for herself and her five children. As a last resort, in 1973 she mortgaged her home and borrowed $5,000 from family and friends to open a small restaurant in the factory where she'd made tortillas.

the way up: The whole familia worked in the first restaurant, even the kids. It was a tiny place in an industrial area with only ten tables. But as word of her good and friendly service spread, her business took off. "We worked really hard at making it wonderful. We put a lot of love into our cooking, and before you knew it, we had lines out the door."

today: There are 23 restaurants and 14 other licensees in Florida, Louisiana and Georgia. Another licensee is in the process of opening the first Mexican restaurant in Leipzig, Germany - - featuring a chef trained by Mama herself. Her eldest son is the president of Mama Ninfa's holding company, RioStar Corp., which also owns several cafes, fast food joints and one Lonesome Steer steak house.
claim to fame: One of the largest Hispanic-owned businesses in the United States. Also alleges to have first introduced fajitas into the popular palate. "At first we called them Tacos a la Ninfa."

key to success: "Quality and family. Everybody is involved."

why everyone calls her "Mama:" "I would say it's the charisma we create in our restaurants. We're cooking with love. As we adopted more and more employees that became an extension of my family, everybody began to call me Mama. Now the whole city does."

how things would be different if she were a man: "There wouldn't be a Ninfa's, because you can't find a man with that name... There are women who have the determination and the guts to go out there and make it happen. I started with $16 in my pocket. I'd sell food and with the money I made I'd send the kids out to buy more food. It was a wonderful way of keeping my family together and making a lot of people happy."
favorite meal: Tacos a la Ninfa, tambien. "They're very good. We cater to the masses, but we're also very conscious of health. So if you want to go crazy and want to have fajitas a couple of times a week, you can." (Why thank you, don't mind if we do).

best present ever: "That would be my only daughter, born on Dec. 13, 1953. I would say that was a great Christmas present."

what to tell your daughters: "If you make a plan, you have to follow through. That's the advice I would give. Make up your mind and go for it. I have."

if she weren't a restaurateur: "I know that I'd be running some kind of business. I was oriented to not be dependent on someone else."

household: "I live alone in Houston with a housekeeper who is a very old friend. I never remarried, but I've stayed very busy, and I have 19 grandchildren who are always over."

car: A Lincoln Town Car. "I like a big car, because I'm kind of a big woman."