To say that the Laurenzo family is a part of Houston's flavor is an understatement, as they have been serving up Mexican cuisine for decades. And their story is one of a comeback.
The Laurenzo name is a prominent Houston name with deep roots in the East End. Their livelihood began as a tortilla factory and blossomed into a national brand of restaurants, mostly named Ninfa's after the charismatic matriarch of the family.
"She was somebody very special that everybody remembers. She was an icon really," said Roland Laurenzo, Ninfa's son and current owner of El Tiempo restaurants.
Dominic and Ninfa Laurenzo came to Houston's East End in 1949 and opened up a tortilla factory. Dominic passed away in 1969, but the mother and her five children pressed on, opening Ninfa's in 1973 while living next door on Navigation. It would be the first of many restaurants over the next couple of decades.
"Oh it took 25 years, but basically we opened over 70 restaurants, different names, but most of them where Ninfa's," Roland said.
Enjoying success, the Laurenzo family would be tested. In 1998, their restaurant empire was lost. After growing so quickly, bankruptcy forced them to sell it all.
"It was extremely difficult and it was very stressful. And it's just like losing your history, so it hurt a lot," Roland said.
Down but not out, the loss only galvanized the family, including younger generations. Ninfa's grandson was 26 at the time. A professional golfer, Dominic Laurenzo would feel a bigger calling.
"My eyes opened up and I quit golf and I decided, you know what I want to focus on what my family had built over the years and learn it. And that's when I started learning it from the ground up," Dominic said.
After selling, Roland Laurenzo and his son opened a small burger shop, while masterminding a comeback. The new concept just needed a name and was revealed while Roland was in Mexico, catching up with family.
"It was then that his cousin, Antonio told him no, in Spanish he said, 'Ponle El Tiempo,' call it El Tiempo. And almost instantaneously my dad knew that was the name," Dominic said.
Many of the designs from a year and a half tour of Mexico, where Dominic traveled to 24 Mexican states, studying Mexican architecture and cuisine.
During his travels he was also drawn to the Selocia, a kind of see-through partition.
"I wanted to create a kind of semiprivate divider between the bar and dinning room, but not so closed off to where you can't feel the energy between both sides," Dominic said.
With success taking place literally next door to where it all began name, the name El Tiempo carries on in meaning.
"It meant coming full circle, from having started with my grandmother in 1973 and then rising to the level of fame that she had risen too, and all the success, to going down hill and starting over. And here we are, 17 years later back on top," Dominic said.
In 2001, Ninfa Laurenzo died of cancer at age 77, but the new line of restaurants continue. There are five El Tiempos, with two more on the way. There is also a Laurenzo's Prime Rib and an El Tiempo Market on Washington.
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