María Ninfa Rodríguez Laurenzo, founder of Ninfa’s Restaurants, daughter of Esteban Rodríguez and Maura Chapa Rodríguez, was born in Harlingen, Texas, on May 11, 1924. Her father, a political refugee, arrived in South Texas in 1911 and opened one of the earliest ice plants in the Rio Grande Valley as well as a hotel. He became a plumbing contractor and owned a small farm. Ninfa had six brothers and five sisters, including a twin, Pilar.
She graduated from Henrietta High School in Kingsville and Durhan Business School in Harlingen in the 1940s. While visiting her newly-married twin Pilar in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1945, she met Domenic Thomas Laurenzo (Tommy), a Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduate of Italian descent. The two married in September 1946 and had their first child, Roland, in 1947. The following year the family moved to Houston after flipping a coin to choose between the Bayou City and Los Angeles.
In 1949 the Laurenzos opened Rio Grande Food Products Company out of a rented building in eastern Houston. Combining Ninfa’s and Tommy’s heritage, the company supplied tortillas and pizza dough to restaurants. By the 1960s the company was a success, and its offerings had also expanded to tamales and frozen pizza. In 1969 Tommy died from a cerebral hemorrhage, and Ninfa struggled to keep the company open. In 1973 she converted the front of the factory into a ten-table restaurant—Ninfa’s—serving high quality Mexican food. She provided good service and greeted patrons warmly, which earned her the nickname “Mama Ninfa.” The restaurant quickly became popular, and she closed the tortilla factory part of the facility to expand accommodations for the restaurant. In 1976 Laurenzo opened a second restaurant on Westheimer. By 1980 Laurenzo and her family owned thirteen Ninfa’s, including one eatery in San Antonio and four in Dallas. By this time, Ninfa’s in Houston had garnered a national reputation and was often frequented by movie stars and politicians. Laurenzo has been credited with popularizing her menu item tacos al carbón (chargrilled beef in a soft tortilla), also known as fajitas. Eventually, Ninfa’s expanded to more than fifty locations in multiple cities.
Beginning in 1987 she and her children, who assisted in the management of the company, expanded from Mexican restaurants with Bambolino’s Italian Drive-Thru and Joey Jack’s Seafood, neither as popular as Ninfa’s. Overexpansion took its toll, and the Laurenzo family had more than $2.8 million in debt by 1996, when the family company RioStar Corporation declared bankruptcy. In 1998 the restaurants moved out of Laurenzo ownership. In the agreements reached during the change of ownership, Ninfa Laurenzo received a monthly stipend from the new owners, Serranos Café and Cantina out of Austin, in exchange for serving as the restaurant’s public persona. She retired shortly thereafter.
In addition to her business work, Ninfa Laurenzo participated in multiple civic and political endeavors. She actively worked in Houston’s Mexican-American community and supported efforts to increase educational quality, health, voter participation, and employment opportunities. One of Ninfa’s regular customers, George H. W. Bush, encouraged her participation in the Republican Party, and in 1988 she gave a speech seconding Bush’s nomination as president at the Republican National Convention. She led the Pledge of Allegiance to open the Republican National Convention in Houston in 1992. A devout Roman Catholic, Laurenzo received the honor of acting as one of five goodwill ambassadors who welcomed Pope John Paul II during his visit to Puerto Rico in 1984.
Laurenzo received numerous awards and recognitions for her business success and her volunteer work. In 1979 the National Hispanic Chamber of Commerce named her “Business Woman of the Year,” and the Texas Restaurant Association honored her as “Woman Restaurateur of the Year.” She also received the Arthritis Foundation’s Humanitarian Award and the Roundtable for Women in Foodservice’s Pacesetter Award. She served on many boards and charity organizations, including the Houston Hispanic Forum, Houston Metro Authority, University Cancer Foundation–M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, and John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. In 1982 Theater Under the Stars created a musical about her life, and in 1988 she was inducted into the Texas Women’s Hall of Fame.
Tommy and Ninfa Laurenzo had five children: Roland, Jack, Phyllis, Tom, and Gino. Ninfa Laurenzo died of bone cancer at her home in Houston on June 17, 2001. She was buried in Forest Park Cemetery in Houston.