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A Hot Tex-Mess: An El Tiempo Lawsuit Pits Laurenzo Clan Against Liquid Gold Hospitality

A nasty battle over the right to serve tacos, enchiladas and the fajitas that made one family famous.

El Tiempo Cantina in Webster
El Tiempo Cantina in Webster
El Tiempo Cantina

One of Houston's first families of Houston food is having quite the week. Roland Laurenzo, son of Ninfa Laurenzo (founded Ninfa's restaurant), was faced with a dilemma earlier this week. El Tiempo 1308 Cantina on Montrose, one of six El Tiempo restaurants he and his family own, would either close or relocate due to the landlord selling the property. Laurenzo chose to relocate in the coming months but is dealing with another hurdle.

Yesterday, Alison Cook at Houston Chronicle reported on a lawsuit centered around El Tiempo in Webster, located at 20237 Gulf Freeway. Expected to open in April, the restaurant has yet to see the light of day. The cause stems from a dispute between Laurezo's Domco and Liquid Gold Hospitality Group. If Liquid Gold Hospitality sounds familiar, the restaurant group was involved in the closing of Kraftsmen Cafe's Scott Tycer's Gravitas in 2012. This time around Liquid Gold Hospitality was sued by Domco for almost $200,000 worth of alleged bounced checks paid to Laurenzo's construction company.

Liquid Gold Hospitality entered into a agreement with Domco to license eighteen El Tiempo restaurants. The contract also required Liquid Gold Hospitality to use the construction company owed by Laurenzo. By June, "El Tiempo withdrew from the contract during the summer... El Tiempo's construction arm had filed liens of more than $700,000 against Liquid Gold in an attempt to recoup costs," notes Cook from the online legal journal Law 360.

Eater Houston was aware of the lawsuit in September and reached out to both parties. At the time, Laurenzo declined to comment, but Jason Felt of Liquid Gold Hospitality Group provided the following initial statement:

The allegations in the lawsuit by Domco are false, mischaracterized and inaccurate. As the court papers filed by Domco show, they already lost their first hearing with the court when they sought an injunction against us.  Liquid Gold Hospitality Group, LLC has a valid and existing license agreement to open and operate restaurants under the El Tiempo Cantina brand. We have acted in good faith towards Domco and simply want to open the restaurants we paid a license fee for. Liquid Gold will be responding to the lawsuit and filing a substantial counterclaim against Domco, Inc., its officers and directors. It is unfortunate that this circumstance exists but Liquid Gold intends to open its restaurants as planned.

After declining our request, Laurenzo provided Cook with a statement and update yesterday, "we are not associated any longer with the Webster site in question at all. Webster was our first and only license ever granted. The licensee stopped paying its bills, which were significant. In short, it defaulted."

Eater Houston reached out to Liquid Gold again, this time reaching their attorney who spoke on his client's behalf. He says the company had an expensive licensing agreement with Domco to open 18 El Tiempo restaurants, plus an agreement to pay royalties. The agreement also required the use of El Tiempo’s construction company. The attorney explained why his clients feel cheated by Domco:

Unfortunately, that company was very unprofessional and sporadic and ran the costs of the Webster location project over budget by more than 500k. Worse, the construction company’s conduct delayed completion with its constant changes and additions. When Liquid Gold complained about it, El Tiempo indicated it had another partner, and wanted out of the license agreement. Apparently, this new "partner" that El Tiempo has found has offered much better terms to El Tiempo and so El Tiempo wants to cut a better deal with a new partner. This new partner is somehow affiliated with [the] law firm that has filed the two lawsuits.

Laurenzo tells the Chronicle that the suit is ongoing and provided the following comment through his publicist:

We have filed a federal lawsuit to get our signage removed, and to resolve many other related matters that are under dispute. There has been no settlement... I am most sorry for the disappointment, inconvenience and confusion to our customers and friends in Clear Lake area.

Liquid Gold Hospitality's lawyers tells Eater Houston that the court ruled against El Tiempo and allowed the construction to continue. Cook observed the El Tiempo sign continues to hang on the unfinished restaurant in Webster and the logo is displayed on Liquid Gold Hospitality's website under a section titled "our concepts." On Laurenzo's end, the Facebook page associated with the restaurant is offline, but the Webster location hasn't been completely scrubbed from the site.

Update: As of late this evening, the Webster location has been erased from El Tiempo's website.