no green sauce for you

Lease dispute prompts lockout of bustling Uptown Tex-Mex restaurant

Lease dispute prompts lockout of bustling Uptown Tex-Mex restaurant

Original Ninfa's uptown interior
Ninfa's has been locked out. Photo by Becca Wright

UPDATE (8/28): Ninfa's announced the Uptown location will reopen at 10 am on Saturday, August 29.

UPDATE: This article has been updated with a statement from Whitestone REIT CEO Jim Mastandrea.

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Diners looking to soothe their hurricane anxiety with enchiladas and frozen margaritas will need to look elsewhere than the Uptown location of the Original Ninfa’s. The restaurant has been locked out of its space at the BLVD Place development by its landlord, Houston-based Whitestone REIT.

Niel Morgan, owner of Ninfa’s parent company Legacy Restaurants, said that he thought his negotiations with Whitestone REIT on changes to the restaurant’s lease terms were going well, but employees discovered the lockout when they arrived for their shifts.

“This came as a bit of a shock,” Morgan said in a release. “We have been negotiating in good faith for some time, and Ninfa’s was not requesting any rent forgiveness. On Friday, we were informed that our proposed deferral and payment plan was acceptable subject to resolving one remaining issue, so we believed we were making progress.”

In response to CultureMap's request for comment, Whitestone REIT CEO Jim Mastandrea paints a very different picture, telling CultureMap the restaurant "has not paid rent since March."

"We’ve held extensive discussions with Ninfa’s, however, to date they have declined solutions for a mutually beneficial resolution," Mastandrea continued. "Whitestone REIT has contributed significant investment and resources to Ninfa’s and we have a vested stake in their success. Ninfa’s refusal to make any payment toward rent or property expenses has left us with no choice. It is unfortunate Ninfa’s is not honoring its commitments as we also have responsibilities to our stakeholders, debt holders and shareholders."

A Ninfa's representative confirms the accuracy of Mastandrea's statement but describes the situation as related to ongoing negotiations with the company since the start of the pandemic over specific provisions of a repayment plan and other terms.

Ninfa’s opened its second, Legacy-owned location last year. It features the same menu items as the original location on Navigation Blvd, along with a spacious bar area and a patio that looks onto San Felipe Dr. Other restaurants in the property include North Italia and True Food Kitchen, both of which are owned by the Cheesecake Factory, as well as locally-owned Sozo Sushi. Rise, the Dallas-based souffle restaurant, occupied the location above Ninfa’s until it closed in January

Restaurants across the country are seeking different forms of rent abatement in light of restrictions intended to limit the spread of COVID-19 that have limited them to operating at 50-percent capacity. A recent article on Eater noted the variety of reasons a landlord might or might not be open to negotiations, including its own financial obligations, the property’s desirability, and other factors. 

“I really don’t understand this tactic,” Morgan added. “It’s quite disappointing to see a landlord seek to improve its position instead of sharing the burden during a very difficult time for the restaurant industry.”

For his part, Mastandrea stated he remains opens to resolving the company's issues with Ninfa's, as it has with other tenants. 

"Throughout the pandemic we’ve supported our tenants with payment plans and financial assistance programs while providing visibility to their businesses and arranging for pick up options. This has been a huge undertaking to serve each of our tenants and to support the communities they serve," Mastandrea concluded.