Sports

El Tiempo Cantina’s first season at Houston Astros games in Minute Maid Park a big hit

The Houston-area Tex-Mex restaurant says it expects to sell about 500 gallons of margaritas per home game during the 2022 postseason.

Laurenzos at Minute Maid Park
Rafael Hernandez
From left to right, El Tiempo Cantina owners Domenic and Roland Laurenzo, along with marketing director Rafael Hernandez, tour Minute Maid Park during a Houston Astros game in 2021.

Going to Astros baseball games has long been a popular activity for Houstonians.

So has eating fajitas and drinking margaritas from El Tiempo Cantina, the Tex-Mex restaurant with more than a dozen locations around the Houston area.

The two local institutions teamed up this year, with a pair of El Tiempo concession stands joining the slate of food-and-drink options inside Minute Maid Park. And the partnership has so far been a hit, according to Laurenzo's Restaurant Group marketing director Rafael Hernandez, who said a third El Tiempo stand is opening at the downtown ballpark for the postseason, which started Tuesday afternoon as the Astros hosted the Seattle Mariners for Game 1 of their American League Division Series.

"The success has been crazy. The margarita has been selling like crazy," Hernandez said. "People are just loving it. We're anticipating selling 500 gallons of margaritas per game for the playoffs."

Hernandez said the new concession stand, which will sell tortilla chips and salsa along with margaritas made with Hornitos Reposado Tequila, will be in the concourse behind Section 109, along the third-base line. It joins a similar stand in Section 156, behind right field, as well as the larger El Tiempo concession stand on the mezzanine level, behind center field, where Torchy's Tacos previously operated.

El Tiempo Minute Maid Park Staff
Rafael Hernandez
El Tiempo Cantina employees gather in the outfield seats at Minute Maid Park, where the Houston Tex-Mex restaurant operates concession stands.

The larger stand also sells El Tiempo's secret-recipe margaritas – the only tequila-based margaritas available in the ballpark, according to Hernandez – as well as a broader range of food options from the Tex-Mex staple. The menu includes fajita tacos and nachos, carnitas, chicharrones served with hot sauce as well as their version of ballpark nachos, which are made with marinated outside skirt steak and have proved to be the most popular item, Hernandez said.

Prices of all the El Tiempo items have increased for the playoffs, along with other concession items at Minute Maid Park, according to Hernandez, who said it remains to be seen whether the venture inside the ballpark will be profitable for the Houston restaurant. It shares sales revenue with the Astros and Aramark, the team's primary concessionaire, as part of a five-year agreement, Hernandez said.

But the partnership has been popular with Astros fans and restaurant customers alike while also leading to new opportunities for El Tiempo, a family-run business that spawned from Mama Ninfa Laurenzo's iconic eatery on Navigation Boulevard. Hernandez said El Tiempo now operates two concession stands at NRG Stadium during Houston Texans football games, and the Texas Rangers baseball team invited the company to Arlington to discuss the possibility of El Tiempo stands at the ballpark there, even though there are no restaurant locations outside of Greater Houston.

Because of the success of the margarita made with Hornitos Reposado – the result of a partnership between the Astros and the tequila company – Hernandez said the "Ballpark Margarita" is now offered at all El Tiempo locations. At the stadium on Friday and Saturday nights, the restaurant sold about 200 gallons of the drink per game during the regular season.

"It's opened a bunch of doors," Hernandez said of the partnership.

The El Tiempo offerings have appealed to Astros fans because the company remains a small, family-run business, and also because it has remained true to its recipes and ways of operating, according to Hernandez. He said the margaritas sold inside Minute Maid Park are made with the same recipe and even by the same man – an employee known as Pedrito – who makes batches for all the locations.

El Tiempo Minute Maid Park Priest Blessing
Rafael Hernandez
El Tiempo Cantina brought in a Catholic priest, right, to bless its concession stand at Minute Maid Park before the start of the 2022 season.

Hernandez also said Domenic Laurenzo, one of Ninfa's sons, personally designed the décor of the larger concession stand. El Tiempo brought in a priest to bless it and its employees before the start of the season in April, much like the restaurant does for all its locations.

"Having a priest come and bless the location, it was very significant to us as Mexicans," Hernandez said. "It just felt really nice to see that inside the stadium."

The seed for the partnership between El Tiempo and the Astros was planted last year in an apartment complex close to the stadium, where Hernandez used to reside. One of his neighbors was Christian Duda, a sales and services manager for the Astros, and talking about their respective occupations led to an idea.

Duda told Hernandez the Astros were looking for a restaurant to take over the space occupied by Torchy's and suggested El Tiempo might be a good fit, according to Hernandez, who presented the idea to his boss, Roland Laurenzo.

A year later, El Tiempo is helping the Astros usher in a new postseason.

We've always thought we were part of Houston, but we want the city to keep on embracing us," Hernandez said. "We want to make our mark. We want to be the Tex-Mex restaurant of Houston, of Texas, of the United States.

"The way you do something like this is attach yourself to those brands like the Houston Astros. They're an institution within the community. They are one and we are one. It's just a good fit all the way around."

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