Cowtown Restaurateur Overcomes Regulatory Hurdles

Mama Gina’s restaurant
Mama Gina’s restaurant | Image by Mama Gina's Restaurant & Catering/Facebook

Pesky regulations couldn’t stop a local restaurant owner from opening up her business and becoming a pivotal part of the community.

Cooking the perfect blend of Southern-style comfort can be a tall order for many restaurants. Still, Mama Gina’s in Fort Worth nails it with a high-quality menu, a welcoming environment, and the best blackened catfish, dirty rice, and sweet potato pound cake in town.

Mama Gina’s was opened by Arlington resident Regina Smith in 2021 during the height of the COVID-19 lockdowns. After leaving her career in corporate America to provide rehabilitative care for her husband, Smith’s passion for healthy Southern cooking quickly reignited.

According to Smith, the “Mama Gina’s” brand was created thanks to a spark of inspiration from her daughter’s friend. The friend asked Smith if she would prepare six sweet potato pies for some former clients as a thank-you for doing business together. After receiving another request to cater a birthday party, Smith had found her next calling.

“I decided at that time that God was telling me something,” Smith told The Dallas Express.

Smith decided to rent space in a commercial kitchen to ensure she was doing everything by the book. After a year in the catering business, an opportunity to open a restaurant arose.

“It just kind of fell into my lap,” she said.

Although Smith jumped at the opportunity to expand her business, opening the restaurant was not as straightforward as she thought. Since Smith began her career in corporate America, opening and running a restaurant was an entirely new experience for her. Even with a can-do attitude, she found that there were many unforeseen challenges and regulations by which she had to abide.

“I had never run a restaurant before. So, when I tried to call the city on a couple of occasions to get information about what I needed, I got the runaround,” Smith said, describing the experience as being told that figuring everything out was her “homework.”

Smith realized that steadfast determination was not enough. Getting started meant navigating a regulatory minefield that was at odds with Texas’ business-friendly climate. As previously reported by The Dallas Express, despite the Lone Star State’s pro-business reputation, lawmakers have had to enact legislation to curb some of the regulatory excesses of cities like Dallas and Houston that make it hard to start or maintain a business.

“I thought that because the restaurant already had all of its own commercial kitchen equipment, which belonged to the building’s owner, I could just move right in, start a business, and go to work. Well, it didn’t work out like that,” Smith told DX.

The biggest obstacle in Smith’s way at the time was the city’s 500-gallon grease trap requirement. When Smith moved in, the restaurant space already had a 20-gallon grease trap, which the previous tenant had been allowed to keep.

Ultimately, the city required Smith to install a substantially larger grease trap despite Mama Gina’s only serving healthy, non-fried foods.

After arguing with the city and getting different answers from different bureaucrats, Smith was ready to throw in the towel. However, instead of letting Mama Gina’s go out of business before it even opened, Smith said the building owner agreed to pay $30,000 to install the required grease trap.

According to Smith, the owner agreed to pay for the new grease trap because of her culinary passion and the area’s lack of authentic home cooking.

In the end, Smith said the restaurant was closed for about three weeks while the replacement grease trap was installed.

“They had to dig up the back, break the concrete, put in the grease trap, and all this other stuff. It just turned out it was so much of a hassle,” she said.

Although Smith admits it would have been easier and more cost-effective to stay in the catering business, she told DX that providing for the community and her employees brings a special joy to her heart, making it all worthwhile.

Mama Gina’s, located at 8651 John T. White Rd., is open Tuesday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Saturday from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.

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