House of Plenty

The manager’s workday began at 7:00 a.m., when he unlocked the door to the cafeteria, and ended often after ten or eleven at night. Throughout the hours in between, he performed a cascade of tasks: the first one was to remove the day’s cash from its secret hiding place, which was often the dried bean can in those early stores, and put it in the cash drawer of the register.

Next he “pulled boxes.” This meant he opened the refrigerators, inspected the big pans and trays of leftovers and fresh inventory from the prior evening’s service, chose from among them the ingredients with which he could whip up an exciting array of dishes.

Then he brewed a pot of coffee, and wrote down the menu while he sipped it. According to Herbert Knight, who became one of the highest profit-earning managers Luby’s ever produced, the creative use of leftovers was key to the success of the cafeteria. Most good managers either possessed or learned this ability, a knowledge they shared then with many careful, frugal housewives across the nation in the forties, fifties, and sixties but one that would now separate them from most managers, as well as the general population. Today, in most restaurant settings, leftover dishes get thrown out when they’re not bought. Loss from waste is a persistent problem. But back then, innovation could make or break a kitchen budget. And the manager’s entrée options were only as limited as his culinary imagination. Roast beef from the night before could be ground, seasoned, and mixed with rice for a savory offering of stuffed bell peppers; the fruit—apples or cherries or peaches—carefully scooped out from yesterday’s now-soggy pie shells could get reused in puddings, cakes, and cobblers; baked fish made excellent croquettes when shredded and mixed with spring onions, spices, and breadcrumbs. As Knight points out, “People don’t know how to do that anymore. Fewer people cook in this [present-day] culture because they eat out; therefore, they lack the ingenuity and skills to incorporate previous dishes into new ones…”

It was also up to the manager to watch the dirty plates coming back into the kitchen. If plates came back from bused tables to the dishwashers’ section with an unfinished portion of a particular recipe—say, baked squash, or a chicken casserole—for three days straight, the manager immediately made a beeline for that pan on the line, and began to investigate why the dish wasn’t pleasing the customers…. The cooking method, the flavors, and the raw materials—all got scrutinized. To expedite this process, every manager carried a special badge of office at all times: his official tasting spoon. He would sample each dish before it appeared in public, rejecting those not up to standards of excellence. The more particular and refined his sense of taste, the more successful the manager proved. The best were never seen without these instruments jutting from a pocket. This is the foundation for the ongoing tradition that a Luby’s manager, who has passed away, is buried with his spoon tucked in his front pocket….

Kitchens cooked up the necessary projected amounts of each dish based on gauging customer preferences and consumption rate. But projections didn’t always hold true. The answer to that problem lay in rejuggling the food counter. If, for instance, there seemed to be an unexpected surplus of beef stew, the manager could put it in an extra-large pan early in the line so that the customer would see it first. If, on the other hand, the kitchen was running out of stew, it was better placed at the line’s end, in a small pan….

The next step in the manager’s morning task roster….was to lay out the foods for the cooks to prepare. Then he would change the water in the steam tables and light the gas burners underneath them. Deliveries of meat, produce, dairy products and dry shipments would by now be arriving at the back door….When the cooks came in, the manager supervised their procedures the same way a head chef would in a gourmet restaurant, making sure each dish for the serving line was meticulously concocted…. If one of the cooks, or indeed any other employee, failed to show up for work, he filled that person’s place—prepping vegetables, kneading yeast dough for rolls, roasting meats, busing tables, washing dishes. Sometimes the day became grueling in its demands before it even properly started, which was why managers’ problem-solving reflexes had to be so quick and their bodies so physically vigorous. For this reason, Bob Luby developed a partiality to hiring former high school and college football players as potential trainees. As he later confided to Herbert Knight, “They can think on their feet.” A whole parade of football veterans recruited for these gifts would eventually become top managers and executives in the organization—Alvin Beal, Harold Day, Vernon Schrader, and Ralph “Pete” Erben, a star of the Baylor University team who would one day reach the ultimate goalpost in the Luby’s administration—that of president and CEO. The early tests for management trainees were therefore typically as strenuous as fall training….Butchering meat and skinning liver were foremost on the list, followed by cleaning grease traps, washing vegetables, making all salads and sauces, baking all breads, cleaning up all surfaces from floors to tables to walls and ceilings, operating and emptying the dishwashers and scouring the toilets. If candidates didn’t like doing these chores, then Bob, Charles, and the other pioneers didn’t want to pay the expenses of their continued training. As Kent Weaver, …the son-in-law of Opal Luby Spaulding and the first head of the Harlingen store, now puts it, “Once you went to the general manager level, it became really obvious whether you had the discipline, intellect and leadership skills to run your own business.”

As the morning progressed toward noon, the staff would get the chance to grab a brief midmorning break. This was always a social time, with radios or even a Victrola momentarily dominating the kitchen floor inside the circle of smokers and idly chatting tea-ladies, busboys and busgirls, cooks, line servers and dishwashers. Managers usually seized the lull to catch up on paperwork, place orders with purveyors, and/or speak with an employee who had some problem, complaint, or needed a reprimand. Then toil recommenced and the kitchen resumed its complicated choreography, which was, as Herbert Knight puts it, like “a circus on concrete; everyone had their own trapeze.” The workers took their proper places, coordinating their distinctive movements with one another in mutual precision, and issuing the loud warning “Behind you!” if someone else got too close. One slip, one person out of position at the wrong moment, or missing altogether, and the whole timing was thrown off.

Once meal serving started, at 11:00 a.m., the manager constantly watched the line and checked its length to make sure the kitchen was corresponding with it…. “If it was pretty long,” George Wenglein explained, “you’d have the cooks fill the grill with steaks and put more baskets of fish into the fryer so you’d have it ready by the time the people got to the counter. The object was….to anticipate demand so that the food was freshly cooked.” The line’s length presented another problem tackled and solved by Luby’s. On Sundays after church, for instance, the line could grow so long that it might trail out the doors and around the block….So, years before Disneyland ever opened to the public, the Luby’s organization invented the double-back line…. If everything ran according to plan, the journey through those full-house Sunday lunch lines would take exactly twenty minutes….Managers also needed to be ready to tally up food tray contents and present the total bill at a moment’s notice as competently as the usual cashier, so the line could keep moving.

One Sunday, a lady fainted dead away at the cashier’s desk in San Antonio right after she had picked her drink to add to her meal. So deft was Henry Jones…., who happened to be manning the register, that he reached out and grabbed her before she could hit the floor and supported her with his left arm, all the while continuing to ring up the oncoming customers’ trays with his right hand—never missing a beat.