Interview By Lisa Fain
If you’re a Texan, chances are you grew up pushing a tray down the line at Luby’s Cafeteria (watch those fingers!). Whether you ordered a LuAnn platter with fried fish and green beans or a full plate with liver and onions and a side of mashed potatoes drenched in cream gravy, the appeal of Luby’s was that there was something for everyone. But beyond being a reliable spot to eat a comforting meal, this Texas institution also boasts a rich, colorful and tragic history.
In their book, House of Plenty: The Rise, Fall, and Revival of Luby’s Cafeteria, Carol Dawson and Carol Johnston (daughter of Luby’s co-founder Charles Johnston) serve up the full drama of Luby’s—its founders, its unique business practices, its family squabbles and, of course, its food. Carol Dawson recently spoke with Lisa Fain about how the beloved cafeteria chain lost its way, only to find it again, new and improved...albeit sans the famous tea ladies.
Lisa Fain: As a novelist, why were you inspired to write this book?
Carol Dawson: I was approached by my co-author Carol Johnston via another writer friend. I started thinking about it, and the fact that I had grown up eating at Luby’s, my father who is 92 had grown up eating at Luby’s, everybody I knew in Texas had grown up eating at Luby’s, and I thought, oh, my God! Luby’s is really a paradigm for 100 years of middle America!
I started researching Killeen and the mass shooting there, and looking at the Luby’s business model and how unusual it was. I realized that I was looking at the same kinds of patterns that manifest when one writes a novel, but here they were in real life and that was exciting to me. How much does life really imitate art?
LF: In the book, the food history of Luby’s is truly intriguing, but one of the biggest surprises is the unusual business history.
CD: Oh yeah, that is what fascinated me. Luby’s, which had revenue second only to McDonald’s in the 1980s, was a company based on integrity and good values, and when all that went away, the company fell apart. I see that as an illustration and an object lesson in just how karmic things can be. One really has to pay attention to that stuff and not get greedy.
LF: The Pappas brothers [owners of Pappasito’s, Pappadeaux, etc.] now run Luby’s. Do you think that they’ve been good stewards of the brand?
CD: I think that they have been far better stewards than certainly a lot of people in the Luby’s organization ever expected them to be. The board of directors really wanted them to take it over. When the Pappas brothers were buying up stock, they were asked to please come run Luby’s. They were very successful restaurateurs, and they are very hands-on guys in the food business.
LF: Have they made changes?
CD: They’ve improved the menu a lot. It’s really a good place to eat, especially compared to the time when Barry Parker was running it [in the late 1990s]. Everything went to hell and the food quality was reduced to pap. But once the Pappas took over, they did a wonderful job of improving the menu. They’ve made a few other alterations that some people don’t particularly like. For instance, while they are not exactly wait staff, there are people who come to your table. They don’t have tea ladies anymore.
LF: Oh really?
CD: The tea lady is gone! But they have people who offer to take care of you. They’re the equivalent of tea ladies, but you’re sort of expected to tip them. When they first instituted the change, there were little cards on the table that said: Now you will have a server who is there to help you out and if you would like to give a gratuity for this person, please feel free to do so.
LF: We can imagine the uproar that caused.
CD: Everybody just said, Nah!
LF: What do you order when you go to Luby’s?
CD: These days all of the vegetables are wonderfully fresh. I frequently get the tilapia. The jalapeño corn bread I love. But the thing that is a mainstay, and will always be a mainstay, and has been there forever, and I absolutely love it, whether it calls to my childhood roots or what I don’t know: the green congealed salad. I have to have it. And, of course, the secret ingredient is a tiny trace of horseradish—that’s what gives it a kick. And it was only when writing this book that I was privy to that information. I eat the green congealed salad as my dessert.
LF: Have you ever tried to make the green congealed at home?
CD: No, I eat it there. I clean my plate!