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House of Plenty

[ American Studies ]

House of Plenty

The Rise, Fall, and Revival of Luby's Cafeterias

By Carol Dawson and Carol Johnston

Written with the sweep and drama of a novel, House of Plenty tells the epic story of the rise, fall, and redemption of an iconic American restaurant, one of only five in the Fortune 500.

2006

$21.00$14.07

33% website discount price

Hardcover

6 x 9 | 288 pp. | 48 b&w photos

ISBN: 978-0-292-70656-9

Scarred by the deaths of his mother and sisters and the failure of his father's business, a young man dreamed of making enough money to retire early and retreat into the secure world that his childhood tragedies had torn from him. But Harry Luby refused to be a robber baron. Turning totally against the tide of avaricious capitalism, he determined to make a fortune by doing good. Starting with that unlikely, even naive, ambition in 1911, Harry Luby founded a cafeteria empire that by the 1980s had revenues second only to McDonald's. So successfully did Luby and his heirs satisfy the tastes of America that Luby's became the country's largest cafeteria chain, creating more millionaires per capita among its employees than any other corporation of its size. Even more surprising, the company stayed true to Harry Luby's vision for eight decades, making money by treating its customers and employees exceptionally well.

Written with the sweep and drama of a novel, House of Plenty tells the engrossing story of Luby's founding and phenomenal growth, its long run as America's favorite family restaurant during the post-World War II decades, its financial failure during the greed-driven 1990s when non-family leadership jettisoned the company's proven business model, and its recent struggle back to solvency. Carol Dawson and Carol Johnston draw on insider stories and company records to recapture the forces that propelled the company to its greatest heights, including its unprecedented practices of allowing store managers to keep 40 percent of net profits and issuing stock to all employees, which allowed thousands of Luby's workers to achieve the American dream of honestly earned prosperity. The authors also plumb the depths of the Luby's drama, including a hushed-up theft that split the family for decades; the 1991 mass shooting at the Killeen Luby's, which splattered the company's good name across headlines nationwide; and the rapacious over-expansion that more than doubled the company's size in nine years (1987-1996), pushed it into bankruptcy, and drove president and CEO John Edward Curtis Jr. to violent suicide.

Disproving F. Scott Fitzgerald's adage that "there are no second acts in American lives," House of Plenty tells the epic story of an iconic American institution that has risen, fallen, and found redemption—with no curtain call in sight.

  • Chapter 1. Blood Sacrifice in Texas
  • Chapter 2. Planting Seeds
  • Chapter 3. Growing Season
  • Chapter 4. First Harvest: Portrait of a Budding Magnate
  • Chapter 5. Recruiting New Hands for the Second Crop: The Band Begins to Gather
  • Chapter 6. The $60,000 Incubator
  • Chapter 7. Salad Days
  • Chapter 8. The Worm in the Apple
  • Chapter 9. Cutting the Jell-O
  • Chapter 10. Haddock Almondine and Chicken-Fried Steak
  • Chapter 11. The Worm Gnaws Deeper
  • Chapter 12. Scalloped Squash and Spinach Pudding
  • Chapter 13. Yeast Rolls, Biscuits, and Two Kinds of Cornbread
  • Chapter 14. Cherry Cobbler and Coconut Cream Pie
  • Chapter 15. Deviled Eggs and Stuffed Jalapeños
  • Chapter 16. Hot Coffee, Iced Tea, Pink Lemonade, or Just Plain Water
  • Chapter 17. Condiments on the Side
  • Chapter 18. Dirty Dishes
  • Chapter 19. Over, Fork Over
  • Chapter 20. Leftovers
  • Afterword by Carol Johnston
  • Acknowledgments
  • Sources
  • Index

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The first word that flashed in the senior police officer's mind as he peered with an expert eye at the mess on the far side of the threshold was "homicide."

Dark blood pooled across the room, drenching the carpet. A man dressed in blue pajamas with blue jogging pants pulled up over the bottoms sprawled face down on the floor beside the bed. Next to his left hand, as if released in final surrender, lay a large kitchen knife, its steel blade lacquered crimson, its handle printed by a wet grip.

The man had plainly been dead for some time now. Holes in his throat and neck gaped wide, but no longer bled. That there were several wounds was immediately obvious to the police observers; that the neck and chest of the man had been attacked with a determined savagery was also evident. Other smaller gashes on the body—fourteen in all, revealed when they turned the man over—told of a less drastic if no less painful assault. But of the five big stab wounds in the neck, three were serious enough to have alone proven mortal. And of the total of nineteen cuts, not a single one bore the characteristic marks, locations, and angles of self-defense.

Clearly this had to be the work of a vicious murderer, a person or persons unknown who had plunged the knife into the unresisting victim with such frenzied force that it looked, according to one police officer present, "as if he'd tried to cut his heart out."

Yet other than these fiercely inflicted stab wounds, there was no sign of a struggle. Room 214 of the Motel 6 on Interstate 10 in San Antonio, Texas, remained as tidy and neat as when the maid had last cleaned it. The bedspread still lay undisturbed. Nothing was disheveled, as it would have been had a scuffle of any kind occurred. The lamps and furniture all stood in their normal positions. The luggage rack, closet, and dresser drawers were empty of suitcases or clothes. If anyone else had penetrated this plain, simple second-floor chamber, they had left no clue at all behind.

Yet despite the reflex assumption of murder during these first moments of horrified perception, such a state of forensic purity was not completely unexpected by the police and their accompanying EMS technicians. The caller who had dialed 911 a few minutes after 6:30 a.m. on March 13, 1997, and alerted them to go to the motel had already warned them of the reason for her call: she had awakened at 6:30 to find her husband missing from bed. His bag for the business trip he was scheduled to make in an hour or two was still packed and ready in place. So was his briefcase. But his car was gone. Perplexed that he would have departed without saying good-bye and forgotten to take his important luggage, she had wandered to the kitchen. There she discovered a note addressed to her, carefully planted on her desk. The handwriting was her husband's. His note expressed love for her and for their three children. It also informed her of his whereabouts and requested that she not try to find him, but instead to send an ambulance.

Immediately she picked up the phone.

Later it would be discovered that the dead man, 49-year-old John Edward Curtis Jr., had left his house, driven to the Motel 6, and checked in sometime between 10:00 and 10:30 p.m. the night before. Then he had returned home, written the message for his wife, rejoined her in bed, and left again around 1:00 in the morning to go back to Room 214. There the mystery stalled. There was no sign of abduction. If he had been lured or coerced from his house, all traces of the coercer were now apparently obliterated. The desk clerk was quite certain Curtis had checked in alone, and seemingly of his own volition. Only one conclusion seemed inevitable.

But even as the EMS technician examined Curtis and pronounced him dead a few minutes after 7:00 a.m. on March 13, the police officers continued to stare in baffled disbelief at his body. Surely no one could inflict such protracted and ruthless injury on himself. It was unheard of, this display of wild, furious violence. What burden of guilt, what act of atonement, could such a terrible form of death represent? What buried secrets could possibly prompt this severe a self-punishment?

In the days that followed, their questions would hover unanswered. For the next few weeks, as the autopsy results came in and the last hours of John Curtis's life were painstakingly scrutinized, the enigma of his gory demise would haunt officials and the press as poignantly as it did his loved ones. In particular it would disquiet the board of directors and the 13,000 employees of Luby's Cafeterias, Inc., as well as the many people who had invested in Luby's public stock. The initial buzz of disturbance on Wall Street would increase to a frightened drone. For only two months before, John Curtis had been named president and CEO of the Luby's corporation, the largest cafeteria chain in the nation. And he had committed this grisly act on the eve of his very first board of directors' meeting—literally within a few hours of his ascent to the chair at the end of the table.

The word suicide, derived from the Latin sui for "of oneself" and cide for "murder," is seldom so floridly demonstrated. An overdose of sleeping pills, a poisoning, hanging (the second most common means of suicide in the United States after firearms), a leap from a bridge or building, or even the single shot from a gun muzzle held to the temple or jammed in the mouth do not suggest quite the extremity of malicious abuse and determined annihilation that stabbing does. Even the four-letter arrangement in "stab" evokes a special chill: it sounds like the action it describes. Stylistically, the concept of stabbing can make us far more uneasy than other kinds of assault; there is something primal about it, smacking of an assassin sneaking silently up behind his victim in a night-drenched alley. It is a very intimate, hands-on, human-scale mode of death. Usually, in cases of murder, one or two—perhaps three—thrusts complete the job. With suicide fewer are necessary, or even physically possible, except when the perpetrator has entered a state of shock. In cultures that have traditionally condoned suicide using sharp blades as an indirect type of execution, such as Romans receiving imperial orders to cut their veins, or societies in which a historical niche existed for suicide as an honorable solution to shameful circumstances, such as the Japanese hara-kiri (belly-cutting), or seppuku, the one strong, straightforward slash was considered sufficient to expiate all the victim's sins. According to psychiatrists, stabbing as a method of suicide is, anywhere in the world, extremely rare. The act of self-stabbing implies an unsurpassable hopelessness coupled with ferocity; it is the quintessential self-murder. Even Juliet would have preferred Romeo's poison rather than her final, resigned recourse to his dagger.

So why did John Curtis choose it?

To all who knew him, especially his wife Kathi and his three children—Aimee, twenty-six; Daniel, twenty-five; and Adam, sixteen—Curtis was the most unlikely candidate for suicide that they could think of. The man who had groomed him for the chief executive role at Luby's Cafeterias, Inc., former president and then current chairman of the board Ralph "Pete" Erben, echoed the same sentiment. "He was the last person in the world you'd expect to do such a thing," Erben said later. "Uncharacteristic" was how Erben described Curtis's act to the press, adding, "I don't know if there are adequate superlatives to describe him as a man. Very bright, very conscientious . . . a real sense of dignity." A deeply religious Christian with unpretentious habits, Curtis was devoted to his family, and maintained very close connections with each member. The only items of jewelry he owned were a silver James Avery key chain and a Seiko watch. The community and his Luby's colleagues knew him as a quiet, solid person of intelligence and reserved mien, a model of stability. He had trained as an accountant, earning his degree at Texas Tech University, before taking his first job at Arthur Young and Co. in the 1970s. He then went on to work for Tejas Airlines before joining the Luby's staff in 1979. For the next 18 years he applied himself steadily to his tasks, making his way slowly up the corporate ladder. Everyone who knew him liked him. His days and hours were all predictable and accounted for; he had no secret life, no hidden vices that any later investigation would reveal. Every Sunday he and his family attended services at the Tree of Life Fellowship in New Braunfels, Texas, where he enjoyed a close, confidential friendship with his pastor. Until three years before his death, he and his family lived in a modest home in New Braunfels, and he commuted the thirty miles into San Antonio for work. When he received a substantial pay raise, giving him a six-figure salary, they moved to a small but tasteful house in a gated community in San Antonio. Kathi had known and loved him since the sixth grade.

On announcement of his death, the public's instant assumption was that the condition of the company was to blame for Curtis's decision. The toxicology report from the autopsy showed no drugs or alcohol in his system. The only pharmaceutical product he had been ingesting was an asthma medication called Serevent, made by Glaxo Wellcome, which he had recently started taking twice a day. Data from the clinical trials proved that Glaxo researchers had noted no psychosis or depression induced by the drug. Other than the broken sleep he had occasionally complained of to his wife after his promotion to the position of Luby's president and CEO, Curtis exhibited no signs of depression at all, no changes in his usual demeanor. Only one category of comment, made both to Kathi Curtis and to Pete Erben, indicated unease of any sort, and in corporate terms it certainly didn't seem to be of a nature to pressure someone into suicide: Curtis had felt troubled by two recent closures of Luby's stores, and the futures of the now unemployed personnel. Naturally, therefore, the first concern was: what would the corporate books divulge? Was there a nasty surprise pending exposure at the Board meeting that Curtis had just dodged by taking his own life? Why else would he resort to such a bizarre and extravagant avoidance technique?

The answers to all these questions are not simple. The fact that Curtis was not about to announce a loss at the meeting, but rather a small but decent gain in earnings, and that the company seemed to be in fine fiscal health, considering its recent expenditures, only served to render his suicide all the more opaque.

But the answers do, in all probability, lie within the context of the company for which he had so lately assumed responsibility. To find them, and understand them in all their moral weight and complexity, one must go back through the long history of an ideal American business to its beginnings, and probe the legacy that Curtis had shouldered for such a brief span of time. One certainty will emerge in the following chapters: the death of John Curtis, like two other important events in the history of Luby's Cafeterias, Inc., that preceded it, was bound up with the structure, personalities, and traditions of Luby's. All three events marked crucial changes, not only at Luby's, but in American society at large. And all three signified a particular, and universal, "tipping point."

***

Like many of its kind, this archetypal American story would seem, on the surface, to start as a straightforward tale—wholesome, and ripe with optimistic struggle that yields triumphant returns. But under the surface it is wrought with all the most riveting dramas and inner complexities of the human condition. And it so happens that the story's pattern, in many ways, duplicates the pattern, in miniature, of our country's history for the last century.

This is because Luby's has always been more than just a business. It has proven itself to be the incarnation of a unique product, one for which our country is so famous that during the past seventy-five years its title has become a catchphrase all over the globe. Numerous books have been written to promote and/or dissect this product. One television network evening news program recently devoted an entire year to the analysis of its substance. But the product is not an artifact of any manufacturing industry, or engineering know-how, or crop cultivation. Instead, its name unites two ephemeral concepts into a shape so apparently solid that nowadays it is taken for granted as a natural resource. The product in question is, of course, the American Dream. And Luby's Cafeterias, Inc., the earliest real cafeteria chain to be established in the United States, is one of its physical manifestations.

For a company—any company—to become the very essence of an idea is a rarity. For that idea to be so sweeping and fundamental presents a staggering challenge. No other country in the world has such a commensurate dream attached to its national identity; there cannot be said to exist an Irish Dream, or a German Dream, or an Indian or Japanese or Iranian Dream, or any other dream at all with the same magical furnishings of hope and plenitude as ours. The Old World long ago gave up on self-reinvention and the possibility of riches from nothing but hard work, fortitude, ambition, and vision that so fervently grips our civic imaginations. More often than not, immigrants have come to America because this is the only place left where we all can choose to make our own luck.

According to interpreters as disparate as Dan Rather, Martin Luther King Jr., and Edward Albee, the American Dream is centered within the words written by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence: that "all men are created equal," and therefore equally deserving of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." For James Truslow Adams, the man who first coined the term in his 1931 book, The Epic of America, "The American Dream" is "that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement. . . . It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position." Freedom of opportunity—all types of opportunity—seems to be the keynote.

And over and over, our hopes have been justified. Our Dream has borne fruit. We've seen it played out countless times, seen it embodied in the very concrete forms that hold us fixated upon it, that keep us, and those millions of immigrants, dreaming it. From religious sects persecuted in other countries to Microsoft, from the Enron Corporation executives to Andrew Carnegie, from ghetto delinquents turned state legislators to illiterates turned bestselling cookbook writers—all are living proofs that a belief can be as real as a material entity, even if it is later abused. But for most Americans today, such people's stories almost always share one common denominator that towers over all others: money.

Not that making a fortune is the only endpoint. That dream can be found anywhere in the world. No: the American version is far more complex. For within it lie embedded certain values that have grown to be inextricable from its framework—specifically, those Judeo-Christian virtues upon which we've always based the visions of our better selves, the people we strive to be. Integrity, generosity, charity, equality, fairness, service to one's fellows and to the larger community: these are intrinsic to the Dream's armature. Most importantly, the Dream lies within the reach of everyone. In theory, according to the national mythos, anyone can own it; anyone can achieve it. The quest for it is a constitutional right, an entitlement upon which we are nurtured from birth.

And what public institution expresses the heart of the Dream as well as a cafeteria? No mythical street paved with gold could compete with the immediacy of good, hot food displayed in profusion, ready for harvesting onto your very own tray at a cheap price. It is the "equalizing" place where rich and poor alike can go for a casual, satisfying meal. Based on all the above definitions, it can truly be said that Luby's Cafeterias, Inc., has for ninety-five years not only represented the American Dream. It has been the American Dream. A Dream come to life, a microcosm of Middle America, complete with the goodness, strong characters, fine relationships, sense of family connection, and ensuing wealth and prosperity for its founders and personnel that all human beings crave. And of course, the darkness that every dream, no matter how noble, also contains—the corruptions and nightmare moments, the terrors and evils that are invariably part of a national history, and that make any dream a fully rounded reality.

This microcosmic view includes the lives of multiple generations of men, women, and children who have worked at Luby's, eaten at Luby's, literally grown up within its walls, and in more than two dozen cases, died violent, tragic deaths there. For, among these last, the suicide of John Curtis is merely the most recent.

Carol Dawson is a writer in Austin, Texas. She is the author of the novels The Mother-in-Law Diaries, Meeting the Minotaur, Body of Knowledge, and The Waking Spell. She has also written for Texas Monthly, Southern Living, Oxford American, and a number of other publications.

Carol Johnston is the only granddaughter of Lola Luby Johnston and the only child of Luby's cofounder and corporate executive Charles R. Johnston and Gertrude Johnston. Carol grew up in the cafeteria business. Today, she is a professional designer in San Antonio, Texas.

"Intrigue, mystery, and strategy—all in a historical profile of Luby's Cafeterias. This is a book about an institution we all knew as home—never thinking that the foundation was a business plan destined to work for fifty years. What went wrong? Read on! A 'must' for business schools everywhere, and a fun read for everyone."
—Jon Brumley, Forbes Entrepreneur of the Year, Cofounder and Chairman of the Board of Encore Acquisitions Company

"House of Plenty is a great tale.... It will be of great interest not only to the public, but also to students of American culture. I literally do not know of a book that deals in any major way with the history or culture of the cafeteria... a subject of great social and cultural importance."
—Robert Abzug, Oliver H. Radkey Regents Professor in History, University of Texas at Austin

"Who knew that the key to American success and salvation could be found on the cafeteria line? Only Carol Dawson. In crystalline prose, she tells a morality tale that is both as compulsively readable as a mystery novel and as illuminating about the American psyche as anything published in recent years. The death Dawson ultimately investigates is business ethics with a body of evidence that is utterly fascinating and utterly convincing."
—Sarah Bird, author of The Flamenco Academy, The Yokota Officers Club, Virgin of the Rodeo, The Mommy Club, The Boyfriend School, and Alamo House

2007 Violet Crown Award
Writers League of Texas

2009 Citation, San Antonio Conservation Society

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