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Cafeteria icon Luby’s keeps serving up memories

Rick Melendrez’s first meal at Luby’s was something of a religious experience.

It was a Sunday evening in 1967, and the then-13-year-old altar boy had just secured the chalice and washed the cruets after Mass at St. Mary’s Catholic Church in downtown San Antonio. As he headed out to catch his bus, Father Isidore Garcia invited him to grab some dinner around the block, so the two made the short trek to a cavernous basement cafeteria at 517 N. Presa St., the site of the first Luby’s.

There Melendrez discovered a paradise of piping hot comfort food, all served by smiling waitresses in angel white uniforms. He’d never seen such a beautiful bounty, and he could ask for anything — just like a grown-up. So he savored every morsel, from that first forkful of a square fried fish with a mound of tartar sauce to that last bite of strawberry cheesecake Fr. Garcia treated him with for dessert.

Chances are every Texas child has had a similar tray-sliding rite of passage in the land of the LuAnn platter that has led to regular visits as an adult, whether an extended lunch break with coworkers, a payday dinner with family or a special occasion that calls for a little together time with a lot of down-home cooking.

In the 75 years since Bob Luby opened that first cafeteria in San Antonio at the corner of College and North Presa streets, the brand has become so beloved, its very name and signature dish became an integral part of the hit animated TV series “King of the Hill,” with its cafeteria chain called Luly’s and a main character named Luanne Platter.

Luby’s and its signature LuAnn platter were spoofed on the animated TV series “King of the Hill,” which featured a character named Luanne Platter and a cafeteria chain called Luly’s.

FOX

But beloved doesn’t always mean successful. Luby’s nearly saw the end of the serving line after shareholders voted in late 2020 to dissolve the beleaguered business and liquidate all its assets.

Last year in June, Chicago investor Calvin Gin bought the brand and most of the chain’s remaining locations, all of which are now in Texas, for $28.7 million. Gin said it’s not often that one gets to be part of an iconic brand such as Luby’s and that he fell in love with it just like so many Texans have.

There are 45 locations left, and Gin’s Luby’s Restaurant Corp. now owns 38 of them, including five of the six Luby’s locations in San Antonio. The sixth, located on Main Avenue, is owned by LUB Liquidating Trust, which owns the Luby’s locations Gin’s group doesn’t.

Despite the trust’s name, Gin said there are no more closures planned for San Antonio, and there are no changes planned for its classic menu.

In this 2005 photo, a Luby's server plates a portion of blackened tilapia.  This year marks Luby's 75th anniversary.

In this 2005 photo, a Luby’s server plates a portion of blackened tilapia. This year marks Luby’s 75th anniversary.

SHAUNA BITTLE, STAFF / SAN ANTONIO EXPRESS-NEWS

“The core of the business I want very much to remain the same,” Gin said. “I think there’s something about coming to Luby’s that feels familiar. I think people crave it more than ever, in fact.”

Melendrez, now 68 and living in El Paso, continues to eat at Luby’s as much for the comfort food as the accompanying trip down memory lane.

“Luby’s was so much a part of my childhood,” he said. “Anytime I’m at Luby’s, I am back in time in 1967 at that original Luby’s. And I’ll never forget.”

A time capsule

That menu and its cozy surroundings drew millions during Bob Luby’s lifetime. In the decades after that first Luby’s opened in 1947, the chain greatly expanded. By the mid-1990s, it was in 11 states, and there were around 230 locations, many in shopping malls, when Luby died in 1998.

But the 21st century has been tough on the Texas institution. By 2019, changing dining habits and the decline of malls and in-person retail had reduced Luby’s to fewer than 80 locations.

When Luby’s announced in 2020 that its board had voted to liquidate, San Antonio was down to just nine locations. Three locations have closed since.

Luby's carrot and raisin salad is one of many popular staples at the Texas cafeteria chain.

Luby’s carrot and raisin salad is one of many popular staples at the Texas cafeteria chain.

Luby’s / Luby’s

But even with the company’s turmoil, each remaining Luby’s kitchen marched on, seemingly held outside of time. 1977, 1997, 2017 — it didn’t matter. There was fried fish, pork chops and French-grilled liver and onions with fresh broccoli, mac and cheese and carrot raisin salad on the side. And there was always room for Jell-O or for chocolate ice box pie.

For Christina Orosco and her family, Luby’s has been there for them in bad times as well as good.

Orosco recalls birthday celebrations galore and dining at the Luby’s at Las Palmas Shopping Center on the West Side when it had live music. She remembers how her late father Moses would tell her, “Vamos a Luby’s, hija,” as they headed to his favorite location on Fredericksburg across from Wonderland of the Americas mall.

And she recalls being at the Luby’s on Main Avenue when the family first learned her father was ill. She recalls how the day after her sister de ella died, she took her mother de ella to the Las Palmas location, the scene for so many other happy memories.

Because no matter the changes in her family or in the world around her, for Orosco, Luby’s was always there, constant.

Feels like home

It’s that time-capsule sense of place that Carol Dawson, co-author of the 2006 book “House of Plenty: The Rise, Fall and Revival of Luby’s Cafeterias,” argues is the reason people remain so attached year after year.

“It’s that sense of continuity and interactive community in the midst of a highly changing world. And it’s a place that you can count on,” she said. “If you want to see all the diversity in a community, walk into a Luby’s. Everybody eats at Luby’s.”

And for generation after generation in families all over Texas, those visits to Luby’s become a tradition.

Susan Breidenbach, a retired media director for a San Antonio pharmaceutical manufacturer, recalled how the only present her late mother Mildred wanted during the last decade of her life was Luby’s gift certificates so she could have lunch there with her neighbor and other close friends. For her birthday de ella, Christmas, Mother’s Day or any other gift-giving occasion, it was Luby’s she wanted until she died in 1992.

A couple of days after her mom’s funeral, Breidenbach found an envelope full of her unused gift certificates. So she took around 10 friends and family members to Luby’s for a meal “on Mindy” to laugh, to tell stories and to toast her memory of her.

“She paid for our gathering, and we raised our glasses to her,” Breidenbach said.

Now Breidenbach has her own Luby’s lunch tradition with a monthly stop at the Luby’s at Floyd Curl and Huebner. She always orders the LuAnn with liver and onions, and she remembers her mom de ella.

No wonder Luby’s slogan is “Tastes like Texas, feels like home.”

rguzman@express-news.net | Twitter: @reneguz

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