Sunday, January 21, 2007

House of Plenty: The Rise, Fall, and Revival of Luby's Cafeterias by Carol Dawson and Carol Johnston

I was not really intending to read House of Plenty when I requested it. I wanted to see whether it told about the Luby's Cafeteria in San Angelo, Texas, where in my youth I used to add dishes of both mashed potatoes and potato salad to the bowl of jello on my tray. I was disappointed, as the only mention of the San Angelo store told which members of the Luby family invested and managed it. I let the book sit on my shelf for about a week and then got it down to return it, but before I did, I read the opening chapters. Then I kept reading.

House of Plenty is more of a family saga than a business history, telling about the generations of Lubys who came out of Illinois by way of Missouri and Oklahoma to start a family-owned chain of cafeterias in Texas in the early part of the twentieth century. It is a sort of rags to riches story until the final chapters. "Good Food from Good People" was the company slogan, and, according to the authors, including a Luby descendant, fairness to customers and employees was an ingredient of its business strategy.

Families have their problems, but the tale is mostly upbeat until 1991 when 24 people die in a shooting spree in the Belton, Texas Luby's. The 1990s also saw the transition on the Luby's board of directors that led to corporate decline. Family members who grew up in the kitchens were replaced by Harvard and Wharton business school graduates with no restaurant experience who took a profitable company and nearly destroyed it - they replaced freshly made dishes with frozen food, openned too many stores, and borrowed too much money. The revival part at the end of the book is short.

Though House of Plenty comes from a university press, it is not academic. The text is very readable, and the book includes many old photos, recipes, and menus. The authors include discussions of business methods, restaurant operations, and corporate ethics while detailing the lives of owners, managers, and employees. It might be a good discussion book, especially in Texas. Someone at Harvard and Wharton should read it, too.

Dawson, Carol and Carol Johnston. House of Plenty: The Rise, Fall, and Revival of Luby's Cafeterias. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2006. ISBN 0292706561

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