On the Luby’s Cafeteria Line, Every Day Is Thanksgiving

In a spacious Houston cafeteria awash in primary colors, diners crowded around big tables and dug into mashed potatoes splashed with a slick gravy, glossy green beans and sticky slabs of pecan pie.

The calendar said Oct. 12. But this was Luby’s, where every day is Thanksgiving.

“I am a Texan,”said Wunzel Lewis, 71, a regular at Luby’s, which serves Thanksgiving fare year-round as part of its sprawling menu. “We like to eat anything any time of the year.” And here, she said, “the turkey breast is always moist.”

Walking into a Luby’s feels a bit like rewinding several decades, to when liver and onions was a menu staple and faux leather booths were standard restaurant décor. For the devoted following of this Texas chain, that’s exactly its appeal.

In these times when a burger can run you $25, when dining rooms are giving way to drive-throughs andwhen your waiter may turn out to be a robot, Luby’s remains more or less unchanged from its beginnings nearly a century ago — serving traditional and inexpensive dishes in a homey setting. (On Thanksgiving, $13.99 will buy a formidable spread of turkey, dressing, cranberry sauce, gravy, a dinner roll, two sides and dessert.)

The food at Luby’s is meant to be affordable; this year’s Thanksgiving meal costs just $13.99.Credit…Annie Mulligan for The New York Times
Some Luby’s regulars have been visiting for more than 60 years. They line up for hours to dine on Thanksgiving Day.Credit…Annie Mulligan for The New York Times

Luby’s offers a dizzying variety of foods — including chicken-fried steak and fried fish — but the Thanksgiving dishes are among the most popular. Credit…Annie Mulligan for The New York Times

“What you see on that line today, you saw the same thing 15 to 20 years ago prepared the same way, with the same recipes,” said Bob Kristek, who used to sell janitorial supplies and has been dining at the Luby’s in McAllen, Texas, since the 1960s.

Over the years he’s made many a friend at Luby’s, where they always celebrate Thanksgiving together.

“We’re going to eat there this year,” said Mr. Kristek, 90, “if I am still alive.”

Although turkey and mashed potatoes are available anytime, for Mr. Kristek and many others, nothing beats the scene on Thanksgiving Day — when the chain’s 39 locations are crowded from morning to evening, and lines stretch into the parking lots of nearby businesses.

“Part of the fun of Luby’s at Thanksgiving is that it means a lot to people,” said Dan Solomon, 43, a senior writer for Texas Monthly who has eaten Thanksgiving dinner there at least three times. There’s a sense of wistfulness and a deep pride for the place, he said. “Luby’s belongs to anybody in Texas.”

Mr. Solomon doesn’t even find the food all that flavorful. “It is kind of like an entry-level, starter-kit version of a Thanksgiving dinner,” he said. But “it hits that nostalgia button. Even though I didn’t grow up with Luby’s, I grew up with food that tasted like Luby’s.”

A newspaper clipping attests to Luby’s long tradition of Thanksgiving Day dining. Many people have made friends while waiting in line to get in. Credit…Courtesy of Calvin Gin

Whether it’s because of the Texas-size portions or the assertively friendly service, many Texans find Luby’s as emblematic of the state as other beloved establishments like H-E-B, Buc-ee’s and Whataburger.

“I don’t think there is one person in the whole state of Texas that doesn’t know Luby’s,” said Janie Garza, 63, a Houston accountant who buys a takeout Thanksgiving meal for her family from Luby’s every year.

She likes being able to have eat pecan pie in the summer, and it always tastes the same. “It is not overly sweet, it is not soggy,” she said.

For all the love, Luby’s almost didn’t survive the pandemic.

In the summer of 2020, the company closed several locations and announced plans to dissolve and liquidate its assets. Fans posted online eulogies for the restaurant and its famous value meal, the LuAnn Platter. (Luby’s non-Thanksgiving food also includes fried fish squares and chicken-fried steak.)

A year later, the Chicago entrepreneur Calvin Gin bought the company for $28.7 million, saving it from collapse. Mr. Gin said he was impressed that all the food was made on site and in such large quantities, and that the business had lasted so long.

“It’s not fancy food, it’s not a fancy place,” he said in an interview. “For me, there’s that familiar feeling to it.”

Luby’s employees, including Rex Kilgore, start preparing for Thanksgiving in June.Credit…Annie Mulligan for The New York Times
Regulars love that the restaurant’s cafeteria format and recipes haven’t changed in many years.Credit…Annie Mulligan for The New York Times

Still, he had changes in mind, like offering more online ordering and digitizing the menu boards. His employees urged him not to tinker with the year-round Thanksgiving fare.

He was doubtful at first. But he came around after spending time in the cafeteria line and watching customer after customer order the holiday dishes.

Within six months after the acquisition, Mr. Gin said, the company began turning a profit. Laura Barth, the chain’s chief brand officer said the turnaround was aided by Americans’ increasing nostalgia and the inflation that sent diners searching for a cheaper meal.

Mr. Gin also credits Thanksgiving Day, when the chain serves 152,000 customers and 57,000 pounds of turkey. Though the cost of turkey has surged in recent years, he said he’s tried to keep prices as low as possible.

It takes a lot of workers to serve that much food. Cafeterias, with all their various food and drink stations, require more people to function than a typical restaurant, said Rex Kilgore, a general manager in Houston who has worked at Luby’s for 36 years — and 36 Thanksgivings.

On Thanksgiving Day, he said, “it’s an orchestra.”

Sam Kinsey, a Luby’s regular since the 1940s, will visit the restaurant on Thanksgiving even if he plans to eat at friends’ homes. Credit…Courtesy of Sam Kinsey.

During the holiday week, employees may work 100 to 120 hours and stay overnight to get everything ready, said Mr. Kilgore. On Thursday, customers start lining up at least an hour before the restaurant opens, often greeting other regulars in the queue or joining up with another group.

“They have to wait a long time, like hours,” said Joy Nye, another Houston general manager. “The nice thing is, nobody gets mad.”

One person who is always in line — on Thanksgiving and much of the rest of the year — is Sam Kinsey, a customer of the San Antonio Luby’s since the 1940s. “They do recognize the old-timers, the regulars,” he said. “And they will sometimes sneak me in at the front of the line.”

Even if Mr. Kinsey, 86, has Thanksgiving plans, he will always stop by Luby’s beforehand. “I will have room at 4 o’clock for another meal,” he said. “But it will not necessarily be any better than what I will have experienced at Luby’s at 10:59.”

In his view, because Luby’s cooks make Thanksgiving food every day, they are the experts on the holiday.

That connection stretches way back. William Luby, a cousin of the Luby’s co-founder Bob Luby, said the restaurant was open on Thanksgiving as early as the 1930s, not long after the 1929 opening of the first Luby’s in downtown Dallas.

Luby’s has shaped perceptions of American food and American Thanksgiving in Texas.Credit…Annie Mulligan for The New York Times

(For some, the link to the holiday may evoke grim memories. A month before Thanksgiving in 1991, a man fatally shot 23 people in a Luby’s in Killeen, Texas.)

With its longevity and loyal fan base, Luby’s has shaped perceptions of American food and American Thanksgiving in Texas — especially among the state’s fast-growing population of immigrants and their children.

When Shefaly Ravula, 48, was growing up in Sugar Land, Texas, her parents, both Indian immigrants, were unfamiliar with Thanksgiving traditions. So on the holiday, they always took Ms. Ravula and her sister to Luby’s.

“They wanted us to feel Americanized as much as possible,” Ms. Ravula said. At Luby’s, she first tasted fluffy dinner rolls and gravy that was “salty and fatty and devoid of spices,” she said. “So bland that you appreciate it.”

She now works in Austin as a nutritionist, offering advice that doesn’t always align with the hearty offerings at Luby’s. But every so often she passes a Luby’s as she enters the freeway, and remembers the mounds of mashed potatoes and parades of pies along the cafeteria line.

“Maybe if I walked into Luby’s now, I probably would still enjoy the food,” she said. “Maybe.”

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