Families queued up to pile trays with roast chicken and dressing, beef liver and onions, fried fish, and a local favorite—chicken tetrazzini—at the Luby’s restaurant in the Redbird neighborhood of Dallas. One man joked that he should’ve gone to Burger King instead, as he settled in behind the dozens waiting in line on Sunday afternoon.
Manuel Veliz popped out from behind the counter with gel-tipped hair and a black Adidas-logoed face mask. A chef named Jean has been there seventeen years, he told me, and regular customers ask about two-decade mainstay Kate anytime she’s not working. But in recent months, Veliz, the restaurant’s 42-year-old manager, had been fielding his team’s questions about their uncertain futures, after Luby’s shareholders voted overwhelmingly last fall to put the 75-year-old Texas institution out of business. All of its locations were soon to close.
Last week brought much better news for Veliz. The cafeteria chain announced it had at last found a buyer for its brand and 32 of its remaining Texas locations, half of which are clustered in Houston and San Antonio, in a $28.7 million deal with Chicago-based food and technology entrepreneur Calvin Gin. The deal is expected to be finalized by the end of August.
Unable to contend with debts that had ballooned to $35 million, Luby’s had been on the hunt for someone to take over its operations and assets since June 2020. The company’s announcement at the time noted that “there can be no assurance one or more sale transactions will result from this process.” A couple of those words stuck out to those who grew up dining on LuAnn platters: “no assurance.” The restaurant beloved by generations of Texans looked like it might well fold altogether.
Meanwhile, someone slid Luby’s across Gin’s desk as a potential investment opportunity. It didn’t initially interest him, but after months passed with the chain still on the market, he made a trip to Texas in March to take a closer look.
During his visits to several Luby’s locations, he ate and enjoyed all of its mainstay menu items. “I’m not sure there’s anything I haven’t tasted,” he told me late last week, rattling off a few that caught his attention—fried fish, chicken-fried steak, chicken-fried chicken. He says he was not expecting much in the way of health food but, “quite honestly, there’s a ton of vegetables.” He strangely found himself later craving, of all things, the beets. “I saw the same thing over and over again,” he says. “I walked away, and I said, here’s a great brand that has great people making great food at a great price. There’s got to be a way to make this work.”
The million-dollar question is how he plans to do that. Will he dare upset Luby’s die-hards in the pursuit of modernizing the company? Gin insists that he has no intentions of tearing up the menu or of replacing generous slatherings of mayo with delicately judged measurements. “Overall,” he says, “food is not the problem.”
He’s interested in finding ways to win over new customers, although he’s noncommittal about how. “It’s great that there’s a strong core following today in the stores that we’re purchasing,” he says. “It seems to be a very healthy customer base, and we appreciate all of them, but we need to get more of them.” He won’t offer—“it’s too soon to say”—whether that will involve adding to his 32 stores, either within or outside the state.
As for what will be his top priority, we might search for clues in Gin’s food-industry past. His aunt, Sue Gin, founded airline-catering company Flying Food Group, for which he worked after college and later as a vice president for four years. He’s spent much of his career with companies that provide food to airlines, as well as to corporations like Starbucks, Costco, and Chicagoland grocer Jewel-Osco.
Which makes it noteworthy that Gin’s acquisition didn’t include Luby’s Culinary Contract Services unit. Formed in 2006, the business draws up wellness-minded food programs and catering for the health-care and senior living industries, in addition to serving a variety of corporate and venue-based clients. It’s Luby’s food, only a bit healthier, more mobile, and more modern (such as chocolate muffins made with pureed avocado). It would have seemed to fit Gin’s background in a much more straightforward way than Luby’s restaurants do.
We’re left to read the tea leaves regarding what that exclusion means. Gin talked about how buying into a food business with established chefs provides a solid foundation. “If you’re actually making the food,” he says, “you have a lot of options.” But he didn’t answer a direct question about whether he’d be spinning up his own similar catering business. “What I can tell you is that I’m not involved with the culinary contract business, and Luby’s is handling that separately,” Gin says.
Gin’s other recent investments have leaned toward technology, an interest he fell into in the nineties when a unit he managed needed an efficient way to track sandwich orders. He’s a partner in Helios Visions, a company that offers 3D mapping services via drones and will soon expand to Texas. He’s also a partner in a marketing firm that specializes in creating shareable photo and video highlights of events and company outings, and the cofounder of WorkPlate, which created something called Digital Handshake, a personal webpage creation service.
Luby’s has said it’s still evaluating how to best get a return on its remaining assets, including the real estate on which 25 of Gin’s 32 restaurants sit. (Luby’s is transferring over the leases on the other seven.) Its 31 other locations still appear likely to close. The pandemic had already forced dozens of Luby’s cafeterias to permanently shutter. “I feel bad for the rest,” Veliz says. “I feel bad for all the employees who have been working here twenty years, forty years, in the company. They know everybody, they know every customer.”
Veliz hopes he can hire a few of the longtime chefs from the Duncanville restaurant. He hopes the new management understands the importance of retaining its experienced staff. For now, those on his team already get to enjoy the good news that their location will be among those continuing to operate.
“I can look at my employees now and tell them, hey, we have a job,” he says. “We’re good.”