Tony Ruppe is raising the bar for cafeteria food.
Tony Ruppe is raising the bar for cafeteria food.
Deron Neblett

Luby's Has a Chef?

Tony Ruppe, former chef and owner of the sleek Montrose restaurant that bore his name, has switched from the high end to the low end of the food chain. He's now the corporate chef of Luby's cafeterias.

"It is kind of funny," he says, chuckling. "We were targeting the top 5 percent of the market, and now we're targeting the bottom 80 percent. I've gone from Egyptian cotton linen, crystal and fine china to plastic trays…from haute cuisine to the LuAnn Platter."

Ruppe, who was once executive chef of the downtown Four Seasons restaurants, is one of Houston's most acclaimed culinary masters. Isn't this like Picasso painting mailboxes or Pavarotti doing rap?

Actually, Ruppe has company on the road from haute to mass cuisine, and perhaps the distance is not as far as we might think. Cafe Annie's superchef Robert Del Grande has found handsome profits with his forays into fast food at Cafe Express and Taco Milagro. And John Salazar, former executive chef of the upscale Michaeline's restaurant on West Alabama, is now the head chef at Astros Field.

"My entire background has been fine dining," Salazar says. "This is a nice change of pace, but I don't foresee this being a long-term thing for me. For the fourth-largest city in the country, there are few fine-dining restaurants in Houston. There aren't many opportunities to take an executive-chef position."

While Del Grande remains ensconced at Cafe Annie, the downward mobility of Ruppe and Salazar is a reflection of the always difficult economics of the restaurant industry, exacerbated by two years of tumbling stock prices and the repercussions of September 11. But the trend also shows that the owners of ballparks and cafeterias are looking to appeal to more adventurous and discriminating diners.

In the past several years, ballpark cuisine has come a long way from peanuts, Cracker Jack and hot dogs. This season Salazar introduced tomato-basil pizza and build-your-own burritos to the Astros Field concession stands. He often prepares wild-boar tamales and steak au poivre for the Diamond Club and the stadium's 4,000-seat banquet room.

Ruppe is taking a slower approach to revolutionizing Luby's fare. "All food is based on comfort food," he says. "I did mashed potatoes at my restaurant. The difference was I might put caramelized onions and Gorgonzola in them…We're not trying to create Olympic culinary recipes here. But we want to raise the bar for cafeteria food, make it more consistent. Then we'll start developing new recipes."

Luby's, a 60-year-old Southern chain of 200 franchises, was bought by Houston's Pappas Restaurants two years ago. At that time, according to Ruppe, Luby's had lost its focus. "They didn't realize they weren't as good as they used to be," he says. "They forgot to care about the basics, because for so long they had no competition…We need to earn back the public's trust."

But Ruppe wouldn't be working for Luby's had it not been for the demise of his own restaurant last year. His problems began when the stock-market slide reduced his revenues in early 2001. "Not as many people were coming in, and those that did come were not spending as much," he recalls. "They wouldn't order appetizers, or they'd split an entrée. Instead of ordering a bottle of wine, they might order just a glass of wine."

Then came September 11, and more people decided to stay home. "That had a horrible impact," Ruppe says. So in December he closed his restaurant, while he still had enough money to pay off his debts.

In March, Harris Pappas offered the Luby's position to Ruppe, who was attracted to a workday that ended "when the sun is still shining." Owning his own restaurant had been his lifetime goal, he says, but it took up so much of his time. Now Ruppe enjoys cooking dinner at home with his wife, Cathy. "At 52, I think it's time to slow down a little bit," he says. "I'm in the teaching-and-training mode."

Salazar hasn't exactly slowed down since his departure last year from Michaeline's, which, he says, "had no more room for growing." He finds his current job extremely demanding. When the Astros are in town, he begins work at 5 a.m. and often stays until 11 p.m. He serves up to 8,000 meals in one day, in addition to supervising the concessions and catering to the 64 suites and Crawford boxes.

"We can generate more money in one night than most restaurants do in two years," he says, inadvertently casting some doubt on Drayton McLane's perpetual pleas of semi-poverty.

Salazar finds it exciting to accommodate so many, including such celebrities as former president Bush, Lyle Lovett and Farrah Fawcett. But he still longs to do what Ruppe once did: own and operate his own restaurant. "I hope to have my own place in a year," he says.

Ruppe insists he has no intentions of returning to entrepreneurship. He's happy working in his office at the Luby's on Highway 290 at West Tidwell. He seems able to put ego aside and adapt to the plebian wishes of the chain's loyal patrons.

"When you change," he says, "they want to know why. 'Why did you take away my green beans that came out of a can? I don't want crunchy green beans with bacon.' So now we put out two kinds of green beans."


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