So, I have been relatively quiet these last two weeks or so. It has been a busy time with South by Southwest in town. I will write more about that soon, as I have some really great stories to tell about my experiences this year. However, this story is about something much more personal to me.
Many of you may think this is ridiculous. Some of you may wonder why I even choose to eat at this restaurant. I have heard a ton of stories about it being a dinosaur from a bygone era. But, it was a dinosaur that I was familiar with. My mother would often take me to the theater in Harlingen, Texas and right after or before, we would stop to get a bite to eat at Luby’s Cafeteria.
To this day, my mother loves Luby’s. That is until yesterday. So, I relay this warning to you all as a courtesy. And before you go lambasting me about I get what I deserve for going there, please remember that a large number of people use Luby’s – especially the elderly who grew up with that food as a generational thing. This is why my story is so disturbing.
Yesterday, March 17th, I decided to join my mother and son at Luby’s. Was it my ideal choice? No. I prefer other food. However, in a pinch, it beats a burger. Now, the last time I went there, my food was mostly cold. I chalked it up to a bad day. The manager dealt with the issue and got me hot food. Bravo for him. But yesterday was a totally different story. Truly.
We get in line to get our food. My son went to sit with his little brother in a booth. As I am standing in line looking at what I want to eat, I glance over to the back kitchen area. I see a large, probably 6’2″, heavy-set guy with reasonably sized (and hairy arms) elbows deep in a huge vat of macaroni and cheese.I was immediately revolted. I pointed it out to the assistant manager. He looked back and turned to me and said that he was wearing gloves. Gloves! Ok, well, that was still gross, but gloves would make it better I thought. Then the guy stops mixing the macaroni and turns to wash his hands. No GLOVES!!!!
SO, I complain again. The manager (the same gentleman I met before in the hot food incident) explains to me that the guy washed his hands before and then mixes the macaroni and then washes his hands again. It was safe.
I am not going to lie. I was dumbfounded. I did not want to make a scene or embarrass my mother. So I told the assistant manager that if they were going to do something so disgusting, to do it behind the scenes and out of the view of the public.
I ended up not being able to eat my food. The thought of this guy elbows deep in the macaroni really grossed me out. I got a full refund on my meal and called corporate to complain. Corporate was dumbfounded. This was not our operating procedure they told me. They would report it to the area manager. Great. I did my part. About 20 minutes later I get a call from the manager at the Luby’s telling me how grateful he was for my feedback and that it would start a conversation about hand cleaning procedures. He also told me how gloves were not going to really make a difference and it was about hand cleaning. He then went on to list other things Luby’s made by hand and that they were proud of making things by hand. I seriously wanted to puke and I tried to explain to him that it was unsanitary. I explained my position that you can wash your hands and still have gunk under your finger nails. He simply said they would have a conversation about better hand washing.
I get it. I do not work in the food service industry. I was not trained in their specifics. But here is my inexperienced and non-food service educated response to them. HELL NO!!!
How about this? Let me really wash my feet well. Then let me mix up the macaroni and cheese with my feet. How about that? Pretty arbitrary? Right? No? I would probably be told by them that is ridiculous. And they would be right. Just as ridiculous as a guy elbows deep in a vat of macaroni!!! I am not sure if I am more grossed out by what I saw or what I heard. Rather than say we made a mistake and that vat was thrown away and that is not how we make our food, he actually told me they make a ton of food that way, they are proud of their hand made tradition, and they will improve their hand washing techniques.
Here you go Luby’s (some thoughtful feedback):
- hand washing never quite cleans our skin because the water can never be hot enough to truly kill bacteria
- to truly kill bacteria on our skin, medical specialists use betadyne (that red stuff) instead of alcohol or anything else – this is done to ensure a truly clean surface
- how does hand washing prevent arm hair from falling off
- is there truly a way to ensure that someone follows an exact protocol to wash hands
- if a guy goes almost elbows deep in food, you would expect him to wash up to his biceps (did not happen in this case)
- by being elbows deep in food, he had to bend over it, which means sweat, drool, dandruff, or anything else can fall into the food
- how expensive is it to buy a large wooden or metal spoon (and that does not invalidate the made by hand mantra)
I mean, WTF. You see, the problem with this experience is it got me to thinking about the food we eat. It really grossed me out. I know that perfectly sanitary conditions can never be truly achieved. I am not foolish. But this blatant violation of my trust put that fact in my face. It slapped me around a bit with it and eroded my trust that restaurants make safe food (thanks to Chipotle and now Luby’s). It left me feeling very uncomfortable about what I saw and how my food is prepared at any restaurant. Generally, food is prepared out of our line of sight for this very reason. I am sure if we saw how horrible it looked, we would never eat out again. Yesterday was so difficult because Luby’s threw in my face those deep seeded fears that food is probably not prepared as well as I would hope it is. And while the manager was nice and thankful for the feedback, the poor dude did not realize that he simply made it worse by telling me that gloves were no solution and they would basically keep doing what they were doing.
My 76-year-old mother was grossed out too. She stated she would never eat there again. I am grossed out. I will never eat there again. My 18-year-old son is grossed out. He will never eat there again. My 3 month old son will never touch their food. Four generations of diners lost in one 30 minute period. And, I say to all of you, if you eat there…please stop. It will be fine until it is not fine. You may feel sick one day after eating there. All the equipment will be clean. All the food prep stations will be clean. Hand cleaner stocked up at all the washing stations. All inspections passed. History is great with sanitation. But just remember, somewhere…some guy is elbows deep in your food.