By: Megan Pasche
Ruth Fertel, the woman behind one of the world’s biggest steakhouse chains probably has one of the most interesting stories in the history of the North American restaurant business. She was a true entrepreneur, she was a mighty hard worker, a people person and a generous soul.
She was born Ruth Udstad into a fairly poor family living in New Orleans. Her father worked as an insurance salesman, and her mother taught kindergarten. When the Great Depression hit in the 1930s, Ruth and her family moved out of New Orleans, to the small community where her mother grew up, which was located about 60 miles out of New Orleans.
Ruth was an exceptionally gifted child, especially in the areas of math and science, and not only did she skip several grades in grammar school, but she graduated from high school at the age of 15. She started at the Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge at 15, and graduated by age 19, with an honours degree in chemistry and physics.
In 1946, she began a teaching job at McNeese State University. She was teaching mostly football players, and the majority of her students were actually older than she was. She taught at the school for two semesters.
In 1948, she married Rodney Fertel, with whom she eventually had two sons, Jerry and Randy. Rodney and Ruth shared a love of horses, and in 1951, they opened a racing stable located in Baton Rouge. Ruth became the first female horse trainer in Louisiana, after obtaining her thoroughbred trainer’s license.
The marriage wasn’t destined to last however, and Rodney and Ruth divorced in 1958. Struggling to support her sons, she found jobs making drapes, and then as a lab technician where she worked for a research scientist at the Tulane University School of Medicine. At that time, she was earning $4,800 a year.
Realizing this income was not going to be enough to pay for her sons to go to college, she began combing through the classifieds. She came across an ad, highlighting a restaurant for sale. It was called Chris’ Steak House, and it was a 60-seat establishment located in New Orleans. She began to think the whole thing was meant to be, when she contacted the owner and discovered that the restaurant was originally opened on the day she was born: February 5, 1927. So, ignoring the advice of everyone, including her banker, lawyer and friends, she mortgaged her house in order to pay for the restaurant. She knew absolutely nothing about the restaurant business at the time.
The very first day the restaurant was open, May 24, 1965, she sold 35 steaks at $5 each. By the time she had the restaurant for six months, she had already earned double her salary from when she was working as a lab technician.
Fertel was a hands-on businesswoman, and made sure she was involved in every aspect of her restaurant. She taught herself how to butcher steak, and even though she weighed a mere 110 pounds, she was able to saw up 30 pound short loins by hand, which she did up until the time she was able to afford an electric saw. She tried to staff her restaurant with mostly single mothers, and Chris’ Steak House was actually one of the only upscale restaurants in New Orleans at the time to have a fully female wait staff.
Soon enough, Chris’ Steak House became the place to be. It was the meeting place for business people, athletes, reporters, and even the odd celebrity, such as Fats Domino.
The business suffered a brief setback in 1976, when shortly after Fertel signed another ten-year lease on the restaurant, the entire building was destroyed by fire. Luckily, Fertel has recently purchased another property close by, which she had originally intended to rent out as an event centre. She was able to move the restaurant operations there, and not only that, she was able to do this within seven days, also adding 100 seats in the process.
When she originally purchased Chris’ Steak House, there was a clause that said she couldn’t use the name anywhere but at the original address, so she named the restaurant on the new property, Ruth’s Chris Steak House. It was a bit of a tongue twister, but it stuck. At the time she also purchased two houses behind the restaurant, which she had remodeled and joined together, and where she lived for the rest of her days.
1976 was also the year that Ruth Fertel agreed to sell the first franchise, which was opened in 1977 by one of her loyal customers, T.J Moran, and was located in Baton Rouge.
In the two decades that followed, numerous other franchises opened up, both in the United States and overseas. Ruth Fertel was officially the First Lady of American Restaurants.
Fertel continued to work into her early 70s, and in 1999 when she became ill, she sold the chain to Madison Dearborn Partners of Chicago. In 2002, Ruth Fertel died of lung cancer at the age of 75.
Over the years, Ruth Fertel was the recipient of many awards, some of which included Regional Entrepreneur of the Year, Inc. Magazine in 1992, Executive of the Year from Restaurants and Institutions Magazine and Restaurant Business High Performance Leadership Award.
In addition to her business acumen, Fertel was also well known for her charitable work. In 1965, after Hurricane Betsy hit New Orleans, and knocked the power out at the restaurant, she realized all the food she had on hand was in danger of going bad. She quickly cooked it up and gave free steak meals to disaster workers and Hurricane victims. She generously paid for the schooling of many children throughout the years, provided counseling for female entrepreneurs and gave money to many schools in the Louisiana area.
Ruth’s Chris Steak House has gone through an amazing journey since it’s inception. It started out as a restaurant owned by a single mom, who had no experience in the food industry, and went on to become a business that has more than 135 franchises worldwide, cooks over 16,000 steaks per day and employs close to 5000 people. It’s quite a remarkable feat; and Ruth Fertel, well, she was a pretty remarkable woman.
You can visit a Ruth’s Chris Steak House while in Niagara Falls; it is located at 6455 Fallsview Blvd. More info online at www.ruthchris.com