Fifty years ago, steak houses were synonymous with "good old boy" fare, but when Ruth Fertel decided to stake her claim in the business, she upped the ante on steak and potatoes, becoming a female pioneer in the food world. At just 5 foot, 2 inches, Fertel had the guts, gusto and gumption to open her own steak house in New Orleans in 1965. She knew becoming a restaurateur wasn’t going to be easy, and there were many naysayers who told her so, including her banker, her brother and even her best friend. But fired up by a can-do spirit, Fertel managed to prove them all wrong, eventually creating what we know today to be Ruth's Chris Steak House.
Growing up in Louisiana's rural Plaquemines Parish, Fertel always had the determination and smarts that would make her a success. She was a colorful character who loved hunting, fishing, horseback riding, reading, and had a lifelong knack for solving puzzles. Her natural inquisitiveness led her to excel in her studies, finishing high school at age 15 and graduating college with honors when she was only 19 years old.
She went on to marry and have two sons, and opened a racing stable with her husband. She also earned a thoroughbred trainer’s license, becoming one of the first women horse trainers in Louisiana, according to the Journal of Hospitality & Tourism Education.
But, in 1958, her life took an unexpected turn when she and her husband divorced. As a single mom with two boys to support, Fertel earned some money sewing at home, and then landed a job as a chemistry lab technician, but she knew she wasn't going to be able to pay for her children's education with her salary. She set her sights on something bigger and better for her family.
A Fearless Risk Taker
While other people dream of a better life, Fertel was determined to make it happen. A classified ad in a local newspaper that read "steak house for sale" proved to be a life-changing call to action. With no bank willing to give her a business loan, Fertel mortgaged her only major asset — her home— and bought Chris' Steak House on New Orleans' Broad Street for $18,000 in 1965. She borrowed $22,000 from the bank and used $4,000 for working capital.
Despite having no experience as a restaurateur, Fertel taught herself by doing every job in the business from taking orders to cooking to mixing drinks to handling food suppliers. She even butchered her own steaks, cutting short loins that weighed 30 to 40 pounds, always keeping an eye on the quality of the food she served.
Fertel, who became known as “Miss Ruth," spent so much time working tirelessly that she would often have to steal naps in the restaurant. For her, failure was not an option although others thought differently. "The restaurant staff was expecting me to fail . . . especially since I was a woman,” she once said. “Actually I never had a doubt that I would make it."
Even Mother Nature couldn’t stop Miss Ruth. About four months after Fertel opened her restaurant, Hurricane Betsy hit New Orleans, knocking out electricity in her building. She knew that her entire inventory of meat would spoil so she cooked up all of her steaks using gas ovens, and then distributed meals to first responders. Once she was able to reopen her restaurant, Fertel saw her kindness repaid: "We did pretty good business and built a lot of loyal customers" after the hurricane, she told Nation's Restaurant News.
The hurricane wasn’t the only trouble Miss Ruth had to face. One night after closing, she was shot in the shoulder by a robber who unsuccessfully tried to steal her purse. Instead of leaving the neighborhood, Miss Ruth bought herself a shotgun and hired an off-duty police office for security. And, in 1976, a fire destroyed her original restaurant, but it didn't affect her positive outlook. Shortly after the fire, she reopened in another spot with more tables just a few blocks from her original location. Fertel didn't have the legal rights to expand or move Chris' Steak House so she added her name to the restaurant, creating the unforgettable moniker Ruth's Chris.
The First Lady of Steak
A savvy businesswoman, Miss Ruth knew that a fine meal must appeal to all of the senses. She had 1800-degree broilers custom made for the restaurant to make sure each steak was broiled perfectly and arrived to the table sizzling hot. She also seasoned her steaks to perfection with just the right amount of salt, pepper and a little bit of butter, and then served her steaks on plates heated to 500 degrees to create Ruth’s Chris signature sizzle.
Fertel, who earned the unofficial title, “The First Lady of Steak,” from fellow restaurateur Arne Morton of Morton’s Steak House, explained to Restaurants & Institutions magazine: "The butter melts and mixes with the juice from the steak. Can you imagine anything tasting better?"
And what is meat without potatoes? Fertel gave her customers an array of choices from baked potatoes to potato au gratin, as well as popular sides such as sautéed mushrooms and creamed spinach made from her uncle’s much loved recipe.
Miss Ruth also made sure to take care of her customers like they were family. "We spoil all our customers," Fertel said in an interview with Restaurant Business. "Our waitresses remember the regulars' names, their favorite tables, and what they drink."
Delicious food and warm hospitality kept customers coming back to Ruth’s Chris for more. In fact, Fertel’s first franchised restaurant came about because one of her customers grew tired of making the 90-mile trek from Baton Rouge to New Orleans for the best steaks around. A Ruth's Chris opened there in the 1970s and, before long, more locations sprouted up around the country and the world.
The “Broads on Broad Street”
What was Fertel's secret to success? “My mom and dad instilled a sense of honesty, hard work, and the belief that you treat others as you want to be treated,” she once said.
As a business owner, Fertel followed the Golden Rule and was a champion for other single mothers, often hiring them as waitresses. Her New Orleans restaurant had a female wait staff, a groundbreaking move at a time when most of the city's fine dining restaurants only employed male servers.
Miss Ruth loved her staff, and the feeling was definitely mutual. "I never felt I worked 'for' Miss Ruth. I worked 'with' her," said longtime Ruth's Chris waitress Lainey Love. "She was a mom, a sister, a friend and a co-worker. And was always a phone call away in troubled times."
Love and several other waitresses became known as the "Broads on Broad Street" after the restaurant's location in New Orleans. These ladies helped create the fun, welcoming atmosphere that made Ruth’s Chris the go-to meeting place for politicians, reporters, musicians and regular folks too. Miss Ruth fed the likes of legendary musician Fats Domino who performed one of the city's most famous songs, "Walking to New Orleans." Former Louisiana senator Mary Landrieu even credited the restaurant with teaching her "everything about politics," according to the Fertel Foundation.
And the good times kept rolling after work, too. According to Love, the staff liked to celebrate the end of their shift in the restaurant's parking lot, and Fertel, who lived nearby, would often come out and join them. She'd even contribute the funds for that night's beer run.
“It’s a Wonderful World”
Fertel enjoyed life to the fullest, and in the spirit of New Orleans even saw its end as a cause for celebration. She and her business partner and friend Lana Duke, who runs several Ruth’s Chris franchises, teamed up to build a mausoleum in Lake Lawn Metairie Cemetery. One of the mausoleum's most distinctive features is a stained glass window featuring an angel playing a horn and the words "It's a Wonderful World," the title of New Orleans native Louis Armstrong's iconic song.
When the building was complete in 1999, Fertel threw a lavish party to celebrate. Roughly 200 guests dined under a tent by the mausoleum to mark the occasion. The following year, longtime smoker Fertel learned that she had lung cancer. She remained active in her business and community until her death on April 16, 2002.
But the spirit of Fertel and her dedication to creating the most welcoming and delicious dining experience are still alive in the business she built. Just visit a Ruth’s Chris restaurant and you can see Miss Ruth's love for her customers continue on, as well as her passion for serving the highest quality steaks—arriving to the table sizzling with a bit of butter on her trademark hot plates—just as they did 50 years ago.