Entrepreneur Ruth Fertel created Ruth's Chris Steak House, the world's largest collection of upscale local steakhouses. A single mother of two teens, she opened her first restaurant in 1965. In the 1970s, Fertel opened more restaurants and started franchising her business. She continued to grow her business over the next two decades with new locations and franchises around the world in such spots as New York City and Hong Kong. In 1999, Fertel sold a majority stake in her company to Madison Dearborn Partners. She remained a vital part of the business until her death in 2002.
Born Ruth Udstad on February 5, 1927, Ruth Fertel grew up to be one of the food world's top business leaders with her famous Ruth's Chris Steak House chain. This Louisiana native was the daughter of an insurance salesman and a school teacher. She was a bright child, completing her college degree when she was only 19 years old. Fertel earned a bachelor's degree in chemistry from Louisiana State University.
After graduating, Fertel taught at John McNeese Junior College for a time. She married Rodney Fertel and devoted herself to raising her sons Randy and Jerry. After her divorce from Rodney in 1958, Ruth soon returned to the workforce. She found a job as a lab technician at Tulane Medical School, but she wondered how she was going to pay for her sons' college educations on her salary.
Fertel saw that a local restaurant was up for sale in a classified ad in the newspaper. She decided that she wanted to take on the challenge of running a restaurant, despite having no prior experience in the business. Fertel ended up mortgaging her house to raise the funds to buy Chris' Steak House from its owner Chris Matulich.
'The First Lady of Steak'
With no restaurant experience, Fertel educated herself in every aspect of the business from the ground up. As she explained to Nation's Restaurant News in 1990, "For the first few months, I worked to learn everything—I learned to butcher meat, I learned to cook steaks, I learned to mix drinks." Fertel put in long days at the restaurant, and her hard work began to pay off.
Fertel even managed to turn disaster to her favor. In 1976, her original restaurant burnt down. Fertel didn't let this crisis slow her down for long. She didn't have the legal rights to expand or move Chris' Steak House so she added her name to the restaurant, opening Ruth's Chris, an even larger place, nearby shortly thereafter. Around this time, Fertel started to franchise her successful business concept.
Over the years, Fertel built her company into an international enterprise by increasing the number of both corporate and franchised locations. According to Restaurant Business, Fertel once said "I think I'm proudest of making my franchisees wealthy. My greatest pleasure is watching each new restaurant grow — it's like making oak trees out of acorns." She was selected as Louisiana's Restauranteur of the Year in 1984. Fertel remained an active force in the business, even after selling a majority stake in the business to Madison Dearborn Partners in 1999.
Fertel was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2000. The disease took her life two years later on April 16, 2002. She was laid to rest a few days later at Lake Lawn Metairie Cemetery where she and her best friend and business associate Lana Duke had built a mausoleum. Around the time of her death, there were more than 80 Ruth's Chris locations, which brought in more than $320 million in sales. Today there are more than 145 restaurants worldwide.
Fertel was remembered for her philanthropic efforts as well as her business acumen. As fellow New Orleans restaurateur Ella Brennan told Nation's Restaurant News, Fertel "was very generous in helping people in a quiet way." She was a supporter of Junior Achievement and other educational programs among her many charitable efforts.
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