Founded in New Orleans back in 1965, Ruth’s Chris Steak House expanded from a single Big Easy eatery to a worldwide franchise with more than 150 restaurants spanning the globe. The story of the restaurant’s growth is an extraordinary one, courtesy of the talent and vision of Ruth Fertel. A single mother with a big dream, Fertel — who passed away in 2002 — was a trailblazing female entrepreneur who built an empire based on sizzling steaks and Southern hospitality.
When Ruth’s Chris had been in the news, it was typically to announce the opening of a new restaurant or some type of menu promotion. Yet the franchise received unwanted headlines and a tsunami of backlash when Ruth’s Chris became engulfed in controversy during the COVID-19 pandemic due to some revelations of financial shenanigans that left many outraged.
Beyond the backlash, the history of Ruth’s Chris Steak House is as colorful and eccentric as the city in which it was born, yet there’s still much that even repeat customers may not know about the venerable restaurant franchise. Read on to discover the untold truth of Ruth’s Chris Steak House.
Ruth’s Chris was born in New Orleans
According to her New York Times obituary, Ruth Fertel was a divorced single mother working as a lab technician at Tulane School of Medicine in New Orleans when she became interested in buying a local restaurant specializing in steaks. Despite having no restaurant experience, in 1965 she took out a $22,000 mortgage on her house in order to buy Chris Steak House.
According to the Times, Fertel was so inexperienced that when she met with the bank she only asked for the $18,000 to purchase the restaurant; the bank, however, made sure that she borrowed a few thousand extra to pay for food and overhead costs. Despite her lack of restaurant savvy, her new venture became an immediate success thanks to Fertel’s determination.
"We went out of our way to please customers. We spoiled them," Fertel said in an interview, offering an example of the kind of service customers could expect. "One of our regular Sunday customers was operated on for his teeth and couldn’t bite into a steak," she said. "So I chopped his steak in the grinder,
formed it into the same shape as before, and served it to him. He was thrilled."
The truth behind the steakhouse’s weird name
When Ruth Fertel’s Chris Steak House burned down in 1976, she quickly scrambled to open in a new, larger location. That presented a problem, in that her original purchase agreement with previous owner Chris Matulich specified that she could only use the name of the restaurant — which had been been unchanged since 1927 — at the original location.
As Fertel’s son, Randy Fertel, wrote in his memoir, she simply tacked her name onto the front of the original moniker, resulting in the unwieldy Ruth’s Chris Steak House. The reason, he wrote, was because "she had grown to hate being called Chris, or, worse, being taken for Chris’s wife." However, he shared, the name’s oddness made it both memorable and a bit of a tongue-twister, with a restaurant critic once likening the title to a sobriety test — anyone who could still say it correctly was not yet inebriated.
Even though it was Ruth Fertel who came up with the name, she admitted to Fortune in 1998 that she wasn’t particularly fond of it. "I’ve always hated the name," she insisted. "But we’ve always managed to work around it."
How a single mother built the Ruth’s Chris empire — one steak at a time
According to an archived bio of Ruth Fertel, on her first day as owner of what would become Ruth’s Chris Steak House, Fertel sold 35 steaks, charging about $5 for each one. Within six months, she had raked in more than twice her annual Tulane salary. As the restaurant’s reputation grew, so did its clientele.
When one of the eatery’s most loyal customers moved from New Orleans to Baton Rouge, he’d return to the city just to get a steak at his favorite restaurant. In 1977, he talked Fertel into opening a Ruth’s Chris franchise in his neck of the woods so he’d be able to enjoy her steaks without having to make the drive.
"When I started franchising, that really got the name out," said Fertel, "and the more the name became known, the busier we became in all our restaurants. Our name recognition spread. In fact, all our franchisees were people who had eaten at one time or another in one of our restaurants. We never looked for franchisees. They came to us." As of April 2020, more than 150 Ruth’s Chris Steak House franchises were scattered around the world.
The original Ruth’s Chris had an all-female staff
When staffing her restaurant, Ruth Fertel bucked tradition and hired other single mothers as her wait staff. According to the Ruth’s Chris Steak House website, Fertel and her team were nicknamed the "Broads on Broad Street," referring to the restaurant’s original location.
The reason, explained an archived bio of Fertel, was because she knew firsthand that raising a child solo required both reliability and hard work. So radical was Fertel’s hiring practice, there was a time when Ruth’s Chris Steak House was the Big Easy’s sole upscale eatery to have female servers.
Long after Fertel’s passing in 2002, her restaurants continued to celebrate mothers. For example, in 2017 Ruth’s Chris issued a press release announcing a special Mother’s Day menu and a gift for moms. "Our founder, Ruth Fertel, was a single mother and famously employed an all-female wait staff of single mothers at our first location in New Orleans," said company CEO Michael O’Donnell. "We are proud to raise a glass to her and all mothers, past and present, on this special occasion and provide a small token of our appreciation for their hard work and devotion."
The surprising secret behind Ruth’s Chris’ signature sizzle
Whenever a diner is served a steak at Ruth’s Chris Steak House, it arrives at the table still sizzling. This has become the restaurant’s signature and dates back to the original Chris Steak House practice of placing the plated steak under the broiler for a minute or so and then adding a pat of butter and some parsley, with the butter creating the signature sizzle.
According to former marketing professional Lana Duke — who went on to hold her own franchises in her hometown of Toronto — it was no mean feat to ensure the steaks were still sizzling and popping when they made it to the table. Fertel came up with a solution: a custom-made infrared broiler that cooked the steaks at an enormously high temperature.
"With her chemistry and physics degrees she had this broiler made that cooked steaks at 1800 degrees," said Duke in an interview with Dine. "The sizzle in the plate kept it hot to the very last bite. It was difficult to get every Ruth’s Chris in the world to do that. ‘If it doesn’t sizzle, send it back.’ That helped build the brand."
The origin of Ruth’s Chris’ famed creamed spinach
Along with those butter-topped sizzling steaks, another signature dish at Ruth’s Chris Steak House is its creamed spinach. Ruth’s Chris founder Ruth Fertel never revealed where she obtained the recipe; however, her son Randy Fertel told New Orleans music magazine Off Beat that the dish was the invention of his great-uncle.
"The story of the spinach, it’s an old family recipe," said Randy Fertel, who said he was speaking with one of his cousins when the conversation shifted to how much customers at Ruth’s Chris loved the creamed spinach. His cousin told him, "You know that’s Uncle Martin’s creamed spinach."
While he was of the opinion that telling diners the recipe was a treasured family recipe, passed down for generations, would have been "good marketing" for the restaurants, he chalked up Ruth Fertel’s secretiveness about the spinach to her pride. "I think it was all about my mother’s ego," he explained. "She wasn’t going to share the fact that it wasn’t her recipe."
The reason Ruth’s Chris switched from dry-aged to wet-aged steaks
In his memoir, The Gorilla Man and the Empress of Steak: A New Orleans Family Memoir, Randy Fertel wrote that his mother, Ruth Fertel, switched from dry-aged steaks to wet-aged cuts of meat in order to maintain more consistency. As he explained, dry-aging presents some disadvantages, including the additional cost of cold storage along with a certain degree of loss, which results in the meat becoming more expensive in the long run.
Another problem Ruth’s Chris Steak House encountered with dry-aged beef was spoilage. "Mom weekly lost a few steaks to such taint when customers turned up their noses," he wrote. While she would quickly get the customer a replacement steak, she also believed the whole experience left the restaurant "tainted" for those customers. She decided to switch to wet-aged steaks, which aged after being vacuum-packed in plastic and wouldn’t go bad.
However, as Fox News pointed out, wet-aged beef may deliver more consistency, but "it’s a lot less robustly flavored than its more upscale counterpart, dry-aged meat," while admitting it’s "very difficult to control perfect aging conditions."
How Hurricane Katrina caused the corporate headquarters to change cities
In 2005, New Orleans was devastated by Hurricane Katrina, and Ruth’s Chris Steak House was one of many companies based in the city to be affected. According to NOLA.com, the flagship Ruth’s Chris Steak House on Broad Street was badly damaged in the flood, and never reopened. As The New York Times reported, the restaurant chain’s corporate offices, located in the New Orleans suburb of Metairie, were likewise flooded. This led to a big change at the corporate level.
The company’s executives got together for a meeting to figure out the next move, ultimately determining the situation in New Orleans post-Katrina was simply too tenuous. As a result, the decision was made to move the company’s corporate headquarters from New Orleans to Orlando, Florida. "It was probably one of the toughest decisions that I ever had to make: to tell my people that we are not going back," said Craig S. Miller, chief executive of Ruth’s Chris.
According to the Orlando Sentinel, the company initially purchased an office building, but wound up selling the property for less than it paid when the company encountered a cash crunch and needed to pay debt.
Ruth’s Chris was hit with a class-action discrimination lawsuits
In 2011, Reuters reported that some current and former female staff members of Ruth’s Chris Steak House launched a class-action lawsuit against the company, alleging gender discrimination. This was particularly ironic for a restaurant that was once renowned for hiring only women for its wait staff.
While the lawsuit originally came from three women, a U.S. District judge ruled that the original suit could be amended to a class-action suit on behalf of all female Ruth’s Chris employees. According to Reuters, the lawsuit claimed that "the work environment at RCSH is one that is demeaning to women [and] reflects a culture of male domination and female subjugation," among other allegations.
Ruth’s Chris SVP and chief branding officer Cheryl Henry responded to the suit in a statement to Forbes. "In 1965, Ruth Fertel founded this company as a single mother. She created a legendary culture of hospitality and service, and we are proud to continue to nurture and foster our inclusive environment. Ruth’s Chris Steak House does not tolerate discrimination of any kind in our family of restaurants," said Henry, promising the company would "vigorously defend our position.
The surprising reasons why some Ruth’s Chris customers could get a free steak
One of the most beloved aspects of Ruth’s Chris Steak House for its customers is the chain’s frequent promotional offerings, such as giving moms a $25 credit on Mother’s Day. Another promotion was offered a Ruth’s Chris Steak House location in Ann Arbor, Michigan, promising a free steak to anyone named Chris. According to Detroit’s WXYZ News, the restaurant launched the "summertime promotion" as a "fun and unique way for us to pay it forward" to its customers. Anyone who’s named Chris (or a variation such as Christopher or Christina) would receive a free eight-ounce petite filet.
Meanwhile, another promotion offered a special gift to the class of 2019. As Charlotte’s Spectrum News reported, all nine Ruth’s Chris locations in North Carolina honored graduates by offering them a complimentary three-course dinner from the restaurants’ Seasonal Classics Menu. The expectation was that the graduate would be dining with his or her family, as the offer was contingent on the purchase of an additional four adult entrées.
Ruth’s Chris earned $468 million in 2019 but received $20 million in small business relief
When Congress passed a $2-trillion stimulus package to address the economic impact of the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic, included was the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), a $349-billion fund administrated by the Small Business Administration intended to provide low-interest loans for small businesses with less than 500 employees.
Two weeks after its April 3 launch, however, the PPP had completely run out of money. It soon became apparent that some not-so-small businesses exploited a loophole, with large corporations able to grab loans if those companies had less than 500 employees in one of its locations. As a result, Ruth’s Hospitality Group, corporate parent of Ruth’s Chris Steak House, received two $10-million loans for two of its properties.
Headlines were made and outrage erupted that loans meant to rescue mom-and-pop restaurants instead went to, as GQ reported, a chain with "more than 150 locations and more than 5,700 employees," that "made $42 million in profit on $468 million in revenue last year, which the company partly spent on more than $5 million in stock buybacks," in addition to having $86 million in cash on reserve. It didn’t help that the Ruth’s Chris had laid off a "significant number of field and home office team members."