Ruth Fertel: The Grande Dame of the Steakhouse Business

We all know that Ruth’s Chris Steak House offers one of the finest meat eating experiences in Indianapolis, but few people know of the sacrifices, ingenuity, and desperation that came into play for the creation of this ubiquitous chain. Forty five years after its inception, Ruth’s Chris Steak House has over 120 locations spread throughout the world, but it started as a dilapidated business for sale in a run down, dangerous section of New Orleans. For Ruth Ann Fertel, the mind behind the franchise, creating and managing a top notch restaurant chain took more than just elbow grease. spoke with Larry Griggers, the owner of five Ruth’s Chris Steak House franchises, about the woman who changed the world, one steak at a time.

Ruth didn’t begin her career in the restaurant business. She was an incredibly intelligent woman who earned her degree in chemistry and physics from LSU. But the glass ceiling–the metaphorical barrier that stops career-minded women from attaining the same heights on the corporate ladder as men–of 1960’s New Orleans stopped Ruth from becoming the acclaimed scientist she could have been. For all her education and intelligence, she was working as a “lower level lab technician” at Tulane when the bottom fell out. According to Mr. Griggers, “Her husband came home one day and [said] those famous words: ‘Honey, I don’t want to be married any more,’ and left.”

Ruth wanted a good education for her two sons, just like what she had received, but she couldn’t afford to pay tuition on her meager earnings as a lab tech. Not one to give up easily, Ruth scanned the classifieds section of the local newspaper day by day, hoping to find work to ensure a future for her and her sons. “One day there was a little teeny ad…it said ‘Chris Steak House: For Sale.’ So she went down to the bank and borrowed [$20,000] on her bungalow.” Ruth gambled everything on a career that she had no experience or training in, a truly risky step that must have taken a considerable amount of guts.

Her success was nothing close to ensured: far from being the classy, upscale establishment we think of today when we think of Ruth’s Chris Steak House, the original Chris Steak House was “in the ghetto…a really rough neighborhood,” not far from Ruth’s own home. Most people would have been content with taking over an already established restaurant and living off the profits, but Ruth wanted more: she wanted “to serve the finest steaks in the world,” not a particularly easy task. “So she inspected cows around the world,” said Mr. Griggers, “she tested meat from Russia, Argentina, and so forth, and found that the finest meat in the world came from…the Midwest.”

Once she found the perfect breeding ground for the perfect steak, Ms. Ruth still was not content with the final product. More work needed to be done on the way from the pasture to the customer’s plate. “She started coming back up the chain, because in the 60’s the meat processing, handling, packaging…wasn’t as clean as it is today. If she found something that didn’t meet her standards, she basically invented it.” Some of the techniques Ruth’s Chris Steak House uses today were first pioneered by Ruth Fertel. “[She] had a hand in inventing the broilers we use today, which cook meat at 1800 degrees,” Griggers said, “I can melt a lot of metals at 1800 degrees.” The broilers allowed for a juicier, fuller tasting steak because it was “seared quickly in these ovens so that the juices stayed in.” Another oven was invented to keep the steak hot all throughout the meal by “cooking” the plates. “By the time that steak hits your table,” said Griggers, “it’s at about 500 degrees.”

The broilers may have made Ms. Ruth’s steaks hot and juicy, but the ovens alone don’t entirely account for the classic Ruth’s Chris steak we have today. There is a simple signature ingredient that causes the signature sizzle we’re used to getting at the two Indianapolis restaurants. “We put one tablespoon of butter on each steak,” said Griggers, “it looks like more, but that gives it the famous sizzle that Ruth’s Chris is noted for. Butter drips off the steak and combines with the steak juices that are oozing out…[Ruth] was known as the ‘lady that invented the sizzle.'”

By 1965, Chris Steak House was doing very well, thanks to the hard work of Ms. Ruth. She did virtually everything at the restaurant: sweeping, cooking, cutting meat, serving, and tending bar, not to mention the managerial and financial duties that come with owning a restaurant. Her little sixty seat restaurant in the ghetto of New Orleans had a reputation for serving one of the best steaks in town. But once again, fate had disaster in store for Ruth and the rest of New Orleans. Hurricane Betsy came rolling into town, wiping out most of the city and causing almost a billion dollars in damage, earning the nickname “Billion Dollar Betsy.” But not only did Ruth find a way “to patch her place up and stay open,” she also gave selflessly to the disaster-stricken community. Griggers said “she fed the workers that were doing relief work, she fed the local people, gave them free food…because they had lost their freezers and refrigerators, and that put her on the map.”

Ten years after Billion Dollar Betsy, another calamity struck the franchise when the original Chris Steak House burnt down. “[Ruth] was crushed,” Griggers said, “She went to her banker in tears…a construction fellow heard the story, came in, and built her out this little place four blocks from the original restaurant, still in the ghetto. So she had a sign put up: ‘Chris Steak House.'” Unfortunately, the owner of the original Chris Steak House, the one Ruth purchased back at the start of her days as a restaurateur, refused to let her use his name on her new steakhouse. Everyone knew her steakhouse as “Chris Steak House;” if she changed the name, she might lose most of her valuable customer base. In desperation, she contacted her lawyer, who told her: “Ms. Ruth, get on a ladder with a paint bucket, go up there and put ‘Ruth’s Chris Steak House’ on the sign.” That’s how the name was born, and it hasn’t been changed since.

Natural disasters weren’t the only kind to befall Ruth Fertel and her burgeoning restaurant chain. “There was one person, someone with a questionable reputation in restaurant history, who purportedly stole all her secrets,” Griggers said. “He went over to Dallas and started a competing restaurant chain, The Double Eagle.” A list of the top ten steakhouses in America was published every year at that time, and The Double Eagle was always on the list, often in first place. Ruth’s Chris Steak House “was winning awards all across the country,” but for some reason Fertel’s restaurant never reached the top ten. As usual, Ruth took the initiative. She hired a private detective, who discovered the publication was owned by the owner of The Double Eagle. A huge court battle ensued, and Fertel emerged victorious. She won the rights to the publication and promptly closed it.

But that wasn’t the end of The Double Eagle. The owner, Mr. Wamstead, opened a competing steakhouse in New Orleans under an assumed name. The new restaurant, Del Frisco’s, used Ruth’s standards and practices and opened “about a mile away” from Ruth’s Chris Steak House. But this time Ruth didn’t have to get involved: Wamstead’s wife did the work for her. As Ms. Ruth told it, Mrs. Wamstead was convinced her husband was hiding something from her, and one day she went to Del Frisco’s to confront him about his suspected meanderings. “One day his wife walked into the restaurant, dining room’s full, she’s screaming at the top of her lungs for him to come out and confront her,” Griggers said. Wamstead’s wife shot him five times; miraculously, he survived and eventually closed the New Orleans branch of Del Frisco’s.

According to Mr. Griggers, the unfortunate end of Mr. Wamstead’s restaurant was one of Ruth’s favorite stories. At each opening of a new Ruth’s Chris Steak House, Ms. Ruth was on hand to meet, greet, and wish well to the new franchise. Her fame was such that radio stations would interview her at each new opening. “She was being interviewed one day during one of our openings,” Griggers said, “and this interviewer had heard [the Wamstead] story. At the end of the interview, he said ‘Ms. Ruth, you’ve won Grande Dame of the Steak House Business, Female Entrepreneur of the Year, award after award after award, but do you have any regrets in life?’ And she didn’t hesitate…she said ‘Yes, I do have one regret. I wish Mrs. Wamstead had come to me for shooting lessons.’ ”

From Ruth’s Chris Steak House’s humble beginnings, the restaurant chain has expanded to hundreds of locations around the world, from Dubai to Indy; it’s the largest upscale family restaurant in the world. Despite all the hardships that fell on her shoulders, Ruth Fertel persevered. She never flinched from a challenge, whether it was supporting two children on a lab tech’s wages, risking house and home to embark on an untested business venture, or rebuilding from the ground up after disaster. Through it all, she never lost her sense of humor or her spirit of community; she gave New Orleans a helping hand when it needed it most and showed the world that women could be just as business savvy as any man. Ms. Ruth passed away in 2002, but she left behind a legacy as inspiring as it is delicious. “She was a fascinating, fascinating lady,” said Griggers, “I was fortunate to be a little tiny piece of her history.”

For more information about Ruth Fertel and Ruth’s Chris Steak House, visit the Ruth’s Chris Steak House homepage.

Ruth’s Chris Steak House at Circle Centre Mall
45 S Illinois St
Indianapolis, IN 46204

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Ruth’s Chris Steak House Northside
9445 Threel Rd
Indianapolis, IN 46240

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