The other day I was reading about Ruth Fertel and her contribution to food history. We all know that one person who cooks a mean steak. Today we are going to talk all about Ruth Fertel and how she earned the nickname, “Empress of Steak.”
Let’s take a trip to New Orleans in 1965. Chris Matulich had a restaurant for sale. This was his baby. He opened the original Chris Steak House in 1927. This was a small restaurant located near the Fair Grounds Race Course. It seated 60 people and had no parking lot to speak of.
Chris was a savvy entrepreneur. During his ownership spanning 1927-1965 he sold the restaurant 6 times. Each time the restaurant sold it failed. Chris then would buy the restaurant back cheap. After another failed owner the restaurant was again on the market. This is where Ruth Fertel came on the scene.
To understand Ruth, I have to spend a minute on her early life. Ruth was born on February 5, 1927. Her father sold insurance and her mother taught kindergarten. She was a smart girl and skipped several grades in elementary school. She graduated from high school when she was 15 years old. Her family used her brother’s WWII G.I. benefits to put Ruth through college. She attended Lousiana State University where she graduated in honors in chemistry and physics at the age of 19. That’s incredible!
Ruth’s Marriage and Divorce
In 1946 she had a brief stint teaching at McNeese State University. She lasted 2 semesters before moving on to other things. In October 1948 she married Rodney Fertel. They lived in Baton Rouge and had two sons, Jerry and Randy. Rodney and Ruth shared a deep love for horses and opened a racing stable in Baton Rouge. Ruth earned a thoroughbred trainer’s license, making her the first female horse trainer in Louisiana.
In 1958 Ruth and Rodney divorced. Ruth was unable to support herself and her sons on her alimony payments. She supplemented that income by making drapes at home. The critically tight budget led her to take a job at the Tulane University School of Medicine as a lab tech. She was earning $4,800 a year. Things were slightly better financially, but as a single mom of two boys she realized she was going to need more money. College for her boys was going to come fast and it wasn’t going to be cheap. She started looking around for opportunities and stumbled across a classified ad in the paper offering a restaurant for sale.
Ruth Purchases Chris Steakhouse
As I researched Ruth and learned more about her story I’m blown away. Ruth was a small woman. She was five-foot-two and 110-pounds. However, she had seemingly endless grit and determination packed into her small frame. She wasn’t someone who was content to sit back and let life come to her. She knew that she had to get out there and make the magic happen.
As she contemplated this newspaper ad she did a little more digging into Chris Steak House. She realized that it opened for business on February 5, 1927. This was the exact same day that she was born. Ruth Fertel took this as a sign that it was meant to be. She ignored the advice of her banker, lawyer, friends and family and took the plunge. She mortgaged her house and purchased the restaurant. People must have thought that she had lost her mind. Even though the restaurant had failed 6 times previously, she was confident she could turn things around. The seventh time’s the charm right?
Ruth knew nothing about the restaurant business. She planned to borrow only $18,000 to cover the purchase of the business. However, it was quickly pointed out that she’d need an additional $4,000 to cover the cost of renovations and food.
First Day in Business
May 24, 1965 was the first day with Ruth Fertel running the show as the new owner of Chris Steak House. That first day saw her selling 35 steaks at $5 a piece. Within six months she h ad made over double her annual salary from her previous job. It was starting to look like she was onto something after all.
Ruth didn’t have anyone to show her the ropes of the business. Perhaps this is why the previous 6 owners had failed. Ruth took a very hands on approach to her new venture. She learned how to butcher steak. Ruth sawed up 30-pound short loins by hand until she was able to afford an electric band saw.
Another amazing aspect of her business is that she staffed her restaurant with single mothers. She said that they were hard workers and very reliable. For many years, Chris Steak House was the only upscale restaurant in New Orleans with an all-female wait staff. Her restaurant attracted local politicians, athletes, businessmen and reporters.
Ruth Fertel Puts The Ruth in Ruth’s Chris
In 1976 disaster struck. Ruth Fertel had just signed a new ten-year lease on the restaurant when she discovered a fire had destroyed the property. Fertel had another property that she had purchased to hold events and parties. The problem was she had built Chris Steak House into a brand. It was a real destination spot for diners in New Orleans. Her purchase agreement clearly stated that the name Chris Steak House could only be used in that original location. She couldn’t move the name without violating her agreement. She had a choice, kill her brand and start over with a new name or get creative. Ruth chose to be creative.
She slapped her name on the sign in front of Chris Steak House. The new restaurant was called Ruth’s Chris Steak House. She quickly moved her equipment into the new space and within 7 days she was able to reopen. Ruth later admitted that, “I’ve always hated the name, but we’ve always managed to work around it.” That attitude demonstrates perfectly why Ruth Fertel was destined to succeed. She was going to overcome every problem that came her way.
Later Life and Death
In 1997 she turned 70 years old. That year she personally visited 42 of her restaurants to, “smell out how they’re doing.” Ruth continued to be involved in the business until 1999 when she got sick. She made the hard decision to part ways with the company and sold her business to Madison Dearborn Partners of Chicago, Illinois.
In 2000 Ruth was confronted with a problem she couldn’t solve. Ruth was a lifelong smoker. As a result of being a smoker for more than 50 years, Ruth was diagnosed with lung cancer. The cancer ultimately won and she died two years later in 2002 at the age of 75.
Ruth Fertel was buried in Lake Lawn Metairie Cemetery in New Orleans. She was buried in a lavish mausoleum that she and her business partner and friend, Lana Duke, had commissioned in the mid 90s. In 1999 the structure was completed and Ruth and Lana held a massive party. Father Bob Massett presided over the event and, in typical New Orleans fashion, blessed the crowd with a sprinkling of beer.
The giant granite building has black columns and stained glass windows that feature pictures of angels. It also contains the words, “It’s a wonderful world.”
During her lifetime Ruth Fertel scrapped and clawed for everything she received. Nothing was just given to her. She is an example of what can happen when you put your mind to something. During her business career she earned a couple of nicknames that speak to her meteoric rise. She was known as The First Lady of American Restaurants and The Empress of Steak.
On Ruth’s Chris website you can see an amazing quote from Ruth Fertel herself that made me laugh. It speaks to the humor she brought to the difficult circumstances she faced throughout her life. “If you’ve ever had a filet this good, welcome back.”
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