Retrobituaries: Ruth Fertel, founder of Ruth’s Chris Steak House

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In our Retrobituaries series, we highlight interesting people who are no longer with us. Today let's explore the life of Ruth Fertel, who died at 75 in 2002. 

Ruth Fertel is founder of the Ruth’s Chris Steak House chain. She was born into a poor family in Happy Jack, Louisiana, which is fifty miles south of New Orleans. Though she had no restaurant experience before going into business, she would come to be known as the “empress of steak.” Retrobituaries looks at those whose lives are insufficiently celebrated. Here are a few things you might not know about the life of Ruth Fertel.

She was an early achiever.

In 1942, a 15 year old Ruth Udstad graduated from high school. Her brother, Sig, served in World War II, and used his G.I. benefits to send Ruth to college. She attended Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. By 19, she held Bachelor of Science degrees in physics and chemistry, graduating with honors.

Her husband was... eccentric.

Not long after graduating from LSU, Ruth married Rodney Fertel. The marriage produced two sons (Randy and Jerry), but ended in 1958. It’s pretty hard to overstate the eccentricity of Rodney. His mother was a notorious shoplifter. His father was a businessman nicknamed “Moneybags.” In 1969, Rodney became known in New Orleans as "the Gorilla Man" for his quixotic run for mayor. His platform consisted of a single item: he wanted gorillas for the Audubon Zoo. He handed out plastic toy gorillas while on the campaign trail, and wore safari costumes to debates. He went on to earn 310 votes—just 59,001 votes shy of earning the Democratic nomination. He went ahead and bought the gorillas himself, and worked diligently to force a remodel of the zoo, which was, at the time, described as a “ghetto for animals.” (His son later recalled in a memoir, “Throughout my childhood and adolescence I longed for a father who was normal and sane.”) 

She was the first woman in Louisiana to hold a thoroughbred trainer's license.

Horses and horseracing were a mutual passion, and Ruth and Rodney Fertel opened a horse stable in 1951. She became the first woman in Louisiana who was licensed to train thoroughbreds. 

The prospects of Harvard tuition led her to business.

When she told her son’s high school guidance counselor that Randy would like to go to Harvard, the guidance counselor laughed. (Randy Fertel would later earn a Ph.D. in English and American Literature from Harvard.) But the prospect of college tuition for two sons was daunting, and Ruth was a single mother making ends meet by sewing draperies from her house. She found a job as a lab technician, but again, the money just wasn’t enough. In 1965, she noticed a local restaurant for sale in the classified ads, and decided to take a chance. 

Nobody thought opening a restaurant was a good idea.

The name of the restaurant was Chris Steak House. It had been sold six times, and was a proven money pit. In any event, Ruth couldn’t afford it, and raised the necessary capital by mortgaging her house for $22,000. If she had been a renowned chef, this might have seemed like a good idea. If she had spent her life in the restaurant industry, it might have been vaguely defensible. But she didn’t even know how much money to ask for. Her banker pointed out that her initial loan request covered only the price of the restaurant—she hadn’t even considered the cost of food. Both her lawyer and banker advised her against the venture, but she purchased the restaurant anyway. "It was a case of blind ambition, but I thought I could run a steakhouse," she later said. "At least it sounded more interesting than running a bar." 

She didn’t forget about other single mothers.

She worked tirelessly to learn the restaurant business, from how to butcher meat (hand-cutting 30-pound short loins is no small feat for a 110-pound person) to how to keep the books. She was a cook, hostess, and waitress. Calling them the hardest workers, she hired local single mothers to make up her wait staff. She found success almost immediately. Six months after the restaurant opened, New Orleans lost power for a week following Hurricane Betsy. Ruth cooked the entirety of her stock for local victims and aid workers, and won a lifetime of customers. 

She hated the name of her restaurant.

When she bought the restaurant from Chris Matulich, she negotiated the right to keep the well-established name under the condition that the restaurant stays at its original location. When Chris Steak House burned down in 1974, however, she was forced to move. Accordingly, she needed to change the name. It became Ruth’s Chris Steak House. She always hated the name, she told Fortune in 1998, “but we've always managed to work around it.” 

Ruth’s Chris Steak House became the political hub of Louisiana.

There was a natural progression to Ruth Fertel’s clientele. First she attracted working-class diners, which attracted politicians, which attracted wealthy patrons looking to curry favor with politicians. The restaurant was soon a political hotspot for the state. As one former reporter recalled, "That was the political place to be if you wanted to get some scoops." Edwin Edwards, the colorful (later convicted) Louisiana ex-governor was a regular at the restaurant, and said of Fertel, “She was also someone that every politician in this state knew and respected.” 

One customer got so tired of driving to New Orleans that he bought a franchise.

In 1976, T.J. Moran finally had enough of driving all the way to New Orleans to enjoy a steak, and persuaded Ruth to let him open a franchise in Baton Rouge. This was the first franchise location of many. Today there are 135 locations around the world.

She died in 2002.

Two years before her death, Ruth Fertel was diagnosed with lung cancer. Her last day at the company was the day she was checked into the hospital, where she died a week later. Today Ruth Fertel is remembered as the “the first lady of American restaurants.” 

Previously on Retrobituaries: Edsger Dijkstra, Computer Scientist. See all retrobituaries here

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May 1, 2013 - 1:00pm
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