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How Ruth’s Chris Steak House Got Its Tongue-Twisting Name—Which Ruth Herself Hated

Ellen Gutoskey
Say it five times fast.
Say it five times fast. / John Greim/GettyImages
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In May 1965, a woman named Ruth bought a steakhouse from a man named Chris. 

Ruth Fertel was a divorced mother of two working as a lab technician at Tulane University when she saw an ad for the sale of a New Orleans steakhouse in the newspaper classifieds. The founder, Chris Matulich, had opened the place in 1927 and was ready to retire. So Fertel mortgaged her house to borrow $22,000 from the bank—enough to meet the $18,000 asking price, plus other expenses—and purchased the 60-seat eatery.

Fertel threw herself into her new life as a restaurateur, charging $5.50 per steak and hiring mostly other single mothers to serve them. But while the ownership had changed, the name hadn’t: Matulich let her keep calling it “Chris Steak House” on the condition that it remain in the same building.

For the next 11 years, it did. Then, in 1976, a kitchen fire caused so much damage that Fertel was forced to find new premises. In a little over a week, she had converted her catering hall down the street into a fully functioning restaurant and christened it “Ruth’s Chris Steak House.” That way, she kept the name recognition of the old one without breaching her agreement with Matulich.

The update alleviated another issue, too. As her son Randy Fertel wrote in his memoir, The Gorilla Man and the Empress of Steak, “she had grown to hate being called Chris, or, worse, being taken for Chris’s wife. Customers angling for a table on a packed night sometimes claimed that they knew Ruth before she married Chris.”

But if you think the phrase Ruth’s Chris Steak House seems better suited to a list of tongue-twisters than a restaurant sign, you’re not alone. One restaurant critic reportedly joked that saying the name three times fast could work as a sobriety test. In fact, even the owner herself abhorred the moniker.

“I’ve always hated the name,” Fertel told Fortune in 1998, four years before her passing. “But we’ve always managed to work around it.”

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