THE HISTORY OF RUTH’S CHRIS
The year was 1965, and Ruth Fertel was looking to buy a business. The 38 year-old divorcee from Happy Jack, Louisiana was a Tulane University lab assistant in New Orleans. But she knew she couldn´t send her two sons to college on her $4,800 annual salary, so she began scouring the classified ads. A tavern? No, she hated drunks. A gas station? Boring. Then she saw in the classified ads, that a restaurant near the Fairgrounds racetrack called the Chris Steak House was for sale. "Oh," she thought, "I´m sure I could do that!"
Ruth Fertel had never worked in the food service business, but her can-do drive was well established. She had graduated from high school at 15 and earned a chemistry degree from LSU at 19. So against the advice of her banker and her attorney, she mortgaged her house for the $18,000 asking price, plus $4,000 more for supplies, which the banker had patiently explained she would need. They might have objected even more strenuously if they had known Chris Matulich had already sold his 60 seat steak house six times, repeatedly buying it back on the cheap when the latest owner had failed or given up.
Ruth didn´t know she was being suckered. She was too busy learning about hostessing, waitressing, cooking, bartending, bookkeeping and butchering 30-pound loins of beef (no easy feat for a 5´2" 110-lb novice). She was undaunted by her lack of restaurant experience, and worked tirelessly seven days a week to learn about every aspect of the business. Customers admired her honesty and hard work, and soon she was serving 35 steaks a day for $5 each, at a small profit.
Ruth´s unlikely break came a few months after opening when Hurricane Betsy devastated New Orleans. With the electricity knocked out, her meat supply would soon spoil. But her gas broilers still worked, so she cooked free steak meals for the disaster victims and relief workers, a gesture that won her recognition and many new customers. With business eventually booming, Ruth opened another branch close to the original. This prompted a legal spat with Chris Matulich that led her to append her first name to his, creating the famously tongue-twisting Ruth´s Chris Steak House. "Frankly, I´ve al ways hated the name," she would later say, "but we´ve managed to work around it."
With her background in science, she looked for the optimum way to serve her customers the finest steaks available. Ruth designed a broiler that let her cook the USDA prime, corn-fed steaks at a searing 1,800 degrees and then began serving them on hot plates to keep the steak hot throughout the meal. Those same broilers and plates are still found at each location today. She soon became a Lousisiana institution in a city famous for exceptional food.
Ruth´s obsession with quality, in addition to her hands-on style of direction, simply did not fit what she saw as cookie-cutter restaurants serving unexciting food. So it was not until 1977, 12 years after buying the Chris Steak House, that she was talked into the first franchise by a loyal customer. He opened in Baton Rouge, 90 miles up the road. She developed a two-step process of service and quality that permeates every store and franchise: First, follow the Golden Rule; Second, never skimp on quality. To this day, every location has the same menu for consistency, and to avoid the cookie-cutter look, she insisted that each location be unique in design and atmosphere. In 1985, the Austin franchise opened at 3010 Guadalupe as only the 12th Ruth´s Chris in the nation.