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Ruth Fertel

Ruth Fertel

~By Johanne Harrigan

Steak has always been a man’s meal. Any wedding caterer will attest that heavy slabs of bloody red meat are much more likely to grace the plates of male diners than daintily arranged plates of stuffed poultry or grilled fish. Even the Beef Council knew years ago that “Beef, it’s what’s for dinner” sounded right when asserted by the low, gravelly voice of Robert Mitchum, James Garner, or Sam Elliott. One can be sure that Julie Andrews was never considered, no matter how much she may love red meat.

Ruth Fertel was a woman who loved her steak and did not let the good ol’ boys network of the beef industry discourage her. With a little capital and a great deal of determination, she founded the most famous American steakhouse of all time and watched her restaurants multiply around the globe. For founding Ruth’s Chris Steak House and bringing top quality beef to millions, Ruth Fertel is honored as this month’s Steamroller.

Ruth Fertel, nee Udstad was born on February 5, 1927 in New Orleans to an insurance salesman and a kindergarten teacher. She was a bright child, and was able to skip several grades in grammar school, ultimately graduating from high school at the age of 15. A self-professed overachiever, she then enrolled at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge to study physics and chemistry. Upon completing her undergraduate degree at the age of 19, Ruth took a position teaching at John McNeese Junior College in Lake Charles, Louisiana, but left the school after only two semesters.

In 1948, Ruth married Rodney Fertel and had two sons, Jerry and Randy. Along with her husband, Ruth grew to enjoy horse racing, and the two opened a stable in 1951. Never discouraged by convention, Ruth became the first woman in Louisiana to hold a thoroughbred trainer’s license. Despite their common interests, however, the couple’s marriage deteriorated, resulting in their divorce in 1958.
Initially, Fertel supplemented her ex-husband’s alimony payments by making drapes out of her own home. In 1961, she decided to return to work. She found a position as a laboratory technician at Tulane Medical School and worked there for several years before realizing that her salary was insufficient to pay for her sons’ college expenses.

Inspiration struck one fateful day in 1965 when, while scanning the classified ads, Fertel noticed a restaurant for sale. Despite no prior restaurant experience, she wasted little time in approaching a banker friend for a loan. Fertel mortgaged her home for $22,000 to make the purchase. Naively, she had initially requested $18,000 and added the additional $4,000 request only after the banker pointed out that she would need money to buy food for her new venture.

Fertel worked doggedly to ensure her success. She worked from 9:00 AM until midnight most nights, and worked in every aspect of the restaurant, from butchering the meat to waiting on tables and keeping the books. She knew that she could not afford to fail. When Hurricane Betsy hit New Orleans less than six months after her restaurant opening, Fertel lost electricity for a week. Rather than lament the imminent spoilage of her steaks, Fertel decided to cook them all and served them to the disaster workers and victims in the community. Following the crisis, many customers came to Chris Steak House in appreciation of Fertel’s generosity.

Several years later, disaster struck again when a fire completely destroyed the steakhouse. Fertel decided to rebuild the restaurant several miles away and expanded its size. With three times the seating as her previous building, she was able to accommodate her growing clientele. A new location warranted a new name as well. Pursuant the sales agreement with the former owner of the steakhouse, Fertel was not allowed to retain the name Chris Steak House at a different location. Despite its tongue twisting effect, the new restaurant received the expanded name Ruth’s Chris Steak House.

In 1976, Tom Moran, a regular customer and business owner, convinced Fertel to let him open a franchise in Baton Rouge. Soon, other friends and associates began to approach Fertel with the intentions of opening additional franchises. As a result, Ruth’s Chris Steak House grew significantly throughout the 1980s and 90s. As she saw her steakhouse chain go global, Fertel was dubbed “The First Lady of American Restaurants.” In 1992 she was named regional Entrepreneur of the Year by Inc., Magazine and won the Entrepreneur of the Year award in 1995 by the Horatio Alger Association.

In 2000, Fertel was diagnosed with lung cancer. She continued to work actively until her death in 2002 at the age of 75. Today, there are more than 120 company and franchise-owned locations of Ruth’s Chris Steak House worldwide. Despite changing diet trends over the years, Ruth’s Chris Steak House has consistently drawn diners to its tables. For her ambition and a job well-done, Ruth Fertel is deserving of Steamroller status.

About The Author:

Johanne Harrigan

Johanne Harrigan holds a Master's Degree in clinical social work from Fordham University and a Master's Degree in history from the State University of New York at Oswego. As a social worker, she worked primarily in mental health and medical settings. Her Master's thesis focused on the political evolution of the American Medical Association during the Progressive Era. Currently on hiatus from the world of paid employment, Johanne is a homeschooling mother of three bright, beautiful children.