Food Arts presents the December 1994 Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to Ruth Fertel, the First Lady of American steakhouses.
Through blackened redfish and seared tuna, Mediterranean menus and a food pyramid that minimizes meat, Fertel has stood by her steak. Her 46th Ruth's Chris Steakhouse opens in Denver this month. An indomitable entrepreneur who has weathered natural disasters, personal hardship, and slander of red meat for nearly 30 years, Fertel still comes out smiling.
Fertel never gave a thought to the restaurant business when she was young. She went to college, majored in chemistry and physics, got married, and became a full-time mom. When her two sons were teenagers, she divorced and found a job as a lab technician at Tulane Medical School. Soon realizing she wouldn't be able to afford to send her boys to college, she turned to the classifieds. "I was looking for a business—any business," she says. "There were lots of bars and service stations for sale." But it was the ad for the Chris Steak House that caught her eye. She mortgaged her house to raise $18,000 needed to buy it.
Believing that honesty and hard work would pay off, Fertel was undaunted by the fact she had no experience in the restaurant business. Soon she was working seven days a week, doing everything from butchering the steaks to tending bar,
Oddly enough, it was a natural disaster that gave her fledgling business a real push. "A few months after I bought the restaurant in 1965, Hurricane Betsy devastated New Orleans. No one had electricity, and all my meat was about to spoil." she recalls. She cooked up steaks by the dozens for the disaster workers and became a heroine in the process. "I guess when a man's working real hard, he wants a steak," she says.
Fertel was also given a boost by the Catholic church. "Because of all the devastation there was no fishing, so the bishop of New Orleans gave Catholics a special dispensation to eat meat on Friday. And I stayed open on Fridays."
Fertel opened a second steakhouse in Metairie, a suburb of New Orleans, in 1971. In 1977 she started granting franchises. Today there are 15 corporate-owned and 31 franchised units nationwide. Though the menus are uniform, the decor varies widely to appeal to each community. In New York City, a tough market she finally tackled just last year, the aura is "upscale steakhouse," with mahogany paneling, forest green watered-silk wall coverings, and Oriental carpets. In New Orleans, regional Louisiana landscapes hover over the local politicos who gather there. And in Philadelphia there are fine lace curtains on the windows. All together the restaurants serve about 9,000 steaks daily, grossing $130 million annually.
Fertel serves only corn-fed U.S. prime beef bred in the Midwest. Steaks are cut at the restaurant, broiled on specially built broilers that cook at about 1,800°F, topped with a pat of butter, and served sizzling on china platters heated to 500°F. She and her management team, which includes a number of motherly ladies one could almost swear are Ruth clones, also dispense a generous dose of Southern hospitality, which may set Fertel's apart from other steakhouses—even more than the sizzle. In her melodious drawl, she calls this solicitous service "spoiling the customers."
Over the years Fertel has made a passing accommodation to food trends, introducing smaller steaks for lunch and even adding grilled salmon to the menu. But her basic formula has held up. "A good steak is so universal, it won't go out of style," she says. "I always worked hard and gave people a good steak."