Ruth Fertel, who was a divorced mother with no business experience when she found the gumption to buy a restaurant and then watched it expand into the worldwide chain of Ruth's Chris Steak Houses, died in New Orleans on Tuesday. She was 75.
Fertel, a heavy smoker, was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2000 but remained active until she was hospitalized Friday, said William Hyde Jr., president and chief executive of the company.
"She was a very classy example of the American dream," said former Louisiana Gov. Edwin Edwards, a frequent diner at Fertel's restaurants. "She was also someone that every politician in this state knew and respected."
The original Ruth's, founded in New Orleans in 1965, became a favorite gathering place for politicians, sports figures, businessmen and media personalities. The recipe was simple: Buy the best corn-fed beef she could find, hand-cut every piece, sear it at 1,800 degrees and serve it in a comfortable atmosphere.
Fertel admitted that her chain was an unlikely success story. The daughter of a hard-driving insurance man and a kindergarten teacher, she was born in New Orleans in 1927. She earned a degree in chemistry at Louisiana State University at age 19, taught college briefly, married and started a family. After 14 years at home, she reentered the work force as a laboratory technician at Tulane Medical School.
When her marriage ended, she feared that she would not earn enough to send her two teenage sons to college. So she scoured the classified ads and in 1965 happened on an offer to buy a restaurant that listed a phone number but not the eatery's name. Curious, she flipped through the yellow pages until she matched the number to the Chris Steak House.
Although she had no experience running a restaurant, Fertel mortgaged her home to buy it.
"It was a case of blind ambition, but I thought I could run a steakhouse," she told a restaurant trade magazine in 1997. "At least it sounded more interesting than running a bar."
She was so naive that she planned only to borrow the $18,000 needed to make the purchase, "but the bank suggested I take an additional $4,000 to buy food and supplies," she recalled.
The original owner had promised to train her, but instead emptied the cash register and disappeared as soon as the sale was completed. "He didn't teach me beans," Fertel told the San Antonio Express News a few years ago.
The only advice that he gave her was to never cut steaks with an electric saw. She followed it for a week, until she so tired of slicing 30-pound short loins with a handsaw that she switched. She bought an electric saw and never looked back.
She kept the original name of the steakhouse until 1976, when a fire burned down the building and she had to relocate. A clause in the purchase agreement stipulated that if she ever left the original site she would have to alter the name. So she tacked on her first name, producing the tongue-twisting but memorable Ruth's Chris Steak House.
That same year she sold her first franchise--to a Baton Rouge customer tired of the 90-mile drive to New Orleans.
Now the chain has 36 company-owned restaurants and 46 franchised locations in the United States, Hong Kong, Canada, Mexico, Puerto Rico and Taiwan.
"Every time I open a new restaurant I say to myself, 'Here's this little ol' country girl from Port Sulphur, La., with all these upscale steakhouses with her name on them,'" said the throaty Fertel, who often wore outfits that matched the red-and-black theme of her restaurants. "It completely astounds me."
According to the company's latest figures, the restaurants sell about 14,000 steaks daily and grossed more than $320 million in 2001. Since 1999, majority control in the company has been held by Chicago-based Madison Dearborn Partners. Fertel and her family remained minority partners.
In 1999, Fertel and a friend spent more than $500,000 to build a mausoleum at Lake Lawn Metairie Cemetery, and she unveiled it with a party that was remarkable even by New Orleans standards. At the time, one guest described the deep-burgundy facade as being as richly marbled as a Ruth's Chris steak.
Funeral arrangements were incomplete.