The story of Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse founder Ruth Fertel, a petite single mother who got a chemistry degree at 19, butchered 30-pound beef loins by hand, and staffed her first steakhouse with single mothers

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Ruth Fertel mortgaged her house to buy a perpetually failing restaurant, Chris Steak House. Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse via PR Newswire
  • The grandson of Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse founder Ruth Fertel blasted the company on Twitter, saying its actions conflict with what his grandmother would have wanted.
  • On April 23, Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse announced that the company will return the $US20 million it received in small-business loans from the federal government.
  • Rien Fertel wrote on Twitter that his grandmother would have done more to give back with the money and power that the chain has now.
  • This is the story of Ruth Fertel, the child genius, horse trainer, and single mother of two who founded the steakhouse chain with no restaurant experience.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse recently came under fire for soliciting $US20 million from the small-business loan program. Soon after, the upscale steak chain announced it was giving the money back. But founder Ruth Fertel’s grandson Rien Fertel lambasted the chain on Twitter for going against his grandmother’s spirit and legacy.

“Dear @RuthsChris, Ruth’s grandson here,” Rien wrote. “I salute the decision you made yesterday to return the $US20 million small business loan. But it’s not enough. My grandmother believed in the virtue of giving, in community, in helping those in need.”

So who was the eponymous Ruth of Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse?

She was a child genius who got a chemistry degree at 19. She was a single mother who raised two boys on her own. She was a petite, 5-foot-2, 110-pound woman who cut 30-pound loins into steaks with a bone saw. And she always hated the “Chris” in Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse.

Ruth Udstad grew up in Happy Jack, a small unincorporated community in Plaquemines Parish, 20 miles from New Orleans. Her mother was a kindergarten teacher, and her father was an insurance salesman. Her family was from the Alsace region of France, and they instilled a love of cooking in Ruth from a young age. According to her son Randy, Ruth was a competitive tomboy who loved gambling and riding horses. All her friends were boys. At 15, she graduated from high school. At 19, she graduated with honours from Louisiana State University with a degree in chemistry.

Then she became a housewife for 14 years.

She married Rodney Fertel, an eccentric millionaire and animal lover who’d later become famous for his unsuccessful mayoral campaign dressed in a gorilla suit. Ruth and Rodney had two sons, opened a racing stable in Baton Rouge, and Ruth became Louisiana’s first licensed female horse trainer.

Over a decade into the tumultuous marriage, Rodney left. He spent the rest of his life trying to make the zoo a more spacious and inviting environment for the animals but refused to pay for his sons’ college tuition. Ruth reentered the workforce as a lab technician at Tulane Medical School to pay for her sons’ tuition, but her $US400-a-month salary was hardly enough to send Randy to his dream school, Harvard.

One day she saw an ad in the classifieds for an unnamed restaurant for sale. She matched the phone number on the ad to the phone number listed in the Yellow Pages for Chris Steak House. She saw that the restaurant had been founded on her birthday, February 2, 1927. With no experience working in a restaurant, Fertel decided to buy the steakhouse.

She went to the bank to mortgage $US18,000 on her house and ended up taking out a $US22,000 loan after the bank cautioned her to account for supplies. She didn’t know that the owner of Chris Steak House, Chris Matulich, had previously sold the restaurant six times and bought it back at a steep discount after the new owners failed to turn a profit.

Although Matulich promised to train Fertel, he disappeared after the sale with all the cash in the register. “He didn’t teach me beans,” she told the San Antonio Express News.

During her first night open, she sold 35 steaks at $US5 each. She butchered each of the steaks herself, cutting through the bone with a hacksaw. She’d collapse on a mattress in the back after butchering each 30-pound loin. A week after opening, she invested in an electric saw.

Chris Steak House becomes Ruth’s Chris Steak House

Hurricane Betsy aftermath in New Orleans
A house upended by Hurricane Betsy sits in high waters. Lynn Pelham/The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images

Four months after she bought the restaurant, Hurricane Betsy hit New Orleans, causing massive damage and knocking out the electric grid. Instead of letting the high-quality steaks in her refrigerators spoil, she cooked them in gas broilers and gave them out free to relief workers and hurricane victims. Afterward, many of those people became regular customers.

For 10 years, Ruth ran Chris Steak House as a stand-alone restaurant. She preferred to employ single mothers like herself because she believed they were reliable and hard workers. Chris Steak House was the only restaurant in New Orleans with an all-female waitstaff. Under her leadership, Chris Steak House flourished. It became a favourite haunt of local politicians and celebrities, including Fats Domino. Chris Matulich never had the opportunity to buy back the steakhouse.

Then, in 1976, the restaurant burned down, six months after Fertel had signed a new 10-year lease. Her purchase agreement with Chris Matulich stipulated that she could use the name “Chris Steak House” only at the original location. But the restaurant’s reputation was inextricably linked to the name. So when she opened back up in the space that had been intended as her second location, “Chris Steak House” became “Ruth’s Chris Steak House.”

That year, she also got her first franchisee, a Baton Rouge customer who was tired of driving 90 miles for his favourite steak. From there, Ruth’s Chris snowballed into a national chain, with Fertel at the helm until 1999, when Madison Dearborn Partners bought a majority stake in the company. Even as the brand became wildly successful, Fertel never stopped hating the name.

“Frankly, I’ve always hated the name,” she said. “But we’ve managed to work around it.”

Ruth Fertel died in 2002. Her son, Randy, did end up attending Harvard, where he earned a doctorate in English literature. Randy wrote a book about his parents in 2011, titled “The Gorilla Man and the Empress of Steak.”

Rien Fertel, her grandson, is also a writer. His Twitter thread ended with a call to action for the owners of Ruth’s Chris to “give back like she did,” citing the story of Ruth cooking up all the steak in her meat fridges after Hurricane Betsy, which appears on the company’s website.

“There’s countless ways to give,” Rien concluded. “If you would like suggestions, if you would like to be put in touch with people in her beloved hometown of New Orleans, where I live today, please reach out.”