Why is Ruth’s Chris Steak House called ‘Ruth’s Chris Steak House’?
(NEXSTAR) – It’s not just you: Even the founder of Ruth’s Chris Steak House was perturbed by its name.
Ruth’s Chris Steak House — the somewhat confusingly named restaurant chain that apparently both “Ruth” and “Chris” have something to do with — has managed to open nearly 150 locations across the globe with relatively few people questioning who “Ruth’s Chris” is.
Perhaps not surprisingly, “Ruth’s Chris” is a real person. But he doesn’t belong to “Ruth,” and he has little to do with the chain’s success.
The story of Ruth’s Chris Steak House begins in 1927, when Chris Matulich opened up a restaurant called Chris Steak House on Broad Street in New Orleans. He ended up selling the business six times over the next several decades, buying it back after each new owner’s failed attempt to run the place, according to “Eat Dat,” a guide to New Orleans’ culinary history written by Michael Murphy.
Matulich likely didn’t have high hopes for the next entrepreneur who expressed interest in the place: a young woman named Ruth Fertel (nee Udstad), who had no experience running a restaurant. So he sold it for the seventh — and perhaps unbeknownst to him — the final time.
Fertel, a 38-year-old single mom working as a lab technician at Tulane University, had been looking for a way to pay for her sons’ college tuition. Her friends, family, lawyer and even the bank reportedly advised her against buying the steakhouse, but she ignored their warnings and mortgaged her home to purchase the business for $18,000.
“They told me I was absolutely crazy,” she said in a 1998 interview with Louisiana Public Broadcasting’s “Louisiana Legends” series.
She found success over the next 11 years, and even helped give back to the community by feeding relief workers and victims of Hurricane Betsy, and by hiring an all-female waitstaff made up of single moms like herself.
Fertel also went to work designing a special broiler to help cook the steaks to her specifications — a broiler which is still in use at Ruth’s Chris Steak House locations today, according to Ruth’s Hospitality Group.
In 1976, however, Chris Steak House burned down, forcing Fertel to find another space. But due to a clause in her purchase agreement with Matulich, she couldn’t use the name “Chris Steak House” unless she was running it out of the original building. Fearing that anything too different from “Chris Steak House” would hurt her restaurant’s name recognition, she simply tacked “Ruth’s” to the front.
And she regretted it almost immediately.
“I’ve always hated the name,” Fertel told Fortune in the ‘90s. “But we’ve always managed to work around it.”
The somewhat hard-to-enunciate name didn’t stop Ruth from enjoying her work, either. A few years before she died in 2002, Fertel told Louisiana Public Broadcasting that she believed she found her calling in the hospitality business, despite coming from a background in chemistry and physics.
“I was so lucky that I fell into something that I really, really love,” she said. “And I think that if you ever go into business, you better find something you really love because you spend so many hours with it, it almost becomes your life.”