Four decades ago, Fertel, who was a divorced mother of two, mortgaged her home for tens of thousands of dollars so she could buy a restaurant in New Orleans, according to the company's website. It was called Chris Steak House and it marked the very beginning of a franchise that now bills itself a global steakhouse leader.
But her path from a single, 60-seat restaurant to a major chain welcoming customers at more than 150 restaurants worldwide was no easy journey. In fact, shortly after opening her first shop, a fire erupted. The fire forced her to move the restaurant and she renamed it Ruth’s Chris Steak House.
By 1977, Ruth granted rights to have the first franchise just outside Baton Rouge, La. By the mid-80s, Sizzling Steak Concepts, now seen as the largest Ruth’s Chris franchisee worldwide, took off with scores of restaurants across the southeast.
It was an impressive feat for a woman who reportedly had no restaurant experience or formal culinary training. Prior to her start as a restauranter, Fertel was working as a lab technician at Tulane School of Medicine, according to the New York Times. However, her career took a dramatic turn in the early 60s when she was grappling with how to pay for her sons' college education.
That's when she came upon an advertisement that changed everything. It was advertising the sale of a restaurant. With ''a case of blind ambition," Fertel purchased the place from Chris Matulich, the Times reported. The hard-working mother of two taught herself how to butcher and within six months of opening, she took in twice her annual salary as a lab technician, the outlet reported.
At the time of the sale, Matulich had granted the savvy businesswoman the rights to the restaurant name as long as she kept the location. However, after enduring a fire, she moved spots, giving her the freedom to add her name to it, according to the Times citing a 1998 Fortune interview.
The original Ruth's in New Orleans had been a hit amongst politicians, sports figures, businessmen and media personalities alike, according to the Los Angeles Times. She would draw in the crowds with her hand cut corn-fed beef that was seared at 1,800 degrees, the outlet reported.
In 2002, Fertel passed away at 75 years old after being diagnosed with lung cancer in 2000.
“She was a very classy example of the American dream,” said former Louisiana Gov. Edwin Edwards, an avid diner, told the Los Angeles Times. “She was also someone that every politician in this state knew and respected.”