Someone is always celebrating something at Ruth’s Chris Steak House.
Engagements. Birthdays. Business deals. The restaurant has done them all.
But where does one go to celebrate Ruth’s Chris itself?
A cemetery, of course.
To mark the restaurant’s 50th anniversary, scores of its friends, fans and franchise owners showed up Monday at the Lake Lawn Metairie Cemetery tomb of the steakhouse’s founder.
The stately mausoleum of Ruth Fertel was the backdrop of a celebration marking the restaurant’s ascent from modest beginnings to a publicly traded corporation and one of the largest steakhouse chains in the world.
Should it seem odd that the event took place at her gravesite, consider this: Fertel herself gave a lavish party there in 1999 to unveil the plot, a granite building with stained glass windows estimated to cost $500,000.
Besides, Monday’s event was just as much, if not more, about honoring her life as commemorating the restaurant’s longevity.
Between bites of the restaurant’s signature “sizzling” steak, mashed potatoes and sauteed mushrooms, people lined up to have their pictures taken in front of the crypt.
“It is so rare to find the combination of a business colleague and true friend, and Ruth was both for me,” said Fertel’s close friend and business partner Lana Duke, who bought the mausoleum with Fertel and also will someday be buried there.
“With close business colleagues, you can connect over like interests and debate over serious work issues. But with personal friends, you trust in each other, you confide in each other and you support each other through hard times. I have never met a better friend,” Duke said.
Five decades ago, Fertel used her house as collateral to get a $22,000 loan to buy a business, Chris Steak House, she saw advertised in the newspaper. The divorced mother of two had no restaurant experience and was employed as a lab technician at Tulane University School of Medicine.
That one steakhouse, first at North Broad and Ursulines streets and then at Broad and Orleans Avenue, has grown into 146 Ruth’s Chris locations worldwide. Franchise operators from as far away as Hong Kong came to town for Monday’s party.
“I know that Ruth’s story couldn’t happen anywhere but in America,” U.S. Sen. David Vitter told the crowd. “And I’d like to think it couldn’t have happened the way it did anywhere else but New Orleans. It’s very uniquely American and very unique to New Orleans, and that’s part of what we celebrate here today.”
Fertel died of lung cancer in 2002. She was 75. She had sold the business in 1999 to a Chicago-based investment firm, Madison Dearborn Partners.
Ruth’s Hospitality Group, the arm of the company that holds the steakhouses, relocated its corporate headquarters from New Orleans to Orlando, Florida, the month after Hurricane Katrina. The flagship Ruth’s Chris location did not reopen following the storm.