One of Midtown’s most well-known grill spots is overdone — Ruth’s Chris Steak House has announced that it will close in April.
After serving up pre-theater filets and ribeyes for 30 years on W51st Street, the company decided not to renew their expiring lease, a spokesperson for the brand told Crains New York Business.
The franchise — which has 150 locations across the US, Canada, Mexico, China, Aruba, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Japan, SIngapore and Taiwan — saw an 8.5 percent sales increase in their last stakeholder share out, but the New York Ruth’s Chris outpost struggled to recover tourist and office worker business after the COVID-19 shutdown. “Our Manhattan restaurant continues to be challenged, albeit it had some green shoots, but it continues to be challenged over the long haul,” said Ruth’s Chris CFO and CEO Kristy Chipman during the company’s third-quarter earnings call in November (Crains).
Andrew Rigie, executive director of the New York City Hospitality Alliance told Crains that the closure was part of a larger pattern among Big Apple restaurants fighting back inflated supply costs, labor shortages and inconsistent revenue post COVID-19 shutdown. “Over the past years, we’ve seen countless restaurants close as casualties of the pandemic, as additional economic troubles continue to complicate business in New York City,” said Rigie. “While the situation is much better than it was over the last few years, our survey results show that for many restaurants, business is lagging, not back to where it should be, and many restaurants and businesses are concerned about the uncertainty that 2023 may bring.”
While New Yorkers and visitors will undoubtedly miss the opportunity to snag a steak from Ruth’s Chris before a concert at Carnegie Hall, what many don’t know is the unique history behind the awkwardly named steakhouse. The “Ruth” in Ruth’s Chris refers to Ruth Ulstad (later Ruth Fertel), a young woman from a small Louisiana Parish called Happy Jack, 20 miles outside of New Orleans. Ruth graduated high school at 15 and college at 19 with a degree in chemistry from Louisiana State, and found herself at a crossroads when, at the end of an unhappy decade-long marriage, she was struggling to support her sons and pay for their college tuition.
She was woman of many talents who had always loved cooking, and when she saw an ad in the paper with the opportunity to purchase the New Orleans restaurant Chris Steak House in 1965, Ruth took out a $22,000 loan from her own mortgage (approximately $200,000 in today’s currency) to buy the restaurant. It was a risky bet — the previous owner Chris Matulich had sold the restaurant six times before, and although he promised to train her, essentially left her alone to figure out the intricacies of operating a steakhouse.
But Ruth was an intrepid entrepreneur and a quick study, despite the many challenges that would befall her burgeoning business. On her first night, she personally butchered and sold 35 steaks for $5 each, eventually investing in an electric meat saw after spending considerable time cutting them with a hacksaw. After only four months, she weathered the devastating Hurricane Betsy and a citywide electrical outage by cooking her stock of steaks in a gas broiler and handing them out to victims and relief workers for free (Business Insider).
In 1976, the restaurant burned down. Forced to start over at a new location, she finally had the opportunity to rename the steakhouse, which was contractually required to remain “Chris Steak House” at its original location. Though she was eager to change it entirely, she had already built up a reputation among regular customers under the Chris Steak House name, and instead opted to add on “Ruth’s” to her new location. She would later tell CNN: “Frankly, I’ve always hated the name, but we’ve managed to work around it.”
Shortly after reopening as Ruth’s Chris, Ruth opened her first franchise in Baton Rouge, eventually expanding to locations nationwide until 1999, when she sold the majority stake to Madison Dearborn Partners before she died in 2002. The original New Orleans location flooded in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and the chain’s new owners moved operations to Florida.
In the intervening years the chain became increasingly corporate, culminating in a coronavirus controversy when the brand took a $20 million Paycheck Protection Program payout that many, including Ruth’s family, critiqued as meant for small businesses rather than the multi-million dollar franchise. The brand eventually agreed to return the money, in a move that Ruth’s grandson Rien Fertel applauded, as he encouraged fans of the steakhouse to give back to local New Orleans businesses in his grandmother’s memory. “I urge you to do more. To give back like she did. To do better than what she was financially capable of back in 1968,” he wrote.
And while the Manhattan chapter of the Ruth’s Chris story may be ending, as Fertel wrote: There’s always another small business — with someone not unlike Ruth Fertel running it — for hungry diners to support.