1995 Horatio Alger Award Winner
"The definition of success is to find something you love doing and then do it to the best of your abilities."
Ruth Fertel was born in New Orleans in 1927 during the Depression. Her father was an insurance salesman and her mother taught kindergarten. Her parents instilled in her strong moral values, with honesty at the top of the list. They also emphasized education and its importance. There was never any question that they would find a way to send her to college when the time came.
A bright student, Fertel skipped several grades and graduated from high school when she was only 15. She attended Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge and worked part-time jobs to help pay her expenses. She studied chemistry and physics, but was undecided about a career when she graduated. She taught one year at John McNeese Junior College, but soon realized she did not like teaching. She quit her job to marry and raise a family.
Ten years later, Fertel's marriage ended. She supported herself and her two young sons by making draperies at home. Later, she spent four years working at Tulane University Medical School, but she grew tired of her low-paying job and knew it would never earn her enough to send her sons to college. When she noticed a "For Sale" ad in her local paper for a small restaurant called Chris Steak House, she instinctively felt this was an opportunity she couldn't ignore.
Fertel had to put her home up as collateral to buy the $18,000 restaurant. Her banker, lawyer, and best friend all advised against the purchase. But Fertel was determined. On her first day on the job, she sold 35 steaks for $5 each. In the first six months, she cleared more than double her previous salary. Fertel had to learn how to cut meat. She was a small woman, and she was picking up 30-pound loins of beef to saw the bone by hand into steaks. She served as the restaurant's hostess, assisted the waitresses, and did her own books. One of her first investments was an electric band saw.
Fertel's first franchise opened in 1977. Today, Ruth's Chris Steak House is the largest upscale restaurant chain in the world, with more than 80 locations in 27 states and the District of Columbia, as well as Canada, Mexico, Asia, and Puerto Rico. The chain sells 16,000 steaks a day and employs more than 4,500. She once said, "My story gives hope and inspiration to everyone that no matter what station in life you come from, you can achieve anything in America with hard work and determination."* Deceased