In conversation with Lana Duke, a fine dining grande dame.
Sara Waxman: What distinguishes Ruth’s Chris Steak House that catapulted it to the world’s largest fine dining steak house brand?
Lana Duke: It was Ruth Fertel, founder of Ruth’s Chris, and her vision. With her chemistry and physics degrees she had this broiler made that cooked steaks at 1800°. Her goal was to get the finest beef that money could buy, and she wanted the last bite to be as hot as the first. The sizzle in the plate kept it hot to the very last bite. It was difficult to get every Ruth’s Chris in the world to do that. “If it doesn’t sizzle, send it back.” That helped build the brand.
SW: How did you get from Toronto to New Orleans?
LD: I was 18 years old, living with three girls in Rosedale, and we wanted to travel. When one girl became a flight attendant stationed in New Orleans, we decided to join her.
SW: You then became “the secret weapon” behind other companies’ successes. To what did you attribute that moniker?
LD: I started selling ads for a newspaper, then opened my own advertising agency. One of my first clients was Ruth’s Chris. Communication is the key to learning the strengths and weaknesses of a company. You have to find that USP (Unique Selling Proposition), like “the sizzle” in a Ruth’s Chris steak.
SW: All of your restaurants have achieved the DiRoNa Award and the Wine Spectator Award. How do you maintain that level of quality control?
LD: One of the things that helped our franchisees is a great relationship between us and corporate. Half are corporate owned and half are privately owned. We buy a lot of wine in Canada and our people understand what the market is. We have a balance. We have TasteMaker Dinners, pairing our steaks with wine and champagne. That also helps to keep quality control. I can’t take credit for that. My management team and my son, who is so much more involved in the business than I am, have helped maintain that quality.
SW: In addition to opening franchises across the US, two years after your first in San Antonio, you chose to open in Toronto. Why was this important to you?
LD: I wanted to bring Ruth’s Chris back home to Canada and I pursued opening in Toronto. I was able to negotiate a great lease at the Toronto Hilton Hotel and I am very proud and humbled by the fact that I have that franchise.
SW: You have sponsored Roy Maas Youth Alternatives in San Antonio, and Raintree Children and Family Services in New Orleans. San Antonio’s Downtown Alliance named Ruth’s Chris “Best Restaurant with a Heart” for your charitable community involvement. How essential is charity to the Ruth’s Chris brand?
LD: I was a foster child from the age of nine months to 15 years. I owe so much of my success to the people who were not family and helped me maintain my inner strength. Now it is my turn. When Hurricane Katrina hit, I was in Toronto for a golf tournament to benefit Peel Children’s Aid and I asked if a percentage of the proceeds could go to the foster children in New Orleans. My son is aligned with the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society of Canada. In San Antonio when a diner buys a certain appetizer, that money goes to a charity. When I know that I have reached out and helped a child, it comes back to me 100 fold.
SW: You have mentored other restaurateurs. Is there a common thread to maintaining a successful restaurant?
LD: In a word: consistency. Things have stayed the same because of a proven formula. We have added a few dishes through the years. In Toronto people love our chicken, and we’ve added other vegetable dishes. Whether it is in Toronto, Seattle or Hong Kong, that dish will taste the same. But the main thing is hospitality. We want you to feel comfortable in a professional and friendly environment.
SW: You are often asked to speak to professional groups about raising capital, solving business problems and growth in a challenging business environment, and have been cited for your “Ten Tips for Success in this Crazy Business.” Is it about the steak or the people?
LD: It is about both the steak and the people. Ruth used to refer to the back of the house as the heart of the house. At every opening she would go to the heart of the house first to thank everyone.
- First, find your USP, your Unique Selling Proposition. Then, think big. Forget about money; you can always scale back.
- About raising capital: people don’t buy companies, they buy people. You have to have the marketing plan, the master plan, but that investor is buying you.
3.When solving business problems you must be proactive rather than sitting and waiting for someone else to solve the problem.
4.My ending is always the word Lagniappe, a New Orleans word that means you are adding a little something extra to the transaction.
In the Ruth’s Chris tradition, the last bite is indeed as good as the first. Come hungry, Darlin’! www.ruthschris.ca
Sara Waxman, OOnt, is an award-winning restaurant critic, best-selling cookbook author, food and travel journalist and has eaten her way through much of the free world for four decades, while writing about it in books, newspapers and magazines. She is the Editor in Chief of DINE and Destinations magazine.