Orlando based Darden announced last week that it would acquire Winter Park based Ruth’s Hospitality Group, owner of the upscale Ruth’s Chris Steak House chain. The purchase price is $715 million, or about what it would cost for steaks for a party of 10 at Ruth’s.
The acquisition of another premium steak brand is an interesting choice for Darden, which already has the Capital Grille in its portfolio. Ruth’s Chris has 154 locations worldwide, 80 of which are company owned or operated.
Ruth’s Chris Steak House was founded in 1965 in New Orleans by Ruth Fertel, who bought an existing restaurant called Chris Steak House (which explains the odd name). Fertel had no restaurant experience; she was a a single mom with two sons and working as a lab technician at Tulane Medical School when she saw the restaurant listed for sale in the newspaper. Not long after Fertel bought the business, a hurricane hit the city and knocked out the power. Faced with losing her inventory of steaks, Fertel had her chefs cook them up and serve them to emergency workers, earning her a loyal base of new customers.
Ironically, it was another hurricane – Katrina – that prompted a rather hasty relocation of the company’s headquarters from New Orleans (or Metairie, to be exact) to Lake Mary in 2005. The corporate offices were moved to Winter Park in 2011.
The first Central Florida location of Ruth’s Chris opened in 1990 on the second floor of the Interior Decor Center on Douglas Avenue in Altamonte Springs. It replaced another short-lived restaurant called Bob Ruby’s Great Steaks.
My initial review of Ruth’s Chris found it lacking. Among other things, the steaks were consistently overcooked, which is not good for a steakhouse and even worse for a steakhouse charging premium prices.
After the review ran, the company – which was still privately held and headed by Fertel – took out a full page ad in the Orlando Sentinel’s Calendar section disputing my account and questioning my abilities. In the meantime, Fertel sent her “kitchen gestapo” – her spokesman’s term, not mine – to check things out in Altamonte Springs. They found that the ovens were miscalibrated, which is why the steaks were overdone.
Ruth’s Chris did not take out another ad.
Fertel died in 2002. Ruth’s Chris started trading publicly on NASDAQ in 2005. Service flagged after that. And my last review while still at the Sentinel detailed some underhanded upselling techniques. (A server approached the table and said, “You have a choice of sparkling or still water,” leaving off the third option of plain tap water. And the person taking the food order asked the guests what they wanted on their salads – without mentioning the salads were not included with the entree.)
My last visit to a Ruth’s Chris Steak House was in 2009. I’ll be interested in seeing how it changes – if at all – under the Darden banner.