The Canadian who’s adding sizzle to Ruth’s Chris steak

We talk to Ruth's Chris franchisee Lana Duke, the Canadian who helped Ruth take her high-end steak biz international.


By Lisa Wright, The Toronto Star

Jan. 3, 2018


Lana Duke is not terribly impressed.


A waitress serving tables at a Toronto hotel lobby lounge just mixed up the coffee order and needs to be flagged down for water.


“We’ll work on her; she’ll come around,” Duke says with a smile.


Of course, the Ruth’s Chris steakhouse franchisee who brought the chain to Toronto 22 years ago and helped founder Ruth Fertel take it from one steakhouse in Louisiana to an international red meat powerhouse emphasizes that such an issue would never happen on her watch; the service at her high-end restaurants is expected to be top-notch.


“You don’t have to worry about hospitality with us or whether things look right. Consistency is one of our greatest assets,” says Duke, who has the sort of big personality befitting someone who has spent most of her life in New Orleans.


But the marketing whiz who became besties with Ruth Fertel (the original lady behind the international steakhouse chain, who died in 2002) is actually a St. Catharines, Ont., native who moved to Louisiana when she was 18, but never forgets where she came from.


Clearly, Duke still thinks the Toronto area is a prime market for an upscale steak restaurant; building on the downtown location, she recently opened a new location on Dixon Rd. near the Toronto airport, along with plans for another in Markham by fall 2018.


However, competition isn’t nearly as rare as it was in 1995, when Ruth’s Chris opened at the Toronto Hilton to the delight of both business travellers and the financial district. In fact, the field was wide open among the few red meat players downtown, including Hy’s, Barberian’s and Bigliardi’s.


“When we first came here, people gave us a hard time for only offering USDA Prime instead of Alberta beef, and I was incredibly nervous,” recalls Duke, who had opened her first location in San Antonio, Texas a couple years prior.


At the time, Canadian farmers were given government subsidies to produce leaner meat, with the low fat and white-lean meat craze at their heights of popularity amid increasing rates of heart disease and obesity.


She explains that Ruth’s Chris stuck to its guns because of how flavourful the corn-fed marbled meat is, and that, after all, it’s an American chain and corporate customers expected it — plus it’s a treat rather than an everyday meal.


“When they came into the market, it was the most novel thing,” notes Doug Fisher, president of food service consulting firm FHG International, who prepared her market research study for Toronto.


“Some of the older steakhouses were tired by that point. She was the first Canadian woman coming in with (a fresh take on) the concept, and they really redefined what quality meat was,” he recalls.


“They had fatter, richer, better-tasting meat — and that’s where the money was,” he recalls...