TORONTO - When Lana Duke decided to sell “the sizzle with the steak,” it was a recipe for success that’s helped propel the Ruth’s Chris Steak House franchise to the highest echelon of the hospitality industry.
That was almost half a century ago and since then, like the fine cut of USDA Prime they serve, Ruth’s Chris Steak House has only gotten better with age.
Take a bow Lana Duke, the St. Catharines-born marketer whose clever ploy to feature the steak sizzling on a oven hot plate in media ads drew instant attention to the fledgling New Orleans eatery, owned then by legendary restauranteur Ruth Fertel.
Lana Duke, in the kitchen in top photo and at opening of her new airport location above.
Fast-forward to 2017, and Lana Duke, now the proud owner of five Ruth’s Chris Steak House franchises herself – her newest one opened in mid-November across from Pearson International Airport on Toronto’s famed Airport Strip – shares her memories of those early days working with the late Fertel, with whom she formed a lifelong friendship. (Duke actually handled the restaurant chain’s advertising and marketing for 30 years before becoming a franchisee herself.)
Duke’s eyes light up when she remembers asking the feisty Fertel, “How much marketing money do you have to promote your restaurant?”
“$22,000,” was Fertel’s answer.
“Not much, even in those days,” sighs the enchanting Duke, “so I came up with the sizzle idea and the rest is history.”
A smile creeps across Duke’s lips when she remembers Fertel complaining “you’re costing me more than $22,000 in plate breakage.” Apparently early test runs with the sizzle idea did not go according to plan.
“One night (actor) Paul Newman was having dinner and his hot plate broke. That could have been a disaster but instead of being indignant, Paul just asked for a new plate and continued eating,” remembers Duke, who, despite being born in Ontario, speaks with a lyrical southern accent that she picked up while working in New Orleans – it’s as sweet as the deserts served in the atmospheric new dining room on Dixon Rd.
The elegant new Ruth's Chris Steak House at Toronto airport is a nice change from old steak houses.
Duke says because of the intense heat needed to achieve the sizzle effect, the plates can only be used 10 times before being discarded.
While Lana’s son R. David oversees most of the family’s franchises now, Lana continues to be a valuable confidant and her son draws on her vast restaurant experience.
“But David took charge of the design and setup of this (new) restaurant and he did a fabulous job,” says the proud Lana.
Toronto’s new 40-seat Ruth’s Chris Steak House is void of the heavy dark wood trappings associated with most restaurants of its kind. Instead, interior designer David Leonardi has created a chic, open-concept with an entrance dominated by an elegant bar area – perfect for business executives eating on their own – that flows into a spacious dining room decorated in lots of light trim.
While ambience is important, Lana Duke reminds us that what really counts is the kitchen – a restaurant’s success starts and ends there – and she remains very much involved in that aspect of the franchises.
The menu at the new restaurant remains true to Ruth’s Chris Steak House traditions but a few “new” items have been added to appeal to changing tastes, says Lana.
One of the biggest changes Lana Duke has seen over the years is her customer base.
“When Ruth opened her first restaurant, the clients were 90 per cent men,” says Lana. “Now it’s a 50-50 split between males and females.”
Along with the new Dixon Rd. location, Lana and her son operate a downtown Toronto location (145 Richmond St. W.) and three others in San Antonio.
There are now over 150 Ruth’s Chris Steak Houses worldwide and more are on the way and the company has major expansion plans in Asia. The company still “sizzles” and they can thank Lana Duke for that.
The new Ruth’s Chris Steak House is located at 970 Dixon Rd., between the The Gupta Group-operated Westin Airport and Holiday Inn hotels. For reservations, call 647-797-5400. For more on the chain, go to http://www.ruthschris.ca