Ruth’s Chris longest-tenured franchisee is a study in adapting to modern day innovations while staying true to a restaurant’s roots.
Mark Oswald wasn’t sure who would be on the other end of the phone when he answered. “Hello?”
A low, gravelly voice rasped, “Mark! Something’s wrong with your numbers.”
It was the fall of 1991, and Mark was sitting in the Buckhead, Atlanta, location of Ruth’s Chris Steak House. Mark and his wife Nancy had joined brothers Jim and Phil Brooks the year prior to become equal partners in Sizzling Steak Concepts, a Ruth’s Chris franchisor. The Brooks brothers had opened the Buckhead location in 1986, their first, and the Oswalds had a burning desire to beef up expansion. “We weren’t interested in a onesie,” Mark says. “We were interested in growing the brand.”
But back in ’91, long before the Oswalds had 10 units in their portfolio and two more on the way as they do today, Mark was on the phone with founder Ruth Fertel, who was accusing him of submitting faulty sales numbers.
“I really didn’t think anything was wrong with my numbers; I was a young, cocky guy,” Mark recalls. “But I went back and I looked and sure enough, that old yellow legal pad had proved me wrong! I had either over- or under-reported the number of covers by a significant amount—”
“But his check average wasn’t right!” Nancy chimes in, laughing.
“My check average wasn’t right,” Mark agrees gravely. “Ruth used to do that manually! She put the sales, the number of covers, she’d do it all in her head.”
“She probably would still do it by hand,” Nancy says.
“And I think about that all the time,” Mark adds. “There she is. She is so involved in not only the restaurants she owns, but the ones she doesn’t, the ones that are franchised. She was engaged [enough] to call and talk to you and let you know, hey, you need to look at this, it needs to be fixed.”
Mark fixed his numbers, of course. And the Oswalds remained good friends with Fertel, a longtime smoker who died in 2002, two years after a lung cancer diagnosis. She’d founded the brand in 1965, after mortgaging her home for $22,000 to buy the Chris Steak House near the New Orleans Fair Grounds racetrack. When a fire destroyed the restaurant, she relocated it—adjusting the title to Ruth’s Chris Steak House, as she legally had to give up the name to change locations—and began franchising in 1976.