Q&A: Ruth’s Chris Steak Home
We spoke with Steve de Castro, owner of the Wilmington location of Ruth’s Chris Steak House for 12 years, as well as eight other locations, about his career, the pandemic’s impact on the country’s largest steakhouse franchise and the restaurant’s upcoming move from Hotel Ballast to River Place.
GWBJ: Tell us a little about your background. It’s our understanding that you’ve been working in restaurants since the age of 14?
de Castro: “I left Cuba in 1968 with my mother and younger sister. We went to New Orleans to meet my father and my older brother who had been there since 1966.
“Not long after arriving I needed to find a job to help my parents make ends meet. While I was in school I met this Cuban guy (who’s still my best friend) that had just started working at La Riveria, an Italian restaurant. I went there the very next day and was hired on the spot.
“I worked in the kitchen for the first two years, washing dishes, doing prep work and working on the line. After two years I couldn’t take the heat in the kitchen any longer (back then most of the kitchens did not have air-conditioning) so I asked the chef/owner to be moved to the front of the house.
“I did everything in the front of the house, from busing tables, tending bar, to waiting tables and by the age of 19 I became maître d’/manager until the age of 24.
“While working there I had the pleasure of meeting many restauranteurs including Ruth Fertel. I also met two entrepreneurs and we decided to open our own restaurant called Boccacio’s, in Covington, Louisiana. But unfortunately we were only in business for one year!
“I moved with my wife and kids back to Metairie, Louisiana, where I worked at a couple well known restaurants as a general manager until 1985.
GWBJ: You met Ruth’s Chris founder Ruth Fertel in the 1970s and were eventually asked to manage the restaurant’s Washington, DC location. What is it about Ruth’s Chris as a company that sets it apart from other high-end steakhouses?
de Castro: “In the fall of 1985 Ruth Fertel called me and asked to meet with me. I met with Ruth and she asked me if I’d be interested in working for her as the General Manager at her Ruth’s Chris location in Washington, DC. This location had only been open for a few years but it was not doing well. It required me to move my family there and I did not want to do that, but in the end, Ruth made me an offer that I could not refuse.
“After a few months the Ruth’s Chris in DC went from being the worst performing restaurant to the best out of 12 in the country. There are now over 150 locations nationwide and we are the largest steak house in the country.
In 1992, I became the youngest franchisee in the company with my own Ruth’s Chris in Baltimore, Maryland. I am now the proud owner of nine locations.
“What sets Ruth’s Chris apart from other high-end steakhouses is that Ruth Fertel always insisted on having the best available prime beef, never frozen, hand cut daily at the restaurants. The steaks is broiled in a special oven at 1800 degrees and served sizzling on a 500° plate with butter and parsley. She believed in top notch service and southern hospitality. Ruth always used to say, ‘Treat people the way you would want to be treated.’”
GWBJ: For those who may not be familiar with the brand, what are some of the restaurant’s signature dishes?
de Castro: “Some of Ruth’s Chris signature dishes are filet mignon, New York strip, ribeye steak, stuffed airline chicken, mashed potatoes, potatoes au gratin, sweet potato casserole, creamed spinach, seared Ahi tuna, calamari, beef carpaccio, crab stack, Ruth’s chopped salad among others.”
GWBJ: In addition to the Wilmington location, what other locations do you own and operate?
de Castro: “Besides the Wilmington location, I own three Ruth’s Chris locations in the Triangle, one in Atlantic City, New Jersey, and four in Maryland.”
GWBJ: How have high-end steakhouses evolved since you first started in the business?
de Castro: “When I first started working for Ruth’s Chris the only other high-end steakhouses that I can remember were Morton’s of Chicago and The Palm with a few restaurants each. Now there are multiple high-end brands everywhere throughout the country. Now high-end steak houses have become more affordable for a greater cross section of the population.”
GWBJ: What was the driving factor in moving from the Hotel Ballast location to River Place?
de Castro: “We were seeking overall better visibility from the street and a better outdoor dining area.”
GWBJ: What will the River Place location offer that differs from the current location? What sets it apart from others?
de Castro: “It is a much easier location to get to from the suburbs and the downtown area residences; it also gives us the best view of the Cape Fear River from just about every seat. It allows us to create a new theme-based design in the interior that is going to be impressive.”
GWBJ: Have modifications been made to the design or layout of the restaurant in response to COVID-19?
de Castro: “We have increased our patio dining size from 20 seats to about 125.”
GWBJ: How much of an impact has the COVID-19 pandemic had on Ruth’s Chris financially?
de Castro: “Considerable, but we have been blessed by having a great staff and we are getting closer to the light at the end of the tunnel.”
GWBJ: Which locations have been impacted the most? Is the Wilmington location in line with your other locations in terms of the current level of business?
de Castro: “North Carolina has surely been impacted equally to our other locations if not a little more in some locations.”
GWBJ: As a leader in the industry, how do you foresee Ruth’s Chris adapting to the “new normal” of restaurants going into 2021?
de Castro: “We still lead all fine dining steak houses in total units in the United States as well as Internationally. We are the number one restaurant consumer as a single brand of prime beef in the United States. I believe as long as we provide great service and amazing food this will continue.
“Clearly I have enough faith in our brand to be building a brand new restaurant in what some would deem as the most difficult time ever for restaurants in the country.”
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