Lana Duke, 73, owns six Ruth’s Chris Steak House franchises, three in Ontario, including the most recent in Markham, Ont. Ms. Duke – creator of the slogan, “Come hungry, darlin,”– was the long-time adviser to the restaurant’s founder, the late Ruth Fertel. The chain includes more than 150 restaurants around the world.
I was born in St. Catharines, Ont., went to a lot of foster homes; the first one’s foundation got me through adversity: talk about it, talk with someone you care about until you finally don’t want to talk about it any more.
At 18, I worked at a bank in Toronto, living with three girls. We wanted to travel, one wanted to be a stewardess. I said, “Where she gets based, we’ll start.” She got based in New Orleans. “Where is that?” The United States turned me down for a visa because of all the addresses I had, no parents or relatives. I asked for a meeting – essentially my first sale – pitching my lungs out that I wouldn’t be a problem. Two weeks later, I got a letter saying they’d let me in; went on March 9, 1963.
People asked why I was there, they thought Canada was north of Alaska. I couldn’t get a job, sold pots and pans door-to-door, was a bowling alley cook, sold ads for a Catholic newspaper. I’m Protestant; the priest said I was making too much money.
I was 28, in the prime of life. Naive, I opened my own ad agency, New Orleans not the best place to become national. I had many clients, but Ruth’s Chris was my baby.
Ruth created the 1,800-degree-F broiler, steaks hot to the last bite on a sizzling 500-degree-F plate. She had an agency but I acquired her account in 1976. “Miss Fertel, can I spend your money anywhere I want?” She said, “Just don’t go over budget.” I created a 10-second television spot – only about three-weeks’ worth – with an extreme closeup on the sizzle, “The steak that speaks for itself.” Thank God, people came in droves, wanting that sizzling steak on TV.
Ruth wanted to grow from her little restaurant, city after city after city, now to 158 locations. I learned a lot about business; building brand advertising is minor compared to operations, management, good people, location – every imaginable problem. I was running city to city putting out fires.
In 1993, I had the courage to ask for a Toronto franchise. She said no, I’d just be paying a landlord. I picked San Antonio, opening Toronto in 1995. A high percentage of hourly employees become management. Jesse Melbye, general manager of the Toronto Airport restaurant, started as a bartender. And Ruth’s Hospitality Group CEO is female, a majority of its board of directors are women.
We had a tremendously respectful relationship, then it became very personal, the next minute we’re talking straight business. There are very few people you can do both with, to the point Ruth asked me to plan where she’d be buried. We had a crazy party at the [Fertel-Duke Mausoleum], hysterical; 150 people who’d touched our lives, our hairstylist, pedicurist, masseuse – the minister blessed the tomb with beer. On her 50th anniversary, I had a big party there, inviting all Ruth’s Chris owners and corporate [guests]; about 300 people came. For the 55th, I’ll have another.
I have other businesses: Lana Duke Consulting, Duke & Son, the Palace Truck Stop & Casino in New Orleans – where [Hurricane] Katrina hit – keeps me humble; it’s like a third-world country there still.
My son, David, is taking my foundation and blossoming. He had the USDA Prime Beef logo tattooed on his bum. I could have shot him. I can’t stand tattoos. But it’s kind of cute.
Education is vital, a sign you have the discipline to complete something. I did very well without it, then decided to go back – though I was making six figures – to get my GED. It would have been great to have had product knowledge younger, not make mistakes, make better decisions.
I tell people to network. Join an organization you’re passionate about. Get involved with boards. Don’t go it alone. People want to help; don’t hesitate to say, “I don’t know much about this, can you help?” You’ll grow faster if you’re humble and honest about what you don’t know.
I find stimulation in a good conference call, listening to people coming up, hear them share things, I think, “Wow, they’re really growing!” That’s exciting.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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