Lana Duke – Self-Made Woman

On January 20 of this year, a couple of hundred people gathered at the Concord Plaza Ruth‘s Chris Steak House to mark the restaurant’s 20th anniversary in San Antonio. With tables laden with food and a New Orleans-style jazz band playing, everyone appeared to have a good time, but for owner Lana Duke it was a meaningful moment well beyond just having fun.

Lana Duke“It’s wonderful to be celebrating the 20th anniversary, but at the same time, where the heck did the last 20 years go?” Duke asked us just before the guests were about to arrive. “When you do what you love, time flies. When we opened, we were the 36th restaurant in the chain, and just the other day the 136th franchise opened in Las Vegas. It‘s been quite a journey!”

Though Duke owns only four of the 136 locations, she has been involved with the Ruth‘s Chris journey since 1968. It was then that she first met Ruth Fertel, who ran a popular little steak house on Broad Street in New Orleans. At the time, Duke was a saleswoman for a New Orleans Catholic newspaper, and she wanted to see if Fertel would advertise with her paper. The two women hit it off right away and gradually developed both a friendship and a business relationship that lasted till the day Fertel died, in 2002. Starting in 1975, when Duke opened her own ad agency, the two women worked together to create a successful marketing strategy that turned the Louisiana eatery from a favorite local spot to a national and international chain with locations in Tokyo, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Aruba, El Salvador and other far-flung places. At the center of that strategy was Fertel‘s product itself, “the steak with a sizzle.” ”I loved her product, and when you have a good product, you focus on that,” says Duke, who became a long-term consultant for Fertel’s growing company. “For the marketing campaign, we created a straightforward, close-up image of the steak, with its signature sizzle underneath. And the rest is history. People would walk into the restaurants saying, ‘I want that steak like on TV.’”

In 1992, Duke finally gathered the courage to ask her friend for a franchise. She picked San Antonio because she had visited once for a Catholic press conference in the late 1970s and thought “this was the most beautiful, romantic city.” Conveniently, the Alamo City was the only major city in Texas without a Ruth’s Chris Steak House. Today, Duke and her son, David Duke, co-own four franchises — a second local restaurant in St. Paul Square and two in Canada. “Ruth Fertel changed my life,” says the businesswoman matter-of-factly.“I believe it was God’s plan. She became my dearest friend, and I miss her. But I continue to build this brand and share her legacy.” That legacy is probably familiar to many San Antonians who love a good steak. Though a few changes have occurred over the years, Ruth‘s Chris continues to serve the fare that it became famous for: classic USDA prime steaks seared at 1,800 degrees and served on ceramic plates heated to 500 degrees. To provide that signature “sizzle” that customers love, a tablespoon of butter is added just before the plates are brought to the table.

And the steaks are not the only orders that come with a sizzle. The restaurants offer a range of other specialties, including seafood, chicken and lamb as well as familiar side dishes done right, such as creamed spinach, potatoes au gratin and mashed potatoes. Of the two locations, the Concord Plaza is more profitable, notes the owner, probably because it does not depend on the ups and downs of tourism that afflict the St. Paul Square establishment. In fact, the Concord Plaza was named the best franchise of 2011 by the corporate headquarters, now located in Florida.

Lana Duke

What makes a restaurant successful is consistency, notes Duke: “If someone dines here today and likes how things taste, they want everything to taste the same when they come back two weeks later. Restaurants fail because they start to change recipes. Our secret is simple — you know what you are going to get. Another thing that Ruth taught me is that the kitchen is the heart of the house. People will forgive bad service and other things, but you have to get the food right. Also, it‘s very important to make your employees happy; then they‘ll make the customers happy.”

Though she continues to live in New Orleans, Duke says she feels like she’s from San Antonio. “I am here a lot, and I know a lot of people here, and I am very involved in the community,” she states. While she considered moving for good at one point, after Hurricane Katrina devastated the Big Easy, she stayed in the ravaged city out of loyalty. In addition to the four restaurants, Duke is also a co-owner of the Palace Truck Stop and Casino in New Orleans and maintains her marketing firm Lana Duke Consulting.

From foster child to businesswoman and philanthropist

Lana Duke‘s life story is a true rags-to-riches saga. Born in St. Catharines, Ontario, little Lana was taken to a foster care home when she was only nine months old. Her divorced mother maintained intermittent contact for a while before she moved away from the area. Though the foster couple took good care of her for years, when she grew older, the foster father started molesting her. At age 12 1/2, the pre-teen went to live with her biological father, but the deal lasted only six months, as Dad was unable to support her and ended up abusing her as well. The next three years were spent in various foster homes while the young girl dreamed of getting away from the chaos of her life. She finally managed it at 15, landing a job with the Bank of Montreal and sharing a Toronto apartment with three other girls. At 18 she moved to New Orleans on the invitation of a former roommate who had become a flight attendant based in that city. “I looked up New Orleans in National Geographic, and it looked like a good place to start my new life,” recalls Duke lightheartedly. But finding work was not easy for a girl without a high school diploma.

Still, youth and determination were on her side. From her first American job selling pots and pans door to door, she advanced to cook and server and eventually to bookkeeping and advertising. The latter fit her preference for dealing with people rather than figures, and she rapidly advanced to director of advertising for the Clarion-Herald newspaper in the Big Easy. A few years later, the young woman opened her own ad agency whose first client was Ruth Fertel.

Duke was in New Orleans for only three years when her real mother re-entered her life.

“When I turned 21, I received a telegram from my mother. I couldn’t believe it. I had tried to forget her; I even threw the one picture of her that I had in the garbage,” she explains. “I went to see her in Montreal, and she later came to visit in New Orleans and never went back. She died three years ago.” Though mother and daughter reconnected, the pain of childhood always lingered as a sort of barrier between them. “The pain never leaves you; you just learn how to work around it to make life work for you,” she says. Her father also sought her forgiveness. Unfortunate family experiences, including a brief marriage that ended in a separation, taught Duke to create a new family with her friends, who became “aunts” and “uncles” to her son. Her early life also motivates her to help children who find themselves parentless like she was. She’s a big supporter of the Roy Maas’ Youth Alternatives, a local nonprofit that provides a home for thousands of abused or neglected kids. Every Thanksgiving, the Ruth’s Chris Steak House invites these youngsters to a classy formal meal and offers other activities for them throughout the year, such as graduation celebrations and etiquette and culinary classes for those who may consider a hospitality career.

Lana Duke

And she always tells them her own story to encourage them to stay in school and stay motivated. Duke feels that these wounded boys and girls can be “marvelous” in this field “if they can let go of the pain,” because they know how to empathize with people. A couple of former Roy Maas residents now work at Ruth’s Chris. Similar programs help the Toronto area foster children. To encourage others in the business world to do their part for the community, in 2008 Duke and businessman Harvey Najim launched the Make a Difference Award, which recognizes both individuals and companies that help San Antonio charitable organizations. The proceeds from the award gala, held, of course, at Ruth’s Chris, benefit Roy Maas.

”The abused children organizations are the only charities I am involved with. That’s what I want to do with my time, though I donate money to others, too,” says the friendly businesswoman, who has recently become a grandmother. “I want to make a difference in their lives. I think that’s why God put me here.”

By Jasmina Wellinghoff

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