The Time Ruth's Grandson Called Out Ruth's Chris Steak House Over A Loan

Back in 2020, Ruth's Chris found itself at the center of a public controversy that even had the restaurant's founder's grandson calling out the steakhouse chain. While perhaps not the most scathing criticism, Ruth Fertel's grandson condemned the organization for failing to live up to his mother's legacy. It had everything to do with a federal loan that Ruth's Chris collected as part of a government handout during the COVID-19 pandemic.

While restaurants may be no stranger to controversies, Ruth's Chris collecting a PPP loan rubbed many Americans the wrong way, including Rien Fertel, who opted to speak publicly against the company. The Paycheck Protection Program loans were approved by Congress as a means of helping out small businesses when the country was on lockdown. In total, the government approved $350 billion in funds. However, large corporations, including those behind Shake Shack and Potbelly Sandwiches, received loans due to a legal loophole, according to the New York Times

Due to Ruth's Chris having fewer than 500 employees at a location, the organization was able to get more than $20 million in funds. Given that it made $227 million in 2020, many saw it as a misallotment of government funds. While Ruth's Chris ultimately opted to return the money, Rien opted to share some constructive criticism with the brand, taking to X (formerly Twitter) to voice his thoughts. Rien condemned the chain for straying from his mother's morales by sharing a story of her kindness during a disaster.

Ruth's grandson urges the chain to do better

Taking to social media, Rien Fertel thanked Ruth's Chris for returning the loan but also reminded them that they should have never taken the loan in the first place. He wrote, "I salute the decision you made yesterday to return the $20 million small business loan. But it's not enough. My grandmother believed in the virtue of giving, in community, in helping those in need."

In particular, Rien spotlighted how Ruth Fertel helped her local community after Hurricane Betsy devastated New Orleans and the surrounding cities and towns in Louisiana. The hurricane hit very early into Ruth's work at the steakhouse. The storm knocked out power for thousands of people, so Ruth and her workers cooked steaks on gas grills to hand out to those affected. The moment encapsulated Ruth's kindness for her neighbors, especially those down on their luck, as Rien reminded the chain. He wrote, "The story of her response is part of the restaurant's lore."

But it was by no means the end of Ruth's generosity. She also employed a staff of single mothers, giving them the means to provide for their families that she desperately needed when founding the restaurant. Rien wrote, "I urge you to do more. To give back like she did. To do better than what she was financially capable of back in 1968." However, he was far from the only one to call out the steakhouse chain.

Other backlash to the loan

Before Ruth's Chris agreed to return the $20 million in forgivable loans to the U.S. government, it took a petition of over 250,000 people to convince them. The backlash to the $20 million was immense online, with small business owners taking to the Change petition to voice their frustration. As the petition notes, not every small business could get the funds needed to stay afloat during the economic woes. The organizer wrote, "Many small businesses are now being told there is no money left for them, and they cannot pay their employees and may have to close forever. This is a travesty and a disgusting display of corporate greed during a time of disaster. "

Other petitioners who claimed to be small business owners agreed with one writing, "I am a small business owner and I got NOTHING! They didn't need it, SMALL independent business[es] need it!" Ultimately, the petition and public outcry worked, convincing Ruth's Chris to change its mind. It's not the first time that the chain has encountered public woes.

Back in 2011, it was slapped with a class action discrimination suit, and as Ruth's son and Rien's uncle Randy revealed, there was a lot of in-fighting among the family even when Ruth was alive. In his memoir, he wrote, "Nearly all the key players in the global empire of Ruth's Chris Steak House ended up suing her, to get what they felt they deserved."

Rien challenges the company to be better

Ruth Fertel, the founder of Ruth's Chris Steak House, spent most of her life in New Orleans (according to the NY Times) and scraped her way up to the top as a single mother with two children. Ruth, seeking to send her sons to college, mortgaged her home to buy a New Orleans steakhouse that became successful — a true example of the American dream. Fertel sold Ruth's Chris to a private equity firm for $160 million in 1999.

In response to the PPP loan scandal, Rien Fertel offered up ways that the company could do better and live up to his grandmother's name. He wrote, "There's countless ways to give. If you would like suggestions, if you would like to be put in touch with people in her beloved hometown of New Orleans, where I live today, please reach out." 

However, it's worth noting that the company has made charitable contributions. According to the website of Ruth's Chris, in the last 10 years, the restaurant group has "donated nearly $150,000" to groups including the National Children's Advocacy Center, Harvest Hope Food Bank, Siskin Children's Institute, Pattison's Academy, and more. The restaurant group says they are "proud to give back to our local communities by donating money, time and service."