A Reputation Is At Steak

Jo McGarry
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Wednesday - March 08, 2006
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Ruth’s Chris president and CEO Craig Miller
Ruth’s Chris president and CEO
Craig Miller

It’s been a heck of a year for Craig Miller. The CEO and president of Ruth’s Chris Steak House became chairman of the National Restaurant Association, took the nation’s favorite steak house public, lost his corporate headquarters and landmark restaurant to Hurricane Katrina - and all within a matter of months.

“We’re doing well,” he says with a hugely infectious smile that surely hides months of concern about the company move to Florida.

Miller is in Honolulu representing the restaurant industry to speak to the Legislature about such burning local issues as the tip credit (Hawaii has a dinosaur law that allows only a 25 cent tax credit to restaurant owners for wait staff - where other states allow 50 percent of the minimum wage), but I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to chat with him about running one of the best restaurants in the country.

“We really work at it,” he says with a grin, lest you think that terrific service comes easy.

“It’s a big part of what we do - and we feel that we still offer Southern-style hospitality,” he says.

That, of course was the aim of founder Ruth Fertel, the single mom who mortgaged her house to buy her first steak house in New Orleans. Miller might be an image and money man - under his leadership Ruth’s Chris has posted an unprecedented double digit same size sales in company stores for seven consecutive quarters, including a more than 10 per cent increase despite 71 days lost to Hurricane Katrina - but he’s also someone who cares about service.

“I got into a taxi cab one morning,” he says, “and the driver told me Ruth’s Chris was his favorite restaurant. He told me he took his mother every year on her birthday for dinner.”

That story touched Miller so much that he considers the “taxi cab set” the most important of all Ruth’s Chris diners. People who come but once a year to the restaurant and who think of it as a very special place are people who need to be treated with respect. There’s a reason that successful restaurants are successful: It’s the ones where staff listen to customers -and respond - that end up getting things right.

There are 93 Ruth’s Chris Steak Houses in operation worldwide, with more set to open (including a new one in Honolulu) in the next few months. And while Miller is keeping stock holders and investors happy, he sees himself as someone whose role is more than just shaking hands and keeping busy.

“I’m a storyteller for the industry,” he says of his role as chairman of the NRA. “We need to have people talking about issues that are important to restaurants.”

But are there any things that are absolute in the elusive search for restaurant perfection?

Miller thinks perhaps there are.

“I’ve seen a lot of trends, of course, and it’s a highly competitive industry,” he says. “But quality of food is paramount. Expectations are high when people go out to dinner - and they’re getting higher all the time.”

Miller also thinks restaurants that don’t accept the status quo will succeed over those where the owners believe they are already doing everything right.

“Training, raising the bar for staff and creating an environment where people really enjoy serving the public are all important,” he says. “At Ruth’s Chris we have an interaction between the customers and the staff, and that’s important, too.”

You get the impression that if he could, Miller would be on first-name terms with every one who ever stepped into a Ruth’s Chris.

And what does the CEO eat when he goes out to dinner?

“Well, I don’t eat steak anywhere else, now,” he laughs, “since working with Ruth’s Chris, I’ve been spoiled.”

Happy eating!

To hear an interview with Craig Miller, go to www.wine-anddinehawaii.com

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