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Story time with Ruth’s Chris CEO Cheryl Henry

The steakhouse chief took a different approach to highlighting her charge’s strategy. Gather around to hear the account.
Photograph: Shutterstock

Financial presentations tend to be dry accounts built on charts and geeky acronyms. But not when the presenter is Cheryl Henry, CEO of Ruth’s Hospitality Group, parent of the Ruth’s Chris Steak House chain. Despite her age, slyly referenced through a passing mention of being part of Gen X, Henry proved to be a storyteller worthy of any old timer rocking on a porch or holding court at the corner tavern.

At the ICR Conference in Orlando, Fla., where the room was packed with hardcore financial types, Henry skipped the usual references to EBITDA, COGS and CAGR to spin narratives about people and experiences. She recounted the story of how Ruth’s got its name and DNA from founder Ruth Fertel (she was so broke when she opened the first unit that she just painted her name onto the sign outside the joint she took over, Chris Steak House).

Henry illustrated her charge’s personnel strategy by citing the example of a 19-year-old cook who was given a week of paid leave by Fertel early in the chain’s history to deal with some familial challenges. The young man would work his way through the Culinary Institute of America to become a chef, never leaving the chain, and today heads Ruth’s Chris’ culinary operations. By the way, Henry noted in an aside, Ruth’s GMs and chefs tend to stay for just shy of a decade, and that longevity is a key to the chain’s success.

Henry used a first-person narrative to detail some of her chain’s near-term challenges and strategic responses. Because she’d heard so little about the restaurant industry’s efforts to court Gen Xers like herself, Henry visited some of the chain’s restaurants for firsthand research on the demographics of Ruth’s Chris fans. Henry found representatives of nearly every adult generation dining on the night of her data gathering, leading her to declare Ruth’s Chris’ customer base as multigenerational.

She then explained how the brand intends to strengthen its pull on younger generations. She recounted how her  personal research was followed by the retention of a true data company. “The really important takeaways for us are around heightened experience and variety,” she said. 

The desire for variety extends to price as well as menu options, Henry continued. “People want to move around the menu and build their check the way they want it,” she explained.

As a result, Ruth’s Chris has been enlarging and upgrading its bars, where customers can order a number of less expensive items.

The 159-unit chain is also pursuing a new revenue source, as Henry revealed with yet another story. A customer of the Ruth’s Chris in Metairie, La., had asked the store’s manager for the recipe for a homestyle side, a dish made with sweet potatoes. The manager said he’d take the extra step of actually making the side for the patron to take home. From that experience came a new Sides to Go program, which allows customers cooking for a group can turn to Ruth’s for the sides. 

Henry's narrative of how the sides program came to be also spared her from having to address a difficult question for a restaurant chain CEO: With the boom in restaurant delivery, why isn’t her charge chasing that sales opportunity with vigor? 

“We are doing delivery,” Henry offered as an aside. “It is not going to be as meaningful for this high-touch brand as it is for others who do it.”

I’ve attended dozens of financial conferences and will hear 17 presentations at ICR alone. Henry stood out thus far in the event because she used narrative instead of machine-gunned numbers to explain what her brand is all about. It’s an approach any CEO might want to consider, even when it comes to pitching Wall Street. 

The ROI is just better.

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