10/20/1997 at 01:00 AM EDT
AT LOUISIANA STATE UNIVERSITY, Ruth Fertel wanted to be a pediatrician until the time came for a dissection in biology class. "Cutting on frogs," says Fertel, "kind of turned me off." Not that she's squeamish by nature. Twenty-three years later she found herself quartering 30-pound sides of beef with an electric saw and turning a single New Orleans steak joint into the red-hot Ruth's Chris Steak House chain, a $177 million-a-year empire that serves 11,000 steaks a day at 60 upscale restaurants worldwide.
Raised in the Mississippi Delta backwater of Happy Jack, La., the daughter of a hard-driving insurance man and a kindergarten teacher, Fertel, now 70, credits her own competitive spirit to "trying to do as well as boys did." Never short on nerve—she's a crapshooter who has won and lost $45,000 in a single night—Fertel in 1965 was a divorced mother making $4,800 a year as a lab assistant at the Tulane University School of Medicine and facing the daunting prospect of paying college tuition for two teenage sons, Jerry, now 48, and Randy, 47. Scouring the classifieds one day, "I finally saw that little ad that said, 'Steakhouse for Sale,' " says Fertel. "I knew I could do that."
She mortgaged her house for $22,000 and bought Chris's Steak-house, a 60-seat eatery near New Orleans's Fairgrounds racetrack. Failure was not on her menu. In 1976 she developed her trademark superhot 1,800-degree oven and awarded her first out-of-town franchise to a customer who pleaded that the 90-mile trip from Baton Rouge was killing him. Over the years other pals have received similar franchise deals, making 17 of them millionaires. "That," says the magnanimous grandmother of five, who still lives in a modest double Creole cottage behind her flagship restaurant, "is one of the fun parts."