Ruth's Chris to open near City Market

The French Quarter Inn will house the new Ruth's Chris Steak House in downtown Charleston.

After a four-year search, Ruth's Chris Steak House soon will fire up the high-end dining competition in downtown Charleston.

The chain's new restaurant will open this fall in the French Quarter Inn at 166 Church St., according to franchise co-owner Nancy Oswald.

Ruth's Chris will serve as the food service provider for both the French Quarter Inn and the new 41-room Spectator Hotel at 71 State St., which is under construction.

Oswald and husband Mark will partner with Jay Keenan and Batson Hewitt, who own the inn near the Charleston City Market. They also will partner with Charlestowne Hotels, which manages the French Quarter Inn.

The Oswalds announced in May 2010 that they bought the Ruth's Chris franchise for Charleston and wanted to open on the peninsula, but they wanted to wait until they found the ideal location. They wanted it to have about 10,000 square feet of space with nearby parking. The new restaurant in the former Tristan site will be close to that size.

The Oswalds also own the franchise to existing Ruth's Chris restaurants in Myrtle Beach, Columbia and Greenville and others out of state.

Other high-end restaurant owners, partners or managers welcomed the new steakhouse but offered concerns for different reasons.

"I think Ruth's Chris will do great here," said Mickey Bakst, general manager of Charleston Grill at Charleston Place. "Steakhouses have a great appeal to people. It will do a really big tourist business."

Bakst added that he believes the peninsula's restaurant market is getting more crowded, but not from a sales standpoint.

"There are more restaurants opening, and there are more people coming to Charleston," he said. "But if you talk to any of the chefs, no one can find people for their kitchens. We are having deep trouble finding staffing."

Steve Palmer, managing partner for Indigo Roads Restaurant Group, which includes Oak Steakhouse on Broad Street, agreed that staffing is becoming an issue, but said competition will put all restaurant owners at the top of their games.

"Even with the explosion of restaurants and a lot of us talking about saturation, it forces you to be better at what you are doing. We will be better operators and better to our guests."

He also cautioned that chain restaurants have historically not fared well on the peninsula.

"When people come to Charleston, they come for the unique, independently owned restaurants," Palmer said. "I wish them all the luck in the world, but I don't think their success equals my failure. Do I think they will hurt Oak Steakhouse? Not at all."

Bill Hall, owner of Halls Chophouse, also believes Ruth's Chris will not affect his steak restaurant on Upper King Street.

"They have their market," he said. "Ruth's Chris has done a nice job around the country. I think they will help the marketplace."

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The Oswalds are restaurant veterans. A past chairwoman of the Georgia Restaurant Association, Nancy Oswald has served as a franchise representative on the Ruth's Chris Steak House National Advertising Council and served on the executive board of the Atlanta Convention & Visitors Bureau. She has 30 years of restaurant marketing experience.

Mark Oswald started 39 years ago at the acclaimed Commander's Palace in New Orleans and worked at several restaurant ventures before joining the first Ruth's Chris in Atlanta in 1990. He then worked with other franchise owners to expand the restaurant's presence in Greater Atlanta.

Ruth's Chris got its start in 1965 when Ruth Fertel noticed a for-sale ad in the newspaper about a restaurant in New Orleans called Chris Steak House. She bought it.

In 1976, a kitchen fire destroyed the restaurant and she moved to another location and opened Ruth's Chris Steak House since her original contract precluded her from using the name Chris Steak House in a different location. That same year, the first franchise opened in Baton Rouge, La. It quickly expanded to other locations.

In 1999, Madison Dearborn, a private investment equity firm, acquired Ruth's Chris. In 2002, Fertel died of cancer. The company was first publicly traded in 2005. After Hurricane Katrina that same year, the home office moved to Winter Park, Fla., near Orlando.

There are now 150 restaurants around the world in the Ruth's Chris Hospitality Group, which includes Ruth's Chris Steak House, Mitchell's Fish Market, Mitchell's Steakhouse and Cameron's Steakhouse.

Reach Warren L. Wise at 937-5524 or