Jeff Ruby. Speak those two words together in any other town, and you might receive an indifferent shrug, a so-what glance.
In Cincinnati, another matter. Jeff Ruby.

In a rare series of two-hour-long, sit-down conversations, Ruby—the restaurateur by trade, the raconteur by life's trade—reflects on his career experience as he nears 60. The initial interview begins as he’s drinking coffee out of a water glass while twirling an unlit cigar in his hand. It’s about noon at Jeff Ruby’s restaurant, but the place is eerily quiet because, of course, Ruby's doesn’t serve lunch. Ever.

A Ruby sampling, delivered in his mobster-like, staccato delivery:

“I grew up in the restaurant business. My mother owned restaurant after restaurant. Two of my stepfathers owned a luncheonette and a hot dog joint in Jersey. I worked at all those places. When the bell rang in class, I went to the pay phone, called the restaurant, and if the chef hadn’t showed up for the lunch crowd, I walked over there and never went back to class.”

“I don’t make the food,” explains Ruby of his role as owner of a half-dozen famed local eateries: The Precinct, The Waterfront, Jeff Ruby's, Tropicana, Ruby's at Belterra Casino, Ruby's in Louisville and more. “I make the food taste better. I make the chefs better.

“The trouble with chefs is 50 percent of them use too much marijuana, 30 percent use too much cocaine, and the rest use too much cilantro. Welcome to the restaurant business.”

“I don’t like chains, the Morton’s steak it or leave it. That’s why we don’t have 55 restaurants. Every one of our restaurants is different in menu and ambience. The only thing identical is the same grade of meat.”

“I know the dishwashers by name. I interview every employee of every restaurant,” 500 employees in all, plus valets.

“I’ve had a lot of opportunities to do a Precinct or Jeff Ruby's [elsewhere], but I had my kids in Anderson. It was more important to see them grow up.”

“We did open in Louisville and just agreed to do St. Louis. That will be a Jeff Ruby’s, and it should be open in two years.”

“I have a corporate comptroller, but I don’t have a real estate guy, I don’t have a research and location guy. They [the opportunities] come to me. Louisville came to me. Belterra came to me.”

Jeff Ruby will be forever associated with his first restaurant, The Precinct, which he opened in 1981.

Before coming to Cincinnati, he’d actually been working at a Perkins pancake house in Asbury Park, in Jersey. “I was thinking of staying at the pancake house and one day managing it.” Instead, Ruby was lured to town with a job helping to run some area Holiday Inns.

Ruby remembers driving into the city, that first day, in his 1970 Dodge Charger, a lime green supermachine with a 440 Magnum engine. He’d be earning $700 a month as a junior associate, though along the way, he'd end up getting promoted and spending 11 years in charge of seven Holiday Inns in the region, from Florence up to Middletown (and, not incidentally, meeting a hostess who would become his future wife, Rickelle).

Then came the day that Ruby struck out on his own. “Johnny Bench and Pete Rose backed me. I sure didn’t have the money,” says Ruby of his Precinct restaurant, which he opened on Sept. 11 (yes, 9/11), 1981.

Nobody could believe Ruby was doing this, opening a high-end steakhouse in run-down Columbia-Tusculum. “There were 52 liens against the building, one for each week of the year. The location was terrible. There was nothing out there. My best friend said, ‘Jeff, this is depressing.’ I didn’t care.

“My mentor said, ‘They’re just 68 seats [in the room], this dog just won’t hunt. Weekdays are dead. You need a lot of seats to do turns [on weekends], to make up for the days you bled. You have fixed costs. Mortgage. Payroll. Hell, 68 seats.’ ”

How did Ruby succeed against all the odds? “I projected $900,000 the first year, with serving lunch. We did $2 million the first year, without ever serving lunch.”

Yes, The Precinct was packed every night. “You couldn’t get a reservation. People were there at 5 p.m. and 11:30 p.m. We had jocks, we had guys like Stan Chesley in their Rolls. And eye candy, 21 year olds. And celebrities. And entertainment, a disco upstairs. Let’s see, did I mention eye candy? Lots of chicks in their 20s. Guys like that. I always say, ‘No women, no men, no money.’ My cocktail waitresses were gorgeous. And gorgeous women were partying upstairs at the disco.”

Oh, yeah, they served food at The Precinct, too. “Nobody ever had tasted a steak like that.” But absolutely no desserts, and no after-dinner drinks. “We needed to turn the tables.” If a dinner party lagged, Ruby would offer to buy them drinks ... upstairs in the bar. “The plan was to get them out of the friggin’ tables. ... We’d just bring you your freakin’ check. ...

“The Precinct began with the motto of good fun and good friends, but evolved into big steaks, big cars, big stars.”

Ruby relishes this anecdote, re-telling the story of how FBI agents monitored him from a rooftop above the YMCA, across the parkway from the Precinct, as Ruby unloaded bottles of white powder every day from his car trunk. Turns out, much to the Fibbers disappointment, the white powder was Ruby's own secret recipe for his steak marinade.

Suddenly, Ruby’s cell phone goes off in the middle of the interview. The bell tone is the theme song to All in the Family (remember Archie Bunker?). “Songs that made the hit parade ...” Ruby glances at the number and promptly answers. “I’m telling ya, Billy Donovan will be the next coach at U.K. Billy bought a house in Lexington less than a month ago.”

The caller is radio talk show host Andy Furman, late of WLW and now on a lower-powered frequency. Apparently, from the tone of the conversation, Furman expresses doubt at Ruby’s insider information. Ruby to the Furball: “Well, nobody listens to you now, anyhow.”
Ruby’s eyes—oh, intense eyes—dance with a playful expression.

“Fame can be a vapor, and money has wings,” he tells the room, after he hangs up. “The only thing that lasts in life is character. And everyone always tells me, I’m a character!”

Ruby’s life isn’t exactly a rags-to-riches story. Well, hell, sure it is. Jeff Ruby didn’t start out dirt poor, but in the 1970s-think about this-he was managing some local Holiday Inns. Not exactly the career firepower to turn him into the Tony Soprano of the Tristate restaurant world, a culinary entrepreneur with staying power in what is certainly the world’s most unforgiving industry.

The conversation turns to how his downtown Jeff Ruby’s restaurant has evolved. The developer had approached Ruby first about the location. He had doubts, even with the opening of the Aronoff Center for the Arts across the street. Lo and behold, restaurateur Carl Bruggemeier sweeps in, claims the spot and opens Ciao Baby Cucina. “The developer invested in him. I said to myself, ‘I’ll be at the auction.’ And it goes from a gold mine to a land mine in one year.”

Once again, the developer came to Ruby about the location at 7th and Walnut. “They gave me a key. I slept nights here. I walked the streets around here like a hooker, and got to know the people downtown, the bars, the nightlife.”

Now to the secret of Ruby’s success in business. Listen up.

“Every restaurant I do, I write a story, like a Broadway play or motion picture. Every restaurant tells a story, and this was going to be my life. Everything has a story, like The Precinct, of course, it’s an old police station. It’s living theater.”

The naked truth to the origins of Jeff Ruby's restaurant lies behind Ruby's own life story. Ruby was—is—more than a bit obsessed with Gallagher’s steakhouse in Manhattan. He’s modeled the place on it. “As a 13-year-old, I took my mother’s ‘56 Caddy. I kind of borrowed it without her permission. I drive up the Garden State Parkway to New York City. I look into all that beef aging in the window. I said, that’s cool.” So now, Ruby has a window where you can see his beef aging. “All my life experience is in this restaurant.”

The location, he notes as an aside, is perfect. “I can walk to my psychiatrist’s office on Garfield Place.”

And what about the challenges of downtown, the riots and ensuing publicity? “We did more business when they were picketing. I said, ‘Don’t stop.’ People like Carl Lindner were walking through the line.”

“This is the biggest money-maker of the restaurants in Cincinnati,” Ruby says with a flourish, sweeping his hand across the dining room of Jeff Ruby’s. (He concedes they do serve more patrons at the Belterra and Louisville locations.)

“My employees are family to me. I drive these nice cars because of them. I pay insurance for my dishwashers and bus boys. Nobody in the industry does that.”

Okay, Ruby’s fiery temper isn’t exactly a state secret. Especially when it comes to The Accident. Tongues were wagging after the blowup between Ruby and his former wife Rickelle (whom he met and married in 1981 while Ruby was regional manager of all Holiday Inns in Greater Cincinnati and the Fairfield native Rickelle worked at the Holiday Inn Sharonville).

It is a warm summer evening in 1987. The Rubys are arguing over the amount of work that Jeff is putting into The Precinct, The Waterfront and Las Brisas.

Picture Rickelle, pregnant, in the driver’s seat, piloting their blue Volvo at the intersection of Stanley and Kellogg avenues in Columbia-Tusculum, near The Precinct. In the middle of a heated argument, Ruby simply states “This is bullshit,” and steps out of the moving car. He strikes his head on the pavement, fracturing his skull. Emergency physicians at University Hospital give him no more than a 20 percent chance of survival, much less ever functioning again after the brain trauma.

As Rickelle told a friend later, “Jeff wasn’t ‘right’ for about a year after the accident.” The injury affected both his emotions and memory. (The couple is now divorced, the kids—Britney, Brandon and Dillon—are grown and Jeff lives in Mount Lookout.)

Sitting down with Jeff Ruby for two hours isn’t nearly enough time to get the man’s true flavor. In this instance, a more relaxed get-together in Ruby’s corporate suite, there’s no Sinatra wafting in from a Muzak box. Ruby is just back from lecturing to a Colerain high school student body. “I tell ’em you don't have to be born into money to make it in life,” the Cornell U. linebacker and NFL hopeful says. “I tell ’em, think about what you’d do for free, and make it your career.”

He begins the session by talking about a tour of Las Vegas steakhouses he just took, checking out the competition. He was not impressed. “Thank God, what’s cooked in Vegas, stays in Vegas.”

He abruptly switches topics, as is the Ruby way. The conversation moves to how he’s financed his various enterprises: “I’ve had 25 silent partners over the years, and the only one who has ever [actually] been silent is Pete Rose. All the others refused their right to remain silent.”
Asked to name the people who’ve made a difference for him, Ruby ticks off the names: “Stan Chesley. Ed Artzt. And Carl Lindner. He has made everything possible. He had the faith in me.”

Isn’t it ironic, as the snotty reporter in the room sees fit to point out, that with the demise of the Maisonette, Ruby's steakhouse in the Backstage District and Lindner’s highly touted Palace restaurant on Sixth & Vine are almost alone in going head-to-head in the high-end world of downtown dining? He dismisses the notion. “In a way, we are competitors, but ... nah, nah,” he says, shaking his head.

“I am the godfather, but it’s not a mob thing,” says Ruby, interrupting himself and—again—switching topics, now to his restaurant persona. “Employees, guests, whomever, they come to me—just like in The Godfather—to make their problems go away. So I make the calls, I get people to make exceptions.” Ruby quickly adds, “But I don’t kill people.” Sure, that’s what you say.

Ruby points out he’s helped employees get apartments when they didn’t qualify for rent guidelines, and raised money for wheelchair-equipped vans. “This is more important to me than how much profit you make on the bottom line.”

Ruby takes time to take a phone call from Bootsy Collins, the famed funk musician who is opening a nightclub in partnership with Ruby. The restaurateur confides he will premiere the place in the old Uno’s space across from the Aronoff.

After the Bootsy call, he launches into a lengthy diatribe on the perils of Ohio River traffic and his Waterfront eatery: “I should have named it the Poseidon Adventure (referring to the restaurant’s moorings being rammed multiple times by errant river barges). It was constant trouble. Then comes New Year’s Eve and it’s yet another freakin’ runaway barge. I evacuate.”

A survivor of the Beverly Hills Supper Club fire, Ruby is surely no stranger to the challenges of running restaurants safely. “But after that [river evacuation], I called the Waterfront the Shipwreck. I will NEVER do another floating restaurant. The only floating I want to do is on a rubber raft in my swimming pool.”

Downtown’s busiest entrepreneur also takes time to be pessimistic about development prospects: “There will be a Hofbrauhaus in Jerusalem before there will be anything at The Banks.

“There’s got to be more to do in this city. Like what? More shows, more theaters, more arts, better shopping. There’s no shopping in this town. The only thing to do in this city is to eat.

“I don’t care about the money. I just want to see something happen downtown. I not only know the names of the cops downtown, I know their horses’ names.”

Ruby then abruptly switches topics. Again. Big surprise.

“The worst part of Bob Huggins being fired is that, now, I'm the most over-rated man in town.”

Ba-da-bing, ba-da-boom. Interview over.
Jeff Ruby's Guide to Running a Restuarant
• "Charisma. That's all a guest cares about. This is not a business for introverts."
• "This is not nuclear medicine, this is not brain surgery. If you want to be in the restaurant business, you can learn about wine, you can learn about food. You can't do drugs, though."
• "If the plates are dirty, it doesn't matter how good the food is."
• "Female guests aren't used to be treating with respect by female employees" at restaurants.
• "Just about every important discussion takes place in a restaurant or a bar. Not in the bedroom. I told my sons about the birds and the bees at a Longhorn."
• "Food is important, but food doesn't touch a guest. Only a good employee can do that. A great employee can even remedy a bad meal."
Jeff Ruby in a Box
On His First Job: Working in the kitchen at a Jersey restaurant called The Grapevine. "I was in 7th grade."
On the First Soup He Ever Made: Split pea, but a senior chef messed up the soup by pouring milk into it. “It was a putrid color. I kicked him out of the kitchen, the first chef I ever fired. I was 12 years old.”
On His Mom: She married four times (but never once to his biological dad). “I call them my four-fathers.”
On His Ex-wife, Rickelle: “You really never know your wife until you see her in court.”
On O.J. Simpson (whom he threw out of his restaurant this summer in a much-publicized incident): "He didn't get a conviction, so I followed my conviction."
On His Management Style: “I wear every hat. CEO. CFO. COO. SOB. Everything.”
The Ownership Tree: The Family Steak
Jeff Ruby's partners in his various steakhouse operations:
THE WATERFRONT—Ruby & Cris Collinsworth, Boomer Esiason, Bob Elkus, Dave Meyers, Mike Zicka
THE PRECINCT—Ruby & Mike Dever, Elkus, Meyers, Dick Roth
JEFF RUBY'S—Ruby & Towne Properties, Dever, Elkus, Meyers, Roth
CARLO & JOHNNY—Ruby & Randy Michaels, Larry Sheakley, Bob Henderson Sr. and Jr., Gary Talbot, Tom MacLeod, Meyers, Dever, Zicka
JEFF RUBY'S AT BELTERRA—Ruby & Belterra Casino
TROPICANA—Ruby & Marty Cordova
Observations from the Ruby Bible
Never-before reported advice and observations from Jeff Ruby's spiral-bound manual for new employees, "The Power of We":
• "A funeral home has customers. We have GUESTS."
• "If our female employees treat our female guests better than any place in town, it's Game Over—we win. The women will be at our place, not at our competitors."
• "A guest is not an interruption of our work. He/she is the purpose of it."
• "Food servers are the guests' main contact with a restaurant. ... No other employee is more important."
• "People don't walk into a restaurant with a budget."
• "Your ability to sell wine by the bottle, will have more impact on how much money you earn, than anything else."
• "The restaurant business is no big thing. It's a few hundred little things."
• "The chef feeds the appetite. The rest of us feed the ego."
• "People go to McDonald's when they are hungry. They come to a place like this to celebrate life."