A Model of the Ruby Tuesday Mission: Quality, Passion and Pride
By: Joe Cox
If you set out to write your life story, what would it sound like?
In the fourth quarter of 2008, the country was entering one of the lowest points of the economic recession. Financial institutions were failing, families were tightening their budgets, layoffs were widespread and right in the middle of it all, a brand-new restaurant opened its doors.
Even though the reality of that situation kept many a person awake at night in cold sweats, there was a group with a vision, and their leader was a tried-and-true veteran of many a different business climate, particularly in the food industry. They had a winning formula, and it was only a matter of time. If they could weather the storm, San Antonio would finally get a taste of Ruby Tuesday, a brand that had already created quite a buzz in nearly 900 locations across the United States and the globe.
Walking into a Ruby Tuesday, one is immediately captivated by the atmosphere. The elegance of the décor might cause middle-class patrons to wonder if they should even glance at the menu. “Is this place out of my range?”
This observation is OK with the Ruby Tuesday team. If the result is you are pleasantly surprised that you can have dinner in an upscale setting, select from an uncompromising menu and walk away with money in your pocket, they have succeeded. Ruby Tuesday has set out to become the envy of the casual dining industry, and it is well on its way here in San Antonio.
The subtlety and excellence that is Ruby Tuesday in San Antonio is a reflection of its developer. Cathy Amato is a businesswoman who exudes a confident aura of elegance, intelligence and sophistication, and yet she is absolutely approachable and lovely in her demeanor.
When Ruby Tuesday hostesses warmly greet you, think of Amato. When a Ruby Tuesday manager comes to your table to ensure your complete satisfaction, think of Amato. When your complete dining experience comes off without a hitch, and the meticulous standards of quality materialize in the food and in the service, think of Amato.
She started out as a waitress and discovered she liked the nature of the restaurant business, the hours and the flexibility.
In the early ‘80s, Amato noticed a management training recruitment ad for Jack-in-the-Box. Against the advice of some, Amato took the leap and quickly worked her way up the ladder and into the management, eventually becoming corporate training manager for all of South Central Texas.
As a result of her success at Jack-in-the-Box, a friend of Amato’s by the name of Rick Riley – the development agent for Subway – suggested she take a look at a budding franchise phenomenon called Subway, which had about 200 franchises at the time. She partnered with Riley and Martha Jordan with two Subways in 1992. We know the rest of the story. Subway exploded and now has more than 34,000 franchises worldwide, 55 of which belong to Amato and her partners right here in South Texas.
Forever the visionary, Amato took charge of the development aspect, selling franchises while handling the leases and site selection. Starting with a chance vision and moving forward with good, old-fashioned hard work, Amato’s restaurant company was able to report a record $24 million in revenue throughout 2010.
OK, stop and smell the roses, right? Not Amato.
Always looking for a challenge, Amato decided to take a look at Ruby Tuesday. She, Riley and Amato’s husband, Charlie, signed a development agreement in 2007 to bring five restaurants to San Antonio. It is a big challenge in that Ruby Tuesday has a very different marketing model than Subway.
Subway spends millions nationally in corporate advertising. Ruby Tuesday relies more on the local model. Amato finds the challenge of building a brand in the local market, on a virtual island, to be very rewarding. She has learned a lot about “street fighting,” as she calls it.
In a bit of a surprise move, Amato spoke very eloquently and passionately about development on the south side of San Antonio, an area of town she feels is neglected, perhaps to the detriment of other entrepreneurs.
“People tend to live within their means in different areas of town as opposed to some areas where people are leveraged to the hilt,” Amato says, “so it makes sense to put a restaurant in a neighborhood where people actually have disposable income.”
Amato is also very proud of her efforts to provide health care for her all of her eligible employees in addition to the upward mobility afforded to many in her organization. Upward mobility is common in the restaurant industry, if one is willing to learn and work hard. Access to health care is not.
“It makes me feel good to see people able to improve their quality of life where maybe they weren’t able to start life in the same place as others,” Amato says.
Her maternal grandfather – an Italian immigrant who settled in Cleveland, Ohio – was a janitor. He believed in the American dream and encouraged his children to get their education. At that time, there was still a lot of prejudice against Italians. Perhaps envisioning the potential and the influence of his lineage, Amato’s grandfather was determined to change the course of things for his family, and even on his meager janitor’s salary, he sent his children to college.
Amato’s mother not only attended college, she went on to become one of the first women in the country to achieve a Master of Science in Nursing. She joined the Navy as an officer, and that was where she met Amato’s father, also a Navy officer.
Ervin and Mary Neatherlin are no doubt very proud of their daughter, Cathy, the oldest of five children.
Amato is clearly moved by the strength and the dignity of her bloodline. It is evident in the way she speaks about people. Very often, when someone has achieved what Amato has been able to achieve, there can be a tendency to forget about the plight of their fellow man. Not Amato.
When one listens to her talk about her employees and about people in general, it becomes very clear that Amato is genuinely interested in them, their stories, their hopes and their dreams. It is as if she recognizes the whispers of an old Italian janitor reminding her that her dishwashers and her waiters lay their weary bones down at night and dream the same dreams for their families that he once did.
Amato is driven. She loves to read. She is almost obsessed with physical fitness. She is already working on another restaurant concept in addition to Ruby Tuesday. She loves to travel and has a group of close friends she loves and admires, with whom she recently took her very first “girls’ trip” to New York City. She says she “is really lovin’ life.” If there was one thing missing, Amato admits she still has a deep urge to write someday.
Speaking about her extensive involvement in the restaurant industry, Amato confesses, “I would never have guessed this is what I’d be doing … I wanted to be a journalist and write for a newspaper.”
Becoming a writer will not be a stretch for Amato. It is obvious she can do anything she sets her mind to. She is a gifted storyteller.
Listening to Amato, one cannot help but notice the charming proficiency with which she is able to recount the nuances of her business moxie, her heritage, her ambitions and her life experiences. She makes you a believer. She has worked her way up the ladder, is living life to the fullest and firmly believes that afforded the right opportunity, you can, too.
If Amato set out to write her biography, at this point we would be witnessing the climax. It is an exciting point in the story. Anyone with the good fortune of meeting Amato will easily develop a need to see the story through and embrace the fate of the heroine.
If it were up to Amato, the tale would not end any time soon. She is determined to improve the quality of life for those around her. She is filled with an infinite passion. She is extremely proud of her employees and the company they have built together, and she honestly treasures all of the characters who are bringing her story to life.
For more information on Ruby Tuesday, including a map, menu and other information about San Antonio’s three locations, visit www.rubytuesday.com.
A San Antonio native, Joe Cox is married with three children, a graduate of Norwich University, the co-owner of Cariños Boutique in downtown San Antonio, the editor-in-chief/co-founder of Latino Briefing Room and a freelance writer. He is committed to searching for, listening to and creating new and inspiring human-interest stories. Visit www.fromthedeskofjoecox.com to read more of his stories.