Earlier this month, cousins Niki Russ Federman and Josh Russ Tupper opened the Russ & Daughters Cafe on Orchard Street, 100 years after their great-grandfather opened his iconic appetizing store on the very same street. The shop (which was not then called Russ & Daughters) moved shortly after to Houston Street, where it has sat ever since, run by four consecutive generations of the Russ family despite the fact that, as the two cousins explain, things have not always gone smoothly.
As they prepared to open the restaurant, Eater sat down with Niki and Josh to discuss the story of Russ & Daughters and the reasons why only now, 100 years later, they've decided to expand. Here are the cousins on family, change, and why, for very different reasons, neither of them ever thought they'd take over the business.
What is the story of Russ & Daughters? How did it come to be?
Josh Tupper: The brick and mortar store was founded in 1914. Before that our great grandfather, Joel Russ, had a pushcart on Orchard Street and sold salted herring and dried mushrooms. He originally opened the store on Orchard Street, and then moved to the current location in the early '20s. He ran the business mainly himself, but realized that he needed help and happened to have three daughters. He was apparently not the most service-oriented person, and I guess he didn't have patience for difficult customers—which we adore. So he brought the girls in young. Hattie says she was working there at 12. It really helped the business, I think, because it gave it pretty faces, and made it a better, service-oriented business. They ultimately met their husbands through the store, and then the three couples owned it and ran it after Joel Russ retired.
Niki: And it wasn't originally called Russ & Daughters. It was J.R. Russ Cut Rate Appetizers, and then in the mid-30s he changed it to Russ & Daughters. You have to appreciate that in the 1930s, it was a very controversial—some would say foolish—decision to give a reputable business the name of "and Daughters." To this day, there are customers who have been shopping at Russ & Daughters forever who say that when they were younger they thought there was a Mr. Russ and a Mr. Daughters. I'd like to think that he was really making a feminist statement, but I think he just understood that it was a very catchy name.
Josh: He was a business man. It was a good business decision. So they were all there and owned and ran it. Ultimately our mutual grandmother and grandfather were the last of the three couples. Ida, the middle daughter, left first and opened an appetizing store on Long Island, which did not last very long. And Hattie left after that, so our grandmother and grandfather owned and ran it through the late '70s. Then around 1980, Mark, Niki's father, came into the business when our grandfather was sick and really needed someone to get take care of it. Mark was a lawyer, and left that to take over the business. I came in in 2002 and Niki came in 2006 and and we ran it until 2010 when Mark transferred ownership. And now here we are today.
How much of that history were you told growing up? What did you parents and grandparents tell you about Russ & Daughters?
Josh: Well I wasn't told anything growing up. I mean, I experienced the store. We would come as kids and I would fill my pockets with candy and think I was stealing it, although nobody else did. But I grew up upstate in an ashram. My mother and my aunt escaped the family and went and did the hippy thing. My mother never really talked about the store. Coming into the city we would go and visit the store, and then go to my grandmother's and have a big spread, but my grandmother never really talked about the store either.
Niki: Yeah, Josh and I had very different experiences growing up. My father, as Josh said, chose to give up law and come and take over the business. My mother was a chemist. She thought she'd married a lawyer, not a fishmonger. But little by little she also got brought into the business. So growing up this was my life. I was very aware of what my parents did for a living, what the store was about, and what it really took of them personally to keep it going. I grew up coming to the Lower East Side when it was not the hip, happening place it is now. It was quite gritty. People assume that growing up I would have the most fabulous brunches every weekend, but that's totally not true. My parents weren't around on the weekend, they were making sure that everybody else had their brunch food. As I got older, when the holidays rolled around I would be put to do some kind of job, even if it was just saying hello to customers. Little by little I started doing more and more, and there was just an understanding that my brother and I had to work. It was a family business, and when it got busy, everyone was expected to participate.
Josh: Did you get historical stories as a kid?
Niki: Not really. Our great grandfather Joel was not a very effusive or talkative person. I don't think he really shared stories, and you have to understand that for the first three generations of Russ & Daughters, there was nothing glamorous about being in the food world, running a specialty food shop. It was really hard work, and it was a way to support a family and get a foothold in this country.
Josh: Her father sort of transitioned from that into this sexy food world.
Niki: A little bit.
Josh: His mind never really did.
Niki: No, because he ran the business during the '70s, '80s, and '90s when people thought you had to be mad. Why would a lawyer want to give up his white collar, boutique law firm job and be on the Lower East Side doing this kind of work? These days you see the flip of that happening. The bankers want to be bakers.
Josh: It's really not that glamorous or amazing. It's still hard work.
Niki: Well, we see the hard work, but there's a reverence now for people who work with their hands, who work with food. People appreciate it more, and sometimes they glamorize it too much. But when I chose to come into this business, having grown up in it, I didn't have any sort of romantic Food Network ideas about what it was about. I really understood what it would take.
When you were growing up, did your dad ever talk about why he decided to give up being a lawyer?
Niki: At a certain point he was less fulfilled by it, and so the stress and the hours just weren't worth it anymore. He was working 80 to 90 hours a week and not seeing his two young kids and wife. There is something inherently very grounding and fulfilling about the kind of work that we do, because you're working with your hands and you're interacting with people, and I think that my father was missing that in law. I get that because I was looking for that too, and that's one of the things that brought me back here.
Was working here something that you considered when you were young? Was there pressure to stay with the family business?
Niki: There wasn't pressure on me.
Josh: When you were young there wasn't pressure. When you were older....
Niki: Right, that's true. We'll get to that. But growing up I was educated and motivated to do whatever I wanted to do. I think my father always hoped that I would be his successor, and saw that natural continuity in me. My mother, on the other hand was always like "Don't do this! Go do something else." That was growing up. I'll come back to the other part.
Josh: I grew up on this ashram, rebelled, and put myself through boarding school in the Midwest for high school. I worked summers to pay for plane tickets and came back once a year. Then I rebelled even more, got a chemical engineering degree, and worked in semi-conductors on the West Coast. But there was no inkling ever that I would end up here until I came to a point in my life where I started questioning my family's history, right around the same time that Mark was looking for his exit strategy. I had felt unfulfilled. I was working with my hands, but there was no social interaction with people other than Intel engineers, and that wasn't satisfying this need that I think we all have of making people happy, giving someone something and seeing them smile. So I got on the search. I talked to my grandmother and started asking questions about the business. I had no idea. She'd never talked about working in the store. She had all this resentment, because she was forced into the business. And at the same time, I heard that Mark was looking to retire. He was talking to people about selling the business, potentially. So I started calling him and was like, "This is such an important aspect of who I am, because my grandmother and my mother grew up in that environment, and I feel very strongly that it should stay in the family." I had no food experience, no idea really of anything about the store. I don't know if I'd even read anything about the store ever. I said, "I'll leave my career in engineering and come back and take over the business." And he was like, "Are you crazy? You know nothing. Why would I even think that's a good idea?" So over the course of months we talked. I thought I wore him down and convinced him, but it turns out that Niki had been in and out and was getting pressure, and one day she was like, "Alright, I'm going to do something else, I'm out." I called him that same day and he was like "Fine!"
So what was it like to enter into this business not knowing anything about it? How did you learn?
Josh: Mark taught me. Herman our manager taught me. All the guys, everyone was very supportive. I did not come in here and think that I knew anything, because I didn't. It was like, show me how to do it, and then I'll just figure out how to do it better. I learned everything from the ground up from the staff and Mark. I learned some great things from him and I learned some not-so-great things from him, and rolled that into the future running of a better business.
What did you change? What were the not-so-great things that Mark did?
Josh: The way the business was run was directing everyone at every moment what to do, so employees didn't have to think for themselves at all. But after you tell someone to do the same things 150 times, it's not like, "Oh, will you please wipe down the board?" It becomes this yelling, aggressive experience. I learned that from him, and it still comes out sometimes. But that was the way it was run for so long. And instead of planning and organizing and systematizing, it was like, "Oh my god, we gotta do this." And there were mysterious nuances of running the business. The idea of ordering and checking fish was this mysterious thing that takes years and years and years to figure out. It wasn't an open book at all. It was like, alright, talk about this for 10, 15 years and then you'll be good at it.
Niki, what was that time like from your perspective?
Niki: After graduating college I worked out west for a couple of years in the art world, partly to get as geographically far away as I could. But there was something that drew me back to New York. Now I can say that it all makes sense, that I was making my way back to Russ & Daughters, but at the time I wasn't aware of what was happening. After September 11 I came back to work in the store, but I saw it as a very short term thing. I didn't want to get fully roped in, and I saw the need to build the online business, which really didn't exist. So I offered to do that as a way for me to test the waters without having to make this big leap into it. But my father saw my entry as his exit. He got very excited and wanted to speed up the whole thing. All of a sudden this part time job I thought I was doing turned into the question of, "Are you going to take this over or not? If it's not you, I'm going to have to sell, because there's no one else." There was a lot of pressure on me, and it was a very difficult time. I was very drawn to Russ & Daughters, but the decision about what I wanted to do with my life was being forced on me in a way that was making me want to turn away from it. So Josh's entry was actually perfect, because it gave my father the security of knowing that someone in the family was interested, even if he wasn't sure if it was going to work out. Josh's arrival allowed me to get the space that I needed, to step away for a while. I rationalized going to business school, and really it was about getting the time and space I needed to make my own decision. Having that space really allowed me to appreciate what Russ & Daughters means to me, and to the world. That sounds sort of hokey, but I think Russ & Daughters is so much more than just a store or about the food. It has this incredibly important social role, and I started to appreciate that. I also started see all the opportunity and interesting challenges in coming back into a business that was poised for growth. Luckily Josh was willing to take a partner.
If Josh had not been in the picture and your dad had said, "I'm gonna sell," would you have said, "Ok, I'll do it"?
Niki: I don't know. I'm so glad it didn't come to that. I think that's one of the many reasons that family businesses aren't able to survive for as long as we have. It has to be each generation's own choice to do that work, and in many cases there's pressure, and then that's not sustainable.
What are those essential things about Russ & Daughters that make it what it is? What are the things that can't change?
Josh: There's this thing we always talk about, the "Russ & Daughters experience." It's sort of intangible, but it's made up of the look and feel of the place when you walk in, how you're spoken to by the staff, the quality of the food you're getting. No one wants physical change, no one wants to see new people, so those are the real challenges.
Niki: First and foremost it comes down to the quality. Because if we didn't have the quality we wouldn't have the reputation that we have. We just wouldn't have lasted this long. But for me it's also about the human element. Family has a very broad meaning here. We have staff who have known me since I was in utero. There are customers who have been coming here for literally 80 or 90 years. They knew our great grandfather, so they connect us to our own family. And then it's also the role that this food and this place plays in so many other family histories. Russ & Daughters is a counterpoint to an increasingly inhuman commercial world. We all like our conveniences and our smartphones, but it is in our DNA to seek human interaction. Russ & Daughters is a place where you are connected to the person who is slicing your sturgeon. There are friendships that occur over the counter. We deliver throughout the city, we ship around the country, you can order online, but nine times out of 10, I'll suggest to someone, "Hey, you live uptown, you know we can deliver to you," and they look at me like, "Are you crazy?" Someone even said to me once, "Don't take my joy from me." Coming to the store, standing in line, having that over-the-counter banter is a very visceral thing. It's tradition, it's a rarity. There are very few places you get that.
Among the many regulars that you have, are there any that stand out? Or any particularly memorable stories?
Josh: I mean, there are all kinds of stories. It's sort of a different idea of regulars. 30 or 40 percent of our customers come almost once a week.
Niki: But our regulars are also people who might come only once a year, but they've been doing that for 60 years. There are the regulars who live in California or Florida, and we've never actually met them, but they order over the phone. I have so many love affairs over the phone.
Josh: Whatever the reality of the connection is, it's a strong connection. Whether it's love affairs over the phone or flirtations in the store, it's very emotional interactions.
Niki: We have people cry in the store very often.
Josh: Yeah, coming in and remembering their spouses who have died recently, who they always came in with. People on their death bed have come to the store saying, "This is what I wanted to do in my last days here."
Niki: There are people who use it as a way to introduce other people to who they are, what they're about, what they think and how they feel.
Josh: And Russ & Daughters is used at all of these significant moment in life. Births, namings, bar mitzvahs, christenings, weddings, brises...
Niki: Divorce parties.
Josh: There's a customer who brings in his mother who's suffering from Alzheimer's. She goes in and out, but I've never seen her in the store when she didn't know exactly where she was.
Niki: Just this past week there was a customer who lives in Michigan. She went through chemo, and her friend here in New York sent her care packages from Russ & Daughters. She has now come back twice to mark her anniversary of going into remission. They come together, and they pick up food, and she puts the bagels and bialys in her suitcase, and we pack up the fish for her.
[The Russ & Daughters Cafe]
When both of you took over the store, what were the opportunities for growth that you did see? Were you always thinking about a cafe?
Niki: Yeah, it just made so much sense to me. Russ & Daughters is this amazing experience, but there's one missing part. People come to the store and they linger and want to spend time there. It's so much about family and eating this food with others, and the shop doesn't let you do that. Also, I still want everyone in the world to know about Russ & Daughters, because I think it's an amazing place. There was that desire to educate people about the history and tradition of Russ & Daughters as an appetizing food store, one of the last beacons of the appetizing food tradition. Most people don't even appreciate that appetizing is one of New York's original, homegrown food traditions.
Josh: It's always been on the horizon, but when I started in 2002 we were still taking orders on paper. Holidays get crazy, and you take all these orders and then you file all the orders in the basement in boxes. If someone calls the next year and says, "I wanna repeat my order from last year," you go down to the basement and search through 30 boxes of stuff. There were no efficiencies to the business. It was all seat of the pants, old family business-style. That's cute, but you can only do so much. The ultimate goal somewhere down the line was to open a cafe, maybe another store, but there was a lot of work to be done before that would ever be possible. Now we're finally at the point where it's possible to take the next step. 100 years later. The biggest challenge in creating efficiencies is not to affect our customers' experience. What they see, how they feel when the show up, how they feel when they call. And changing the mindset of the guys who have been working her for 30 years. It was this very slow process, but important, because you can't just come in and say, "Ok! Everything's different."
Niki: That was what turned my thinking around about the store. I went from thinking "If I end up doing what my parents, my grandparents, and my great grandparents did with their lives, then I haven't achieved anything." Because in our very individualistic society you're taught to carve your own path. You're supposed to move up from what your parents and your grandparents have done. But at some point I was able to flip that around and see that the continuity that Russ & Daughters provides on so many levels is such a rare thing, and has so much value. I realized that it's actually an opportunity. It's an amazing gift to be a part of a lineage, the fourth generation of a tradition, in America especially. And then I saw that Russ & Daughters provides that continuity for so many people. They want to taste pickled lox and have it be the same taste that they remember from eating it 40 years ago. They want to come to the store and have that reassurance that even though everything else in New York might be changing, Russ & Daughters is still here and it's still that same.
So when did you finally say, "Ok, we're really going to open a cafe now."?
Josh: We've been talking about this and looking at spaces for a long time, probably a couple years. We were looking for the right opportunity, the right space.
Niki: It was a long-ish process, between saying, "Okay, let's look at spaces," and now being just a few weeks from opening. But I think we had to go through a process of honing in on what was important to us. There are a lot of opportunities out there for Russ & Daughters. We did look at other neighborhoods, and explored what it would mean to have Russ & Daughters outside of the Lower East Side, and I think it was really important for us to go through those steps to be able to circle back and realize, "If we're going to do this, it only makes sense for this restaurant to be on the Lower East Side, and to be as close as we can get it to the store." Because this is where our soul and our history is, not to mention that just logistically it's easier. Once we really had that realization, then it took a few more months of looking at spaces, and we ultimately found the combination of the right space and the right landlord, and then, because we had been gestating this idea for a while, once we found the space we had the team in place to just get going.
Is it scary to undertake this project?
Josh: I mean, it's scary enough to run a 100-year-old business and not mess it up somehow. We make changes, which someone else would say are little changes and we feel them significantly. So to do something so different is extremely scary. But also exciting. We don't wanna run the business out of fear, which I think is how the previous generations ran it. But there is a certain aspect of fear and anxiety with most everything we do.
Niki: Being "100 years in" is how we think about this. The way that we approach this business is very different from other places. We make our decisions based on very long-term projections. How do we ensure that Russ & Daughters is going to be around for the next generation? If we're opening a restaurant, how do we do it so that it feels like it's always been there? Especially in the restaurant world, there's just so much flux and unknowns and short-lived restaurants. So we're very cautious, but I think it's a very healthy caution. When we were talking to landlords and they'd say "How long a lease do you want?" we'd say, "100 years!" And we were serious. I also feel moved by how much enthusiasm and support we've gotten. So many of our customers don't want Russ & Daughters to change. They're afraid. And so when we first announced the restaurant we were worried about how it would be received. But if anything, the only complaint I've heard so far is, "Well what took you so long?"
So how do you connect the two places? What were the things you decided were most important to maintaining that continuity? Especially since so many of your staff have been with the store for so long, how do you make a cohesive staff?
Josh: Well that's going to be one of the biggest challenges. But the guys that work down in the store are not restaurant employees. So we're hiring a new staff and the training process is going to be critical, to hopefully have them understand who we are and how we do things, and what we should be conveying. We'd like to have some crossover, but we don't now know how that's going to work. Maybe we'll have some guest slicers.
Niki: In the food we've been working on taking what we do best here and elaborating on it only as much as is needed to provide it in a beautiful plated form. And you can sit down. That's a big deal, right? It's gonna be an interesting next few months. It's gonna be intense, but we're excited. What I'm really excited about, and is very important to us is maintaining that amazing haimish-ness. Do you know this word haimish-ness? It's a Yiddish word that means comfort, familiarity, lack of pretension. It's like real-ness, authenticity. I think that's something really unique at the store. There's a hundred years worth of history and this human element. There's this real democratic feeling that you get, where celebrities take a number just like anyone else, everyone is important, everyone is interesting.
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