Russ & Daughters: Small Business, Big Name

Through wars, democratic change, and a restless food industry, Russ & Daughters has remained a fixed entity on New York’s culinary landscape.

the turn of the century, Manhattan’s Lower East Side was one
of the most densely populated districts in the world, and Russ &
opened along with hundreds of other spots selling
traditional Jewish foods to the many immigrants living in the area.
As the years rolled by and new food industries came and went, Russ
& Daughters remained one of the few original sellers of Jewish
foods to survive the changing times. Through wars, democratic
change, and a restless food industry, Russ & Daughters has
remained a fixed entity on New York’s culinary landscape.

The food is a conduit for memory.

Last year, Russ & Daughters celebrated its 100th anniversary
by opening a brand new café on Orchard Street, only a few blocks
away from the original store on E Houston Street that opened in

This year, The Sturgeon Queens, a feature-length documentary
telling the story of “100 years, 4 generations, 1,800,000 pounds of
pickled herring” went into production. Narrated by old costumers
with interviews from the store’s loyal (and sometimes celebrity)
customers, the film illustrates the scope of Russ & Daughters’

“On any given day, you can have A-listers next to old ladies
with their shopping carts, next to tourists,” Niki Russ Federman, a
fourth generation Russ, tells us. “There’s a very democratic feel
to the place.”

The new Russ & Daughters café allows first-time visitors and
loyal followers alike to sit at a table and enjoy the traditional
offerings of the store alongside new menu-items like cocktails,
sharing platters and brunch dishes. The menu reads like an edible
history of Jewish culture, from pillowy knishes and chopped liver
to matzo ball soup and luxurious caviars, all the way to their
famous smoked fish and herring.

“People come to Russ & Daughters because the food and the
place is so charged with history,”Josh Russ Tupper, also a fourth
generation Russ, says. ‘The food is a conduit for memory.”

Last year, the Russ & Daughters store was awarded an
Official Resolution by the New York State Senate, marking its
hundred years serving the city’s people. It has long been
recognised as a staple of New York’s diverse culture, and serves
the same food now as it did when it first opened in 1914. “For us,
it’s not about doing things differently,” Niki explains, “It’s
about doing things traditionally, and the best. We want our foods
to taste the same way to customers as they did when they were a
little kid, eating them in their grandmother’s house.”

We sat down with cousins Niki and Josh in a shiny new booth at
Russ & Daughters café underneath a black and white photograph
of the store taken just after WWII, a prevalent mark of the brand’s
place in time. The two fourth generation owners of the company
explained just what it is that makes the Russ & Daughters name
as celebrated in New York’s food history as it is today.

Tell us how the R&D Café came about…

JOSH RUSS TUPPER: We would get tens of calls
every day asking for reservations at the store. We sat down and
began thinking about what we should be offering our customers, and
wanted to give people a place to sit down and enjoy the food. We
started looking at spaces three years ago and began refining the
ideas. NIKI RUSS FEDERMAN: The café was a natural
extension for us. So much of this food is about coming together
with groups of people, friends, family, and visitors from out of
town. And as amazing as the original store is, we just felt that
there was a missing piece.

Was it always going to be on the Lower East

N: We came full circle with that. The Lower
East Side is one of the most important geographical neighbourhoods
in the US, because so many Americans can trace their own immigrant
histories back to this small zone. At the turn of the century, this
area was the most highly populated in the world! There is so much
memory and history on these streets, and Russ & Daughters has
been a part of that history for a hundred years.

J: We had other options of where to place the
café, but ultimately we realised that we had to do it on the Lower
East Side, it just goes hand in hand with the brand. The more that
the city and this neighbourhood changes, it loses a lot of its
historical character, so we felt obligated to be one of those
places that provides continuity.

How do you strike a balance between sticking to
tradition and keeping things fresh when it comes to the

N: That’s just the crux of everything we

J: It’s always on our minds, but at the same
time it’s easier for us because the essence of our business is a
store that has been in New York for so many years. We constantly go
back to the store and think “this is what defines us. This is the
soul of Russ & Daughters”. So I think as long as we keep that
as a reference point, then the connection to the past will remain.
This connection is very prevalent in our minds inside the café but
at the same time, it’s about bridging the gap between the present
and the future. It’s probably our biggest challenge.

N: It’s a very fine line. We’re not a museum,
we didn’t want to fall into the kitschy nostalgia of trying to
recreate the past or make the café look old. We didn’t feel that we
needed to do that, because we are old. It’s in the name, the food,
the smells; the history is tied up with the brand through time.
Equally, we didn’t want to make the café so new and chic that it
alienated people. We wanted the past and the present to co-exist in

Have you noticed this kind of food becoming more
fashionable recently?

J: There are a lot of people getting into the
Jewish food world. We’ve certainly seen a change in our customers.
Twenty years ago, the people coming to the store were all a lot
older. I think when Niki and I came in, and people saw younger
faces behind the business, the customer age average dropped
massively. We now have all of these young customers, and young
people wanting to start their own business of this kind.

What do you love most about what you do?

J: Carrying the torch of a small business,
which is something we’re losing in our society. I love making my
grandmother proud of the business, being able to see her reaction
to what we’re doing and feel her excitement. She’s 93-years-old
now, and was in the Russ & Daughters business because she had
to be, not because she wanted to be. The daughters of our
great-grandfather weren’t given a lot of choice. College was not an
option, who they married was monitored by the men of the family.
Into her eighties, our grandmother was saying “I’m still trying to
figure out what I want to do when I grow up”. Seeing how she looks
at the business now sort of redeems a bit of that resentment and
makes her feel good about everything she did for the business. It
was her whole life.

N: For me, I love understanding the impact that
Russ & Daughters has on other people. Every day there is some
reminder that the food is a vehicle for this whole other
experience. For example, last week there was a marriage proposal in
the store! This guy popped the question in the store on a busy
Saturday. And when I was talking to the couple afterwards he told
me: “This is her favourite place in the world, I couldn’t think of
anywhere better to do it.” Everyone has a story in here, and
everyone shares that story. That keeps me so motivated.

Where do you like to eat when you’re not at Russ &

N: I love Mission Chinese. Contra (right across
the street from the café), is also excellent. It’s a prix-fixe menu
of creative American food and the menu changes every day, cooked by
two young chefs. They’re so talented. It’s the best deal in

J: I don’t like giving out my spots…(laughs)
Il Buco is one
of my favourites. Estela, which is hard to get into but very worth it!
El Rey, near
here, is a very unassuming but delicious spot. I stick to very few
regular places.

What do you like most about living in New

N: It’s really about the people. And Russ &
Daughters connects us to all of those people. It’s endlessly
interesting, fascinating and fun.

J: New York has this incredible diversity of
people, with a huge diversity of interests. There’s something for
everyone. There’s this crazy mix of personalities in the air! It’s
a huge place filled with anything you could ever want, and yet it’s
a small town where you run into people you know on the street all
the time. As long as you stay away from Times Square…

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