Russ and Daughters Press
The Jewish Week
January 20, 2006
Where Smoking Is Still Allowed
Gabrielle Birkner, Staff Writer
In wake of 2nd Avenue Deli closing, the 92-year-old Russ & Daughters — still family owned and operated — retains a loyal following for smoked salmon, herring and other traditional nosh. The sign above the little red dispenser asks patrons to take a number, and when the store is crowded, they do. Make no mistake about it, though, Russ & Daughters’ customers are never treated like numbers. Salespeople at the venerable Lower East Side smoked fish purveyor tend to know the name of their customers’ children and grandchildren, the names of their parents and grandparents. And when they don’t, they ask, and they remember.
In the 92 years that Russ & Daughters has occupied its tiny East Houston Street storefront, the price of a pound of smoked salmon has gone up about 100 fold — as have the rents in the gritty-turned-hipper-than-thou ’hood. Yet surprisingly little has changed about the way the kosher-style market does business. And Josh Russ Tupper, 31, a great-grandson of Joel Russ — the Galician immigrant and former pushcart peddler, who founded the store in 1914 — is determined to keep it that way.
“There’s something about this place that’s warm and welcoming,” said Tupper, a chemical engineer, who three years ago quit his job to take the helm of Russ & Daughters. Along with Yonah Schimmel Knishes down the street and Kossar’s Bialys on Grand Street, Russ & Daughters is one of the few historic, Jewish-flavored specialty stores that remain on the Lower East Side. At a time when the neighborhood’s renowned family-run shops and restaurants are finding it increasingly difficult to make ends meet — last week the nearby 2nd Avenue Deli, facing a significant rent hike, closed its doors after 51 years — Tupper said preserving the store’s mom-and-pop feel means preserving history. To this day, the men who work behind the retro display cases will spend a half-hour explaining to customers the difference between Gaspe salmon, Western Nova and belly lox — and cutting paper-thin slices of all three. Adding to the Old World flavor is the décor: hand-painted signs, antique light fixtures, fans and scales and black-and-white Russ family photographs, including one of Tupper’s great-aunt with the late Broadway legend, Zero Mostel.
“I put quite a bit of pressure on myself,” Tupper explained, leaning over to pick up a stray coffee bean from the otherwise spotless white-tiled floor on a recent Friday afternoon. “I fear falling off the pedestal.” It is a pedestal that the soft-spoken Tupper never expected to be on. A secular Jew who was raised on an ashram in upstate New York, he fondly remembers his frequent childhood visits to Russ & Daughters, then run by his maternal grandparents, Anne and Herb Federman. Smiling, Tupper, recalls how he and his two sisters would surreptitiously fill their pockets with chocolates and candies kept behind the counter. Despite the store’s seemingly limitless supply of cocoa almonds, Tupper, who studied at Clarkson University in Potsdam, N.Y., only first considered a career in the family business about five years ago. At that time, he was working as the head engineer of a chemical manufacturing company in Portland, Ore.
“When I was 26, I started thinking more about my family,” Tupper said. “This store, it was my grandmother’s life. I mentioned to my uncle” — Mark Russ Federman, who ran the store’s day-to-day operations for 28 years — “that if Russ & Daughters was ever going to leave the family, I would step in. “Our society was built on businesses like this, but my generation and the generation before, they watched their parents struggle and they got out. They became doctors and lawyers.” In chemical engineering, Tupper, too, had chosen a career that was more lucrative and required less elbow grease than running the family fish business. But when it became clear that none of his cousins were interested in taking over Russ & Daughters, Tupper, who is single, headed to New York, where he settled in one of the family-owned apartments above the store. (A half-century ago, Joel Russ purchased the low-rise building that houses Russ & Daughters, thereby ensuring the store would never have to succumb to the demands of a landlord.) Trading his nine-to-five corporate job for one slicing fish behind a counter has been taxing —he often works weekends and holidays — but rewarding, Tupper said. “At my old job, I was making loads of money but I had I had no direct contact with the end user,” he said. “Here, I can make a sandwich and put it right in someone’s hands. I see them smile. I hear them say, ‘Thanks so much.’”
There is little sense of a hierarchy at Russ & Daughters, where Federman goes by the title of “Third Generation,” and Tupper by “Fourth Generation.” “If we called ourselves CEOs, we’d be less likely to pick up the schmutz,” Federman said. Tupper’s decision to enter the decidedly heimishe family business means a lot to Federman, who gave up his law career nearly 30 years ago to take over Russ & Daughters. “There should always be a Russ at the helm of the store,” Federman said. “If your name is out front, you’re more likely to angst over every piece of fish, over every customer in the store. You’re more likely to be obsessive about quality and service.” Federman, alongside Herman Vargas, who has worked behind the counter at Russ & Daughters for more than 25 years, taught Tupper the ABCs of choosing the freshest and tastiest fish, the art of slicing salmon and the ins and outs of business management. “Josh is a Russ by birth and Herman is a Russ by dedication and passion,” Federman said. “That combination is going to keep Russ & Daughters thriving.” Vargas was hired on when he was 17, shortly after emigrating from the Dominican Republic. He used to keep a small notebook in the pocket of his butcher’s coat, on which he would scribble phonetically the Yiddishisms that he learned on the job. These days, Vargas, who calls Russ & Daughter patrons “an extension of my family,” can carry on light conversation in the mama loshen, and knows that when customers ask for the heshbin, they want the bill. “From the beginning, I had an intuition about fish,” Vargas said. For its nearly constant stream of customers, including some A-list celebrities known to frequent the store, Russ & Daughters is not just selling smoked fish or chopped liver or pickled herring or rugelach. It’s selling an experience. “My father, he said, ‘Cleanliness, integrity, pay your bills on time, and you got it made,’” said Tupper’s grandmother, Anne Federman, now 84, retired, and living in Pembroke Pines, Fla.
The Russ & Daughters experience and its guiding principles yield an exceedingly loyal clientele. On a recent afternoon, one regular customer came in to place an order — two pounds of smoked salmon, a pound of sable, three different types of herring, a dozen bagels and a dozen bialies — to be shipped to Hawaii so he and his family wouldn’t have to go without their favorite noshes during their two-week vacation to the Kona coast. And then, of course, there are the tourists who make their way into the store, having heard or read about the legendary joint. For Ann and Abbot Granoff, the recommendation came from a restaurateur in Virginia Beach, Va., where they live.
While in New York last week, the Granoffs made a special trip to the Lower East Side to seek out Russ & Daughters. “This is what it was like when I was a kid,” said Abbot, who said the shop reminded him of since-closed kosher delis in his hometown of Miami Beach. “These guys know what they’re talking about.” The Granoffs sampled fish and shmoozed with salespeople for the better part of an hour before purchasing several pounds of fish and a package of Hasselback caviar, which they planned to take back to Virginia in a cooler. Tupper said that Russ & Daughters’ customer base has diversified in recent years as traditional Ashkenazi Jewish specialties are no longer relegated to one ethnic sphere. “It’s beyond just Jewish people at this point,” said Tupper, who is planning on expanding e-commerce capability on the store’s Web site. “Smoked salmon and whitefish salad, everyone loves it.”
Cart-toting bubbes, who sometimes shake their heads when they see smoked salmon going for $30 per pound, are among Russ & Daughters regulars. But so too are the new crop of young, professional singles and families, who began migrating en masse to the Lower East Side about a decade ago. “We do a lot of shiva business, but we also do a lot of baby namings and brises,” Tupper said. “You see generations passing on their enjoyment of this place to their children.”