Russ & Daughters
A century-old appetizing shop has succeeded by staying put in its original neighborhood, reports Jason Epstein in The Wall Street Journal (3/2/13). Russ & Daughters, located on East Houston Street between Allen and Orchard on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, began in 1907 as a pushcart business. Joel Russ, who, with his wife had three daughters, opened his first store in 1914 on Orchard Street, moving it to East Houston in 1920. Today, his great-grandchildren manage the shop, and his grandson, Mark Russ Federman, has written a book about the business, Russ & Daughters: Reflections and Recipes from the House that Herring Built, “a memoir that captures the spirit of the shop.”
Mark says he didn’t follow his customers by opening stores uptown or in the suburbs because, as he writes, “I knew in my kishkes (guts) that we were in our rightful place in the world. Would a herring really taste like a herring if it were bought on the Upper East Side or in Great Neck?” Mark did not hesitate to shake up the status quo as the old neighborhood changed, however. As Latinos moved in, he hired a pair of Dominican cousins — Herman Vargas and Jose Reyes — first in the back room, but then behind the counter. As Mark writes: “It was a bold move: placing Latinos behind the smoked fish counter in a traditional Jewish appetizing store.”
He made the move because, he writes, the cousins “did their jobs exceptionally well and with a positive attitude,” while his other countermen “couldn’t get along with each other … At times they would face off behind the counter with lox knives.” They also acted as though Mark worked for them, and not the other way around. Latino countermen didn’t sit well with some customers, but “both men are still behind the counter, and both speak fluent Yiddish.” Mark stayed put in the old neighborhood through its “darkest days, when junkies haunted the park across the street.” When customers asked him why he didn’t move uptown, he replied that “sooner or later, uptown would come downtown.” Turned out, he was right.