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The Second Century Of Russ & Daughters

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First cousins Josh Russ Tupper and Niki Russ Federman are the fourth generation to oversee Russ & Daughters, the New York City retailer of smoked fish and other Jewish specialties founded in 1914 by their great-grandfather. In the decade since they assumed the helm, Tupper and Federman have added two full-service cafés, a mail-order business, a second shop, and dedicated baking facilities.

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NIKI RUSS FEDERMAN: Our very first conversation together was like testing each other out. “What do you see for Russ & Daughters?” “What do you see for Russ & Daughters?” Luckily, we realized we had a similar value system and goals—that Russ & Daughters should and must stay a privately-held family business. We both talked about wanting to open a restaurant, because we saw that as a logical, natural extension of the store.

Increasingly, people were coming to the shop and walking into our kitchen in the back, because they just assumed “That’s where the tables must be.” I would die a little inside every time someone asked “Where can I sit down?” Or they’d call us asking for a reservation for five.

And then I one time saw this customer sitting double-parked in his car. He took a plastic shopping bag and tied it around his neck like a bib, like he was eating lobster or something, and he was eating his herring and cream sauce at the steering wheel. I just looked at this guy through the window, and I thought, “We really need to open a full-service restaurant.”

Photo: Emily Schindler.

JOSH RUSS TUPPER: Our first inclination was, “We already have the store on the Lower East Side, let’s open somewhere else.” We came very close to signing a lease in another neighborhood. Then it was the night before the signing, and I called Niki and said “I’m having doubts.” And she was literally—

NIKI: As the phone rang, I was just saying to my husband, “I don’t know, this doesn’t feel right.” When Josh called, it was like a total 180 in our thinking—a crystallizing moment of “Whatever we thought, that was totally wrong. We need to open on the Lower East Side.” We realized our history, our identity, our soul, our customers, it’s all wrapped up in this neighborhood. How can we put it anywhere else?

JOSH: The menu was Niki and me sitting down and writing out a list of stuff—“We’re going to a Russ & Daughters restaurant, what do we want to eat?” and handing it to these chefs we’d hired. Then we started tasting, and refining recipes.

NIKI: We debated every little detail … We make chocolate babka, but we’re not just going to give people a slice of babka—they can get that at the store and take it home. How do we take it up a notch? The chocolate babka French Toast was born out of that conversation. Halvah. Again, how do you take halvah and put it on a menu?

JOSH: We’re not going to give someone a hunk of halvah.

NIKI: So—halvah ice cream.

JOSH: We have something for every mood, or wherever you are in your head at that moment. We have a chopped salad with smoked white fish and avocado, which we don’t have in the store, but we wanted some green salads on the menu. There are decadent things, like egg dishes, caviar. What I order most is kasha varnishkes with a poached egg.

Photo: Emily Schindler.

NIKI: An example of cross-pollination between the café and the store is this spread we started making at the café, called Hot Smoke/Cold Smoke. It’s a combination of baked salmon, smoked salmon, crème fraiche, citrus, and chives, served with bagel chips. And then customers are coming into the store, they’re like, “Where’s the Hot Smoke/Cold Smoke, I want to buy some.” We said “We just have that at the café”—and very quickly we realized that doesn’t make any sense. We need to have it at the store.

JOSH: But it’s an organic process. We’re not like “All right, we’re ready to launch the Hot Smoke/Cold Smoke at every location!” No, the café developed it, then people started asking for it at the store. And then we began selling it at our Jewish Museum café and shop.

NIKI: It’s actually a good story, how that—our second new place—came about. The museum was looking to hire a new director. A woman named Claudia Gould was interviewing for the position, and she had to make a presentation to the board about her vision for the future of the Jewish Museum. She made the case that these days, you cannot be a world-class museum without a world-class food component. Then she said, “That’s why I’m going to bring on Russ & Daughters.”

JOSH: She had not spoken to us.

NIKI: Claudia Gould didn’t know us, she didn’t know anything. This is 2013. We were doing the first Russ & Daughters café, but it was under wraps. She starts sending people to reach out to us. We heard them out, but we said, “We’re really busy right now. It’s not going to happen, certainly not in the timeline you’re hoping for.” And Claudia came back and was like, “You don’t understand. I promised you guys to them. We have to make this work, we have to get to yes, because I promised.” Then we were like, “Okay, but if you really want us, this is not some quick turnaround thing. We’re going to need a gut renovation of the space.”

It took a year and a half, I think. Design, buildout, the whole nine yards. They got it, and they were committed to it. They announced it in 2015. We opened February of 2016.

Photo: Emily Schindler.

We created this hybrid model: We took the store, and we took the first café, and we put them together. There’s a beautiful appetizing counter, and people can walk In without paying for admission, and they can just walk out with some bagels and lox to go. There’s also a 60-seat sit-down restaurant. I’d say the majority of customers come and they don’t even realize that it’s kosher. But for people who are observant, they know that we take it very seriously.

JOSH: The Jewish Museum requires that the food provider be kosher, but that’s not a huge difference. We’re basically selling the same things, minus a few. Vegetarian chopped liver, made from nuts, instead of actual meat. And because we were already running a kosher bakery, it enabled us to provide all the bread and baked goods to the Jewish Museum location.

Back when we were looking for the location for the first bakery, we made contact with the Brooklyn Navy Yard through a customer, who was a director on the Yard board.

NIKI: The Yard’s 220 years old—they have even more history than us! It’s city land that’s run as a nonprofit. The mission is to revitalize manufacturing and create jobs. It’s not just a fancy talking point—that’s actually how things are done here.

JOSH: The new bakery opened towards the end of 2018, and then we opened to the public at the end of 2019. It’s three and a half times bigger. It’s 18,000 square feet, and the old bakery was maybe 5,000. All of our baked goods and all of our prepared products come from these three kitchens. Our ability to produce is way beyond triple what it was. Best of all, we have room to grow.

Photo: Emily Schindler.

NIKI: Operationally, this is a game changer for us—to be able to run like a real business. People have no idea of the size of the space, just seeing the public side with the counter and looking at people making rugelach in the bakery with the glass front.

JOSH: The retail section out here is actually bigger than the original store.

NIKI: And because in the old store customers are always contorting their bodies to try to watch our countermen hand-slicing the smoked fish, we dropped the height of the counter, making it easier to see.

JOSH: But really, even at this point, nearly a year-and-a-half in, we’re focusing on what we’re doing and refining that. We’ve been doing very similar things for 105 years—

NIKI: 106, now. It’s a fine line, this dance that we do: We’re all about keeping things moving forward, but we have to preserve the tradition at the same time. Otherwise, it would take away from what people expect and want from us. People want our bagel or our babka or our smoked salmon to be their taste memory, not some nouveau twist on Jewish appetizing food.

We love literally being on top of our food making. We can taste that new size shissel loaf. We can go into the cold room and slice some salmon and check the quality, and see how the shipping boxes are getting packed up. We can be on the counter, teaching a new guy how to slice, or sitting down at the employees’ family meal. Obviously, our workload has changed. The things you need to think about are different when you have four businesses and 162 people. But we still do the work, and the work is what gives us a lot of joy.

JOSH: When Russ & Daughters started, there were no bagels. And then, 25, 30 years ago, when they began offering them, they would not make someone a sandwich. When we began, and started making sandwiches, every other person would come in and ask for it on a toasted bagel. So we brought in a toaster.

NIKI: We held out for a while, you know? We were trying to educate people that a traditional New York bagel that’s fresh-baked should not be toasted. At a certain point we said, we’re spending too much energy—if somebody wants it toasted, fine. Even though it kills me, because here in Brooklyn you can see the bagels coming out of the oven! They do not need to be toasted!

JOSH: We always want to stay connected to our past and our history, but we’re very conscious of staying current. We still offer that old-school experience, hopefully at every counter. But we want to change things to meet the demand of people without changing who we are.

Photo: Emily Schindler.

NIKI: And our goal is that we can run Russ & Daughters so hopefully there’s another generation that will want to do it after us. On Martin Luther King Day, my daughter Maya was out of school, and she said, “Can I come and work with you?” I told her, “Maya, it’s not like you can come for an hour. If you’re coming to work, you’re going to be here all day.” But she likes the idea of it.

At the same time, I very much don’t want her to feel any kind of expectation that this is what she has to do with her life. Both of us made the choice to do this. It wouldn’t have worked if it was forced upon us.

JOSH: We could’ve just opened up a bunch more little retail stores. But a bunch more anything doesn’t appeal to us in general. The question is, how can we grow our reach without making it more difficult to run, but making our products and quality better? One way we saw of doing that was to centralize. Brooklyn being our central brain makes a lot of sense in that growth, but also in maintaining control over what we’re doing.

NIKI: Basically, we’ve set up a base of operations so that when the right thing comes along, we can do it. But we’re also not going to pretend to know the future. Or overcommit. We want to grow, but we don’t want to cross that line where we overextend and lose the magic.