Places that Matter

Russ and Daughters

Russ and Daughters Appetizers, photo by Molly Garfinkel
Russ and Daughters Appetizers, photo by Molly Garfinkel
Appetizing Store located in the Lower East Side
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In 1968, Milton Glaser wrote a New York Magazine article entitled, “A Gentile’s Guide to Jewish Food Part I: The Appetizing Store,” in which he described this category of comestibles as “an impressive array of ready-to-eat pickled, smoked and salted fish, fish and vegetable salads, sour pickles, tomatoes, peppers, sauerkraut, a variety of breads and rolls, dried fruits, nuts and candies.” If Glaser was not using Russ and Daughters Appetizing as the model for his archetype, he may as well have been. 

Russ and Daughters has been a staple in New York’s Lower East Side since 1914, and according to New York Times Magazine’s Alex Witchel, Russ and Daughters “is to ‘appetizing’ what Second Avenue was to deli.” Indeed, for almost one hundred years, the family-run business has been educating the public on the difference between “appetizers” and “appetizing,” and what a glorious learning experience it has been. Most people interpret the word “appetizing” as an adjective, but in the Jewish tradition, it can also be a noun that refers to the Eastern European culinary tradition of forshpayz, or cold starters meant to stimulate one’s palate. In Jewish-American culture, this translates roughly to smoked fish and pickled vegetables. Perhaps the experts behind the Russ and Daughters website put it best by defining “appetizing” as “’the food one eats with bagels.’”

When Glaser published his 1968 article, the Jewish Lower East Side was replete with “appetizing” stores. Now, Russ and Daughters is one of the last of its kind in the neighborhood. But inside the walls of 179 E. Houston Street, not much has changed in the last fifty years. As in the old days, the people behind the counters at Russ and Daughters aren’t just employees, they are seasoned carp and caviar craftsmen. General Manager Herman “The Artistic Slicer” Vargas began working at the store in 1980. His seafood sections are thin to the point of translucency. Master slicer and caviar-packing specialist Jose Reyes has broken nary an osetra egg since 1976. Ron Riccio, the “herring maven,” has managed the shipping department for more than thirteen years, a true feat when you consider the Russ and Daughters regular who requires shipments to his summer home on Oahu. The neophytes around here are cousins and co-owners Josh Russ Tupper and Niki Russ Federman. They have only been running the place for a decade, but being the great-grandchildren of founder Joel Russ, their blood runs briny.

These important team members aren’t merely names listed on a company directory to provide customers with a sense of corporate responsibility, and they don’t just make special appearances at the store to push holiday novelty items. They are the people who provide guidance and impeccable customer service every day of the week, which makes their “Meet the Family” web profiles more than merely hyperbolic. The staff considers the Lower East Side shop their “second home,” and so do the armies of loyal customers, who visit Russ and Daughters more habitually than they do their own mothers.

Like so many other iconic Lower East Side businesses, Russ and Daughters began life as a pushcart. In 1907, Joel Russ, age twelve, immigrated to New York City from a small town in what is now southern Poland. He came to the United States in a great wave of Jews who fled from persecution in the Pale of Settlement, a region of Eastern Europe designated by Catherine the Great for Jewish ghettoization. Between 1900 and 1910, over one million Jews escaped from the Pale of Settlement and landed at New York City’s harbor.

Russ waited at Ellis Island for two days before his older sister Hannah came to retrieve him. Hannah was a “herring maven” herself, so Joel soon earned a living by selling dried Polish mushrooms and salted herring from a cart in the Lower East Side, which, by the turn of the century, was the hub of the Jewish fish trade. By 1914 Russ had saved enough money to open “Russ’ Cut-Rate Appetizers” on Orchard Street. With further success, in 1920 he moved to a larger storefront at 179 E. Houston Street, and he renamed the business “J. Russ National Appetizing Store.”

The store struggled during the Depression, but Russ chose to keep the East Houston shop intact, and instead sold the family’s home in Brooklyn. To save money, he transferred his wife, Bella, and three daughters, Hettie, Anne and Ida, to a tiny East Fourth Street apartment. In 1933, he transferred ownership of the business to his children. To give the company a friendlier face, they changed the name to “Russ and Daughters Appetizing.” Apparently the strategy worked, because they not only expanded their storefront into the tiny bread shop next door (where the candy counter is now located), but they also purchased the entire building, thereby precluding future worries about making rent.

Such foresight enabled the family to retain control of the business, which withstood a period of neighborhood decline in the 1970s and 1980s. The family still owns the building, and twenty years ago they restored the six story, old-law tenement, which is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Joel’s decision to concentrate energy and capital in the fifteen-apartment Lower East Side edifice seems all the wiser now that local real estate is so valuable.

But the boom has had its price in more ways than one. Fourth-generation co-owner Josh Russ Tupper says, “it’s frightening to see the other small businesses close up. It’s frustrating to see landlords in the neighborhood trying to get so much money in rent that no one can survive for more than six months. Even with the economy the way that it is, landlords are still holding on to the idea that the things will bounce back. They can still get too much money for what they’re offering. And what they don’t see, which I wish they could, is the effect that it has on the neighborhood. There’s a street a block away with six open storefronts. It looks awful. They don’t understand that they need people in those empty spaces to make it a neighborhood. And ideally, they should support the small business.”

Although he was born in Upstate New York, Josh now lives in the Lower East Side. When he first moved to the neighborhood, local landmarks like Ratner’s Deli, which opened on Delancey Street in 1918, were still in business. Ratner’s has since closed for good, and others, like Second Avenue Deli, were forced to move. In their new location on East 33rd Street, Second Avenue has attempted to update their image with a full bar and a menu offering foods that one would not traditionally find in a delicatessen, like appetizing items.

Russ and Daughters stays solvent because they own their own building, and they remain relevant by responding to food trends with contemporary items like canapés, sushi rolls and crepes. However, the traditional appetizing fare is still their bread and butter, so to speak. And while they may have forgone the charm of the original handcart, the East Houston storefront is the perfect vehicle for fostering the old-time ambiance that is part of their trademark. Because the shop is so small, everything inside is amplified, including the smell. Third-generation Mark Russ Federman, who owned and managed the business from 1978 to 2002, says that their particular perfume is the synergy resulting from “smoked whitefish and salmon, pickled cucumbers and tomatoes and salt cured herrings and the sweet aromas of halvah, rugalach, and chocolate jelly rings,” and he claims that customers frequently ask them to bottle the scent. Although they are renowned for their smoked fish selection, the one smell you won’t experience in Russ and Daughters is smoke. The process was never legal in Manhattan, and it would require an impossibly large multiple of their present square footage just to smoke the volume of salmon that they sell each week.

But the shop’s small scale works to their aesthetic advantage. The combination of the tiny building footprint, the gleaming white tiles and the glinting glass-and-metal showcases creates a perfect backdrop for the little-appreciated art of curating cured fish. The family has always invested time and care in their cases’ visual appeal. Each type of fish, with its own iridescent color continuum, has its special, immutable place in the tableau. The overall composition has taken decades to develop, and its daily recreation is a time-consuming labor of love, particularly as supply is constantly turning over. During the 1940s and 1950s, before the cases were refrigerated, fish were brought out in the morning, piled six or seven high, and whatever was left over at the end of the day was stored in refrigerators in the back. According to Josh, the piling technique often crushed specimens at the bottom of the stack. Now the cases are refrigerated, and the store rotates product as quickly as ever. But against the stark white of the floors, ceiling and walls, the effect of the chromatic orchestration is well worth the effort.

At of 2011, Russ and Daughters sells over one hundred fifty different products, and while they have considered what it would take to expand, Josh vows that they will never consider leaving 179 East Houston. “This store[front] is very important to me, very important to my cousin. We both own the business now, and it’s our family’s legacy. So to move that somewhere else would be to go against everything I believe in, really. We will never do that.”

It is important to note that this sentiment does not come from a man who is afraid of change. Josh didn’t grow up as Russ and Daughters royalty with a caviar spoon in his mouth, and until he was in his late twenties, the Lower East Side was more lore than allure. His decision to take over the business meant willfully uprooting from a successful west coast engineering career so that he could stand on his feet all day, learning his was around the appetizing.

Josh’s ability to balance tradition and innovation is perhaps best exemplified by his relationship to Russ and Daughters’ iconic green and pink sign. “The neon sign, to me, represents the store for my whole life. I had it redone, basically restored. That sign was here from almost the beginning; it was about fifty years old, maybe a little more. When it rained, the sign would go out. And we wondered, ‘what’s wrong with this thing?’ I sort of brought the technical-minded persona to the business. We started looking at the sign and realized that the whole thing was being held up by nothing, rusted metal. It was insane. As soon as I found that out, it was a rush to get it redone. The box of the sign had to be completely redone because there was nothing under it; it was a shell of rust, pretty amazing. But all the letters are the same; all the stainless lettering casements are the same. The fish and everything, they’re the same as the original.”