In 1914 the Lower East Side was an economic wasteland. Food businesses lacked the lustrous appeal of modern times and family-run eateries struggled to make ends meet. It was before the age of Craigslist. A time when if you needed help, you recruited your daughters—something Joel Russ, of iconic Jewish appetizer Russ & Daughters, had no shortage. Little did the three girls know, each schlep to the store played a vital role pioneering a notably delicious part of New York’s culinary history.
Niki Russ Federman, along with cousin Josh Russ Tupper, is now the fourth generation running the show. The prodigal great-granddaughter took over the business in 2006. But she was no stranger to the ins and outs. Niki’s dad Mark gave up law for lox in the 70s, and just like the original daughters, some of Niki’s earliest memories were staged in that same storefront. “When our produce was delivered, I remember jumping up on the big sacks of onions and directing the drivers to the kitchen—I felt very important,” she said.
Niki and Josh opened the second Russ & Daughters two years ago—this time a sit down café at 127 Orchard. It was met with wide acclaim and received two stars from the New York Times. Last year they opened Russ & Daughters Bagels and Bakery, their own in-house national shipping business. This year they opened their third location; Russ & Daughters at the Jewish Museum on the Upper East Side. And next year, they have plans to open at the Brooklyn Navy Yard as part of a new public food manufacturing development. It seemed the cousins could do no wrong.
Niki attributes her string of success to an innovative attitude: “I realized I could think of it differently. I could think of it as a startup.” She decided, in this epiphanic moment, that despite all the traditions that went with it, Russ & Daughters didn’t have to become a stagnant mom and pop. Each day Niki is faced with a fascinating, and seemingly incongruous challenge: How do you honor over one hundred years of tradition, while innovating and keeping things moving forward? In other words, how could Russ & Daughters become the first 102-year-old startup?
“Plan on being around for 100 years. What would your plans and decisions look like if you weren’t looking for a way out, but a way to stay in.”
“What if you treated your business, or your job, as if it were your family business? What if you made decisions thinking about the next generation? Both of your family, and of your customers.”
“What if you said no, more than you said yes? It seems counterintuitive, but stay critical and picky, so that when the right opportunity comes along, you’re poised to do it.”
“Don’t fall in love with your business model and business projections. Those are just numbers.”
“Don’t plan on going big, until you have something sustainable that’s small.”
“Know your product, and know your customers. Not just who you think they are, but know them personally.”
“Don’t be fooled by the romanticism. At the end of the day, working in the food industry is really hard, whether you’re on a hot line or behind a computer.”
"Work with people who are going to be there in the trenches with you, and who aren’t doing it as a vanity project.”
“Don’t chase trends. Trends are important to know about, but they come and go. Let your authenticity emerge naturally, by doing what you do.”
“Don’t eff it up.”
Spoken by Niki Russ Federman at Bitten, 2016.