The new store combines elements from all of Russ & Daughters’ other locations.
Photo: Hugo Yu
In 1914, when Joel Russ was still selling herring from a barrel on the Lower East Side, Tenth Avenue was known as the Avenue of Death, owing to the freight trains that struck unlucky pedestrians with alarming regularity. Just over a century later, the same stretch is known as Hudson Yards. At the corner of 34th Street and Tenth Avenue is 50 Hudson Yards, a $4 billion 78-story tower owned by Related Companies and, as of this week, the newest location of Russ & Daughters, the direct descendent of Russ’s own herring business.
Under the care of the current owners, Niki Russ Federman and Josh Russ Tupper (both great-grandchildren of Joel), the Russ & Daughters empire comprises the original shop on East Houston Street, a nearby café (opened in 2014), and a bakery in the Brooklyn Navy Yards (opened in 2019). “We’ve been terrified every time we’ve expanded,” Tupper admits. “It’s four generations looking at us — not only our family, but four generations of customers, too.” In that sense, the midtown expansion, a 4,400-square-foot space, is the most ambitious yet.
The store isn’t a re-creation of the original location. Instead, it pulls ideas from R&D’s various outposts. Unlike the original location or the Navy Yard, there is somewhere to sit: 12 tables, a curving drink rail, and a six-seat Champagne bar. (“The SLA is backed up,” says Federman. “Our lawyer says we’re looking for nine months until our license comes through.”) But unlike the café, there is no table service. All action is focused on a custom-made 40-foot cold display case that holds smoked salmon, sturgeon, sable, silvery rollmops, quarts of borscht and matzo-ball soup, dill-flecked horseradish cream cheese, whitefish salad, and more. Past a set of swinging doors, there’s a hot line that will turn out a menu of latkes, blintzes, and soups.
Inside, a few weeks before opening (set for this Tuesday), the space was buzzing. Con Edison had finally turned on the gas, and the oven — a Fish rotating shelf-oven with an attached bagel trough — had arrived earlier that morning. Head baker Lainie Schleien and Tim von Hollweg, the director of operations, looked on as a technician, his body halfway inside the oven, finished the installation. Later that day, they turned it on for the first time. “It takes eight hours,” von Hollweg explains. “You have to do it slowly or the ceramic cracks.” When it’s fully operational, the oven should turn out around 8,000 bagels and bialys per day. (Other pastries will come in from the Brooklyn bakery.)
Michael Nye, an easygoing former college-volleyball coach who is the store’s retail manager, stood behind the counter with a cadre of white-jacketed, recently recruited slicers, giving them gentle encouragement. A lox slicer sits at the apex of the Russ & Daughters hierarchy, an oracle of smoked fish. A good slicer must minimize width and maximize area; all those who have become legend within the Russ & Daughters universe — Jose Reyes, Herman Vargas, Alina Sheffi, Chhapte Sherpa — were lox slicers. The newbies were working on slicing their own practice fish ever thinner until, as Nye had instructed, it was so fine, “you can read a newspaper through it.”
There’s no mistaking the newness of the space: scalelike tiles on the floor, the spotless barreled ceiling, curving windows free (for now) of smudges. But history has been taken into account too. The walls are covered with black-and-white archival photographs of Russ & Daughters (taken from the Jewish Museum location, which closed in 2021), as well as framed letters of appreciation hanging on the walls of the bathroom. “Super!” wrote Dorris Silbermann in 1991. “Sturgeon: Excellent Yellow Fat,” gushed Curtis Slotkin in 1986. “Delighted,” wrote Calvin Trillin in 1974.
Federman says Joel Russ would be “very proud” of the expansion. “He’d be scheppen naches,” she says, employing the Yiddish phrase. “He was always an ambitious businessman.” She remembered that even before Russ & Daughters became Russ & Daughters, Joel Russ named the business J. Russ National Appetizing. “At the time, his territory consisted of four blocks in the Lower East Side,” says Federman, laughing at the chutzpah. Or maybe the prescience, since today, Russ & Daughters truly is a national appetizing concern.
“We’ve been shipping nationwide for 60 years,” says Federman, who launched the online business in 2002. (Orders had previously been handled via handwritten letters, phone, and fax.) Last year, the company shipped 45,000 orders around the country. Though the Brooklyn location handled most of the national orders, the café was inundated with online pickup and delivery orders, as well. Federman knew that, as pandemic concerns receded, they’d need another staging area for delivery. “We wanted somewhere uptown, or at least farther uptown, so we can access a wider swathe of Manhattan for delivery,” she says.
Related Properties came calling in 2021, as it was attempting to lure well-known chefs and food retailers to its new properties at Hudson Yards. “I said, ‘You wouldn’t be interested in us,’” Federman recalls. “We were really looking for something like a ghost kitchen, and I thought there was no way they would devote so much space to us.” But, as it turns out, they did. In some ways, the partnership is perfect. Related Properties had space but no charm. Russ & Daughters: charm but no space.
Now, ahead of opening, Federman and Tupper are doing all they can to translate the haimish rizz of the original to this shimmering land of plenty. Thankfully, in the 20 years since Federman and Tupper have taken over, Russ & Daughters has developed and refined its aesthetic lexicon. (This Ashkenazi minimalism has become so intimately equated with the appetizing genre in general it’s sometimes shown up in new delicatessens without attribution.) And above it all hangs a neon sign, made by Let There Be Neon, another stalwart of old New York. In bright-pink letters: “Russ & Daughters.” In green, two sturgeons cavort on either side. “The colors are a little Miami Vice,” says Federman, “but it will fade with time — it’ll get better.”
Yes, there is somewhere to sit.
Photo: Hugo Yu