Russ & Daughters is set to open in Midtown

The new store combines elements of all other Russ & Daughters 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, due to freight trains hitting hapless 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 Properties and, as of this week, the new headquarters of Russ & Daughters, the direct descendant of Russ’ herring business.

Under the care of current owners, Niki Russ Federman (Joel’s great-nephew) and his cousin Josh Russ Tupper, the Russ & Daughters empire includes the original store on East Houston Street, a nearby cafĂ© (opened 2014), and a bakery in the Brooklyn Navy Yards (opened 2019). We’ve been terrified every time we’ve expanded, Tupper admits. Its four generations look to us not only to our family, but also to four generations of customers. In that sense, the Midtown expansion, a 4,400-square-foot space, is the most ambitious yet.

The shop is not a recreation of the original location. Instead, it pulls ideas from various R&D outposts. Unlike the original location or the Navy Yard, there’s a place to sit: 12 tables, a curved drinks shelf, and a six-seat Champagne bar. (The SLA is guaranteed, Federman says. Our lawyer says we’re waiting nine months for our license to be approved.) But unlike the bar, there’s no table service. All the action centers around a custom-built 40-foot cold display case that holds smoked salmon, sturgeon, sable, silver rollmops, borscht quarters and matzo ball soup, cream cheese with wasabi flecks, whitefish salad, and more Still. of swinging doors, there’s a hot line that will produce a menu of latkes, blintzes and soups.

Inside, just weeks before opening (set for this Wednesday), the space was abuzz. Con Edison had finally turned on the gas, and early that morning the oven had arrived, a revolving fish rack with attached bagel feeder. Chief baker Lainie Schleien and Tim von Hollweg, the director of operations, watched a technician, his body half in the oven, finish the setup. Later that day, they fired it up for the first time. It takes eight hours, explains von Hollweg. You have to do it slowly or the pottery will crack. When fully operational, the bakery is expected to produce approximately 8,000 bagels and bialys per day. (More pastries to come from the Brooklyn Bakery.)

The bagels are made on site. HugoYu.

The bagels are made on site. HugoYu.

Michael Nye, a former college volleyball coach who is the stores’ retail manager, stood behind the counter with a group of recently recruited white-jacketed female slicers, giving them a gentle encouragement. A lox slicer sits at the pinnacle of the Russ & Daughters pecking order, an oracle of smoked fish. A good slicer should minimize width and maximize area; all who have become legends within the Russ & Daughters universe Jose Reyes, Herman Vargas, Alina Sheffi, Chhapte Sherpa were lox slicers. The newbies were working on slicing their practice fish thinner and thinner until, as Nye had taught, it was so good you could read a newspaper through it.

There’s no mistaking the novelty of the space: chipped tile on the floor, the barrel ceiling spotless, curved windows free (as yet) of smudges. But history was also taken into account. The walls are covered with black-and-white archival photographs of Russ & Daughters (taken from the Jewish Museum location, closed in 2021), as well as framed thank-you letters hang on the bathroom walls. 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 would have been scheppen naches, he says, using the Yiddish phrase. He has always been an ambitious businessman. He recalled that even before Russ & Daughters became Russ & Daughters, Joel Russ called the company J. Russ National Appetizing. At the time, his territory was four blocks on the Lower East Side, Federman says, laughing at the chutzpah. Or perhaps foreknowledge, as Russ & Daughters is indeed a national mouthwatering concern today.

We’ve been shipping across the country 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 nationwide. While the Brooklyn location handled most of the domestic orders, the cafe was also inundated with online pick-up and delivery orders. Federman knew that as pandemic concerns eased, they would need another delivery staging area. We wanted a place uptown, or at least further uptown, so we could access a wider swath of Manhattan for delivery, he says.

Related Properties arrived in 2021, as it was attempting to attract celebrity chefs and food retailers to its new Hudson Yards properties. I said, “You wouldn’t be interested in us,” recalled Federman. We were really looking for something like a ghost kitchen, and I figured they wouldn’t put that much space into it. But, apparently, they did. In one sense, the partnership is perfect. Related properties had space but no charm. Russ & Daughters: charm but no space.

Now, ahead of the opening, Federman and Tupper are doing everything they can to translate the haimish rizz of the original to this glittering land of plenty. Thankfully, in the 20 years since Federman and Tupper took over, Russ & Daughters has developed and refined its aesthetic lexicon. (This Ashkenazi minimalism has become so intimately equated with the appetizing genre in general that it sometimes shows up in new delis without attribution.) And above it all hangs a neon sign, made by Let There Be Neon, another stalwart of the old New York. In hot pink letters: Russ & Daughters. In green, two sturgeons frolic on either side. The colors are a little Miami deputysays Federman, but it will fade and improve over time.

Yes there is a place to sit.
Photo: Hugo Yu

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