In its 106 years of existence, Russ & Daughters, a world-famous Jewish appetizing store in New York, had never closed its doors for more than a day or two – other than on holidays.
“Even in 9/11 we didn’t close for more than one day,” says Niki Russ Federman, fourth-generation salesperson of pickled herring and bagels and lox – the trademark items at their store, located on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.
“On the day of the attack,” she adds, “we were open until almost 3 o’clock in the afternoon; people who didn’t understand what was happening stopped on the way to pick up food. The next day we shut down for 24 hours, and then we reopened.”
During Hurricane Sandy, in 2012, the store’s doors were shut for two days (“The power grid went down, and as soon as we got a generator we opened up again”). Neither World War II, nor the Great Depression nor even the Spanish Flu pandemic affected the activity of the iconic store.
Beginning in mid-March 2020, with the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, the shop was closed for two full weeks.
“The emergency regulations allowed us to make deliveries,” Russ Federman says in a phone interview with Haaretz, “but the space is so small that we didn’t know how it would be possible to continue to operate and also maintain a safe working environment for the staff.”
Anyone who has visited the long, narrow store at 179 East Houston will be familiar with one of the secrets of its charm: At any given moment there are eight or nine experienced salespeople in white aprons behind the fish counter, managing to slice, fillet, wrap and charmingly serve dozens of customers. The staff and customers, many of whom have been buying at Russ & Daughters for decades, starred in a popular 2014 documentary, “The Sturgeon Queens,” which was devoted to this cultural institution, the family behind it and the flavorsome food they sell.
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During the past decade, the fourth generation – Russ Federman and a cousin, Josh Russ Tupper – opened a popular café in the spirit of the family store not far away, on Orchard Street, along with two other branches, a small one at the Jewish Museum, on the Upper East Side, and a larger place in Brooklyn, the latter of which has a sales counter, a bagel bakery and room for seating.
“Before the coronavirus crisis, we employed 160 people,” Russ Federman says. “We had to furlough most of them, so they can get unemployment. The café shut down overnight. We tried to keep the museum branch operating even after the museum closed down, but it didn’t work. There was a feeling of a huge crisis. Mostly we tried to figure out how to survive and to make sure the ship doesn’t go down.”
As of last week, the Russ family still had 50 working employees and were offering delivery service from the spacious Brooklyn branch and the original store (which reopened after the temporary closure in a limited fashion).
Business at Russ & Daughters has gotten a boost in recent weeks, thanks also to a project initiated and managed by the nonprofit Jewish Food Society. Within the framework of the program, Jewish and Israeli restaurants send pre-packaged lunch and dinner meals to the medical staff at 25 hospitals treating the city’s staggering number of COVID-19 cases.
Naama Shefi, a New York City resident who was born on Kibbutz Givat Hashlosha, in central Israel, founded the society in 2017 and is its executive director.
“The Jewish Food Society was established in order to preserve, celebrate and revitalize Jewish culinary heritage,” Shefi explains. “The core of our work is the creation of a digital archive of family recipes from different Jewish communities worldwide. Our cultural DNA flourishes not only in home kitchens but also in iconic institutions that have been operating in the city for decades, and in some cases for more than a century. New York won’t be the same if we don’t have Russ & Daughters waiting for us with a bagel and lox, hand-cut on their counter.”
One of the supporters of Shefi’s nonprofit, The Paul E. Singer Foundation (established by the Jewish American philanthropist of that name), contributed the initial funding for the health-care workers’ meal-delivery project.
“They donated 50,000 meals at $20 per meal for purchase from the restaurants,” Shefi says. “And since that contribution became known, private individuals have given another $100,000, and donations are continuing to pour in. Many of the donations are in multiples of 18 [which stands for “life” in Jewish numerology], whether it’s tens or thousands of dollars.”
The inspiration for the JFS initiative came from similar projects in the city, such as Feed the Frontlines.
Shefi: “It’s a double crisis, of health and the economy, and the idea has been to help people who are fighting on the frontlines – doctors, nurses and the maintenance staff – and at the same time to try to keep the restaurant industry from collapsing. It was important to us that as many restaurants as possible take part in the project, and to try to give them a lifeline for the long term.
“We also want to open the project to restaurants that are not Jewish or Israeli, but it was easier to start with our community, because logistically, it’s an amazingly complicated operation, and it’s no simple task to coordinate between the needs of the hospitals and the needs of the restaurants.”
Along with Russ & Daughters and Katz’s Delicatessen, the JFS initiative also includes other independent, small- and medium-size eateries known to the New York public, including street food places and restaurants identified with Israeli cuisine, such as Einat Admony’s Taïm, and Miznon, owned by Eyal Shani.
All but one of the restaurants opened by chef Shani’s group around the world (including in Israel) have been closed since the outbreak of the coronavirus crisis. Only one branch of his Miznon chain in New York is still operating, with five staffers – thanks to the meals-for-hospitals effort.
“Until a month ago we employed almost 150 people,” says Mika Ziv, the group’s manager in New York. “We had to furlough most of them. But the JFS initiative of meals has provided a stable and sure source for the start of deliveries. It set in motion the wheels of the food chain – a source of livelihood not only for our staff but also for suppliers and manufacturers of raw materials that we work with.
“Suddenly we are ordering pickles and olives again from the pickled goods man, tahini from the manufacturer and meat from the butcher in the market. In about another 10 days, Miznon in Chelsea Market will open in a similar format.”
No one in the restaurant business, internationally or in Israel, is even talking about profitability these days. At most, they’re doing deliveries to cut losses and keep the flame burning. It’s not at all clear to anyone when, or if, eateries in the Big Apple will reopen and in what form, since the city has been so badly hit by the crisis. Restaurateurs and chefs are talking cautiously about six to 12 months until the routine resumes.
“We send 200 meals to hospitals every day,” says Bethany Strong, director of operations for Einat Admony’s group of restaurants. “Every three days we get an operative plan that includes precise instructions – where to send, when and how much – and that gives the staff a sense of purpose and keeps the lights on. We meet the liaison person outside the hospital – we’re not allowed in.”
Strong adds: “The pictures and posts we’re sent afterward by doctors, nurses and maintenance people, who don’t have time to go out and buy food, are gratifying and provide incentive. It’s mutual ‘nourishment’ and that gives us the strength both to make deliveries to regular clientele and to work with other needy groups.”