Mark Russ Federman grew up helping his father buy whitefish and herring for the family’s appetizing shop.
Founded in 1914 by Federman’s grandfather Joel Russ, an immigrant who sold pickled herring for a nickel from wooden barrels, Russ & Daughters is a rare survivor.
The narrow storefront is visited by tourists from around the world and its owners have been asked to discuss Jewish food at the Smithsonian Institution.
Federman, 67, is a Georgetown Law graduate who in 1978 gave up a career as a trial lawyer to slice lox (and the occasional finger) behind the counter at his family’s shop. He came to lunch at Bloomberg’s world headquarters to discuss his recent memoir, “Russ & Daughters: Reflections and Recipes From the House That Herring Built.” Unfortunately, no bagels were served.
Green: What’s the difference between a bad customer and a tough customer?
Federman: You know it when you see a bad customer -- they’re just too much.
The difficult customer was originally raised on the Lower East Side. Nobody gave them anything, so whatever they scratched out, a couple of pennies, was all they had. They were going to make sure they got what they wanted. I understood it.
Then there were those customers who’d reach across the counter and their sleeves would roll up and there were numbers on their arms. So the tough customers I get and I actually miss them.
Green: How did lox become such a New York tradition?
Federman: The original lox were taken from the Pacific Northwest. They were preserved by throwing them in a giant cask of heavily salted water when there was no refrigerated transportation, and they were sent east on trains to New York, and then shipped to Europe. Some of it stayed in New York. It was cheap, and Jews are more experimental than other ethnic groups with their food.
Marc Chagall’s father was a herring monger in Russia; he has paintings of his father schlepping herring. Sometimes he has fish flying though his paintings and those are herrings.
Interestingly, his granddaughter was a customer in the store and bought herring from me.
Green: The store looks as though it hasn’t changed in 100 years. How have you brought the business up to date without losing the appeal of tradition?
Federman: If you’re in a generational business, you are afraid to make a change. If you move the schmaltz herring in front of the matjes herring and it never was like that, the old customers think the business is about to go under.
You are downright afraid of being the generation to take down the business, so making changes comes through a very slow process of worry and anxiety. Ultimately, in 1995, I renovated the store. I had a business consultant, an architect and an engineer. It turns out you pay a lot more to make something look old than to have it look new.
Green: But you’re not the last generation. You write that your daughter, Niki, was looking for a new job, and you finagled her into working a little bit at the store. How did you recruit her to take over the business, along with your nephew Josh?
Federman: I just renovated the building, so I gave her an apartment. So now I’ve got her. “Niki, would you come down and help with this, would you come down and help with that?”
My fantasy was that Niki was going to learn the way the Russes learn, behind the counter six days a week, 10 hours a day, slicing fish, cleaning the counters, cleaning the herring in the back. So if you have to tell people what to do, you know how to do it and how long it should take.
In my ultimate fantasy, Niki and I, father and daughter, would be standing behind the counter together slicing and dicing.
So my wife and Niki come together and say, “No, no, no, Niki is not going behind the counter. Niki is in charge of special projects.”
I said, “What’s this special projects? Somebody calls up and says, ‘I want 100 herrings filleted in an hour,’ maybe that’s a special project.”
Well, of course, they were talking about the Internet. For us if you wanted to order you were in the store. We looked at your face or you called. We recognized your voice or we recognized the name of your aunt or grandmother.
So I objected, but my wife and my daughter together are impenetrable. So she developed an Internet business, and it turns out to be a major part of our business.
“Russ & Daughters” is published by Schocken (205 pages, $25.95). To buy this book in North America, click here.
(Peter S. Green is a reporter for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own. This interview was adapted from a longer conversation.)
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