Even though they've been closed since the start of the pandemic, the owners of the Russ & Daughters Cafe didn't want to make a big deal that they were finally reopening. It had been a long time since they had served customers in the restaurant — they relied on online orders and takeout to get by during the toughest months of the pandemic — and co-owner Niki Russ Federman said they wanted to ease their staff back into the daily grind.
"We knew that as soon as we made it public, the floodgates would open and we didn't want to overwhelm them," she told Gothamist.
The cafe, which is located on Orchard Street near Delancey, was packed with customers late last week before they even told anyone they were open.
"Throughout the pandemic, people have been stopping by every day just wondering when the cafe was going to be open again, and it literally took no time at all for the tables and the booths to be filled again," Federman, 44, said. "It's been an incredible feeling because as soon as there were people back in the space eating and enjoying, it almost felt [like] I could trick myself into thinking that the last two-and-a-half years hadn't happened. It felt like we had just picked up where we had left off."
The Russ & Daughters Cafe had its soft open last Thursday. It made the announcement official four days later on Monday, via a five-second Instagram video. Less than 24 hours later, that video had racked up more than 103,000 views.
"There's been this euphoria to our return, and I think it's because for New Yorkers, Russ & Daughters is sort of a symbol of the spirit and resilience of our city and people," said Federman. "And it's also kind of amusing that there are out-of-towners who have been coming in the last few days, who had no idea we were closed, and they were just surprised to hear that they were some of the first people back in the space. So it's been really tremendous."
The history of Russ & Daughters stretches back more than 108 years. It was started in 1914 by Joel Russ, a Jewish immigrant from Poland who sold cured fish from a pushcart until he saved up enough to open his own appetizing shop on the Lower East Side. The shop has been passed down and lovingly operated through four generations of the family, and is now run by Federman and her cousin Josh Russ Tupper, who together took the reins of the company in 2010.
Under their leadership, Russ & Daughters has seen a huge amount of growth. They expanded in 2014 with the cafe, their first sit-down restaurant, which is located right around the corner from the original shop. They invested heavily in e-commerce and nationwide shipping, and in 2019 opened a Brooklyn counter for walk-in, takeout and delivery service. (They also had a location in the basement of the Jewish Museum on the Upper East Side which opened in 2014 and permanently closed during the pandemic.)
As it was for so many other businesses, the pandemic proved to be a huge speed bump for their ambitions. It was the first time in their history they had been closed for more than a few days.
"When 9/11 happened, my father and I closed the shop for half of that afternoon, and we were open again the next day, taking hand trucks up 14th Street to get deliveries," Federman said. "So there's always been this determination that my family has had that no matter what's going on in the world, Russ & Daughters needs to be open to be a community anchor, and a kind of a bellwether for the state of our city. But with the pandemic, it was beyond our control."
Initially, they thought it would take a few weeks, maybe a few months max, to get everything rolling again. The original shop was a shell of itself, keeping its core kitchen staff and relying on online orders — people were mostly ordering things like bagels, Nova, cream cheese, and babka — to keep from closing entirely. The cafe basically served as a delivery service while the actual restaurant remained closed.
"We [are] a family business that thinks in terms of doing things for the next generation,” she said. “And in those first few months, with everything imploding the way that it was, we started to wonder how many months we had left.”
The owners had a few ideas on how to keep themselves busy though. They participated in online fundraisers, including their annual Russ & Daughters Second Seder, which raised over $20,000 for their out-of-work staff members. They shipped thousands of meals to frontline workers. Federman got involved with the Independent Restaurant Coalition, which was instrumental in the creation of the $28.6 billion federal program, the Restaurant Relief Fund.
And they launched two merch collaborations with actor Jake Gyllenhaal, raising more than $130,000 to support independent restaurants and theater workers. "People were looking for ways to help and this was such a fun way that people could," Federman said.
All the while, they were plotting their return. But the various variants kept getting in the way. They wanted to reopen in the summer of 2021, and then the Delta wave hit; they tried again last winter, but Omicron put a stop to that. And seeing other restaurants struggle to restaff and comply with the shifting rules of the city and state only made them more wary.
"We felt that it made more sense to just keep doing what we were doing behind the scenes, and avoid the tumult that, unfortunately, so many other restaurants had to endure," said Federman. "Being a legacy business that is committed to survive and thrive for another 100 years means that our decision-making is unusual compared to most other businesses. We chose not to rush back into reopening, and we were lucky that we were in a position where we could wait."
Now that they've fully reopened the cafe, they can turn their attentions once again toward the future. They have new exciting projects in the works, including an official Russ & Daughters cookbook, which will be out in May 2024. They are also working on a scripted TV series based on the family and the shop's history, which was announced last spring.
"We are mapping out the pilot, and the announcement was met with such enthusiasm that all I can say is that it looks like this is gonna happen and it'll be pretty wild to see a dramatic TV take on the Russ & Daughters universe," Federman said, describing it as a story of resilience. "It's going to be set in [modern times], but it's going to jump back and forth across time. And it will also showcase the way that New York has changed during all the different periods in the city's history."
The long, intertwined history between Russ & Daughters and NYC — the fact that the store has survived wars, recessions, depressions, the September 11th attacks, and Sandy, among other calamities — is one of the things that gives Federman a lot of hope for the brand's future, as well as hope that the city will recover after this devastating period. Four generations of family experience allows Federman to take a long view.
"My great-grandfather, Joel Russ, went through the Spanish influenza pandemic of 1918, when his shop was only four years old,” she said. "So that really grounded me into knowing that, okay, COVID is going to be my calamity to deal with. But it also empowered me to do what was necessary, whatever it took, to make sure that we would get to the other side of it. And I know that this city is resilient, and things are gonna come out of this that will make the city even better than it was before. So in that sense, I'm a very proud and hopeful New Yorker."
Russ & Daughters Cafe, located at 127 Orchard Street, is open Thursday-Monday, 8:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. There are only accepting walk-ins, no reservations. Get more info here.