What would you do?
If you were a 100+-year-old company in a dying category, surrounded by hip new offerings and critics, analysts and pundits who opined on the category in ways that made you wonder why you were in business…what would you do?
You could declare, “Disruption,” “digital transformation,” “millennial focus,” “mobile first,” “VR/AR and drone ready”…algorithmic core…
Or, you could lean into your heritage. Commit to never betraying the traditionally high level of quality that has defined you for over a century. Resist the temptation to “modernize” for the sake of it. And continue to innovate as you always have with nothing but your customer in your sights and your algorithm as simple as knowing your customers and what they like. The digital will follow.
Welcome to Russ & Daughters:
“Purveyors of the highest quality smoked fish, caviar, baked goods, and specialty foods, Russ & Daughters is New York City’s premier appetizing shop. Since 1914, this landmark New York City institution has been owned and operated by four generations of the Russ family. Russ & Daughters has continued to provide the tastes and traditions of a true New York experience from the same spot on East Houston Street for more than a century.”
Full disclosure – the 4th generation of the family Niki Russ Federman and her cousin Josh Russ Tupper are my good friends. I am a crazed fan of their food, service and hospitality.
Called, “The House that Herring Built,” today Russ & Daughters still centers around its original store on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. The chain now also includes two amazing restaurants, packed with people of all ages and types, a bakery, a new location in Brooklyn on the way, a huge business of Fed Ex orders, and a lineup of hip and cool chefs who swear by their food for themselves and as ingredients in their own creations. As world famous chef Anthony Bourdain exclaimed to The Guardian:
“Russ & Daughters occupies that rare and tiny place on the mountaintop reserved for those who are not just the oldest and the last — but also the best.”
Their story is a history of true entrepreneurship. Joel Russ, a Polish immigrant who arrived in Manhattan around 1905, started the business to cater to the Jewish immigrants settling in the Lower East Side of New York. He began by carrying his products on his shoulders, saving enough money to purchase a pushcart. In 1914, he opened his first storefront, J Russ National Appetizing.
Soon, out of necessity, he brought his daughters into the business. And in a radical move for then (even now perhaps) he renamed his enterprise Russ & Daughters, as it still stands today.
I recently had the honor of interviewing Niki at a management conference, where some of the same issues that faced her were the topic of the day. No, not herring quality—relevance in today’s world. Here are some of her thoughts and my learnings:
“It’s so tough to remain competitive. In our industry, we’re often referred to as a declining business, and it’s a constant challenge to keep expanding our services and bringing in the right process… but that’s also the opportunity…Our mission is to maintain a sense of continuity and tradition while innovating, growing and moving forward…seemingly incongruous at the same time. Most businesses do one or the other. We do both…We’ve come to see this business with the eyes of a young startup. How can young companies learn some of those values that we carry, and how does a business like ours learn from a different perspective as well?
When you start to think about what you do not in terms of, ‘How do I grow as big and as fast?’ the conversation becomes, ‘What if I looked at this business as something that I want to endure; to be a legacy?’”
Shift the conversation to create a lasting brand appeal, rather than knee-jerking to always being new and different, changing for change’s sake.
“Keeping it Haimish ( Yiddish for friendly or homey) really became a guiding light. No straying from who we are…we are the lower east side. We resisted an initial move into a perceived hipper neighborhood because we created an insular loop where Russ & Daughters, the historic shop, the store, is the be-all-end-all. So everything we’ve done is all derived from that shop to the core. Whether it was what was going to be on the menu, what was the space going to be like…that’s always our reference point. The goal is that you instantly feel that it’s Russ & Daughters.
Then we ask ourselves: What are sort of the elements of the shop that you can bring to these new businesses that continue the history, while creating a new space, a new place?”
Her view on staff and service:
“My cousin and I divide and conquer and move around, so we spend time around every location around the week. Staff have been there up to 42 years, and they are helping train the next generation who will be radiating out to our restaurants and soon to the Brooklyn Navy Yards.”
And Niki prides herself on service. Let’s be clear:
“You can slice with a machine, but we continue doing it the hard way, by hand, and our people learn the craft…we slice by hand not just because it’s tradition, but also because the quality of doing it by machine is never as good.”
And to me the hand slicing says it all!
No doubt some will pooh-pooh my thoughts and accuse me of old fashioned thinking and sad closed-minded nostalgia. Frankly, nothing could be further from the truth.
In fact, I’d argue that we are so caught up in ephemeral thinking chasing short term likes and spikes that we are losing the ability to understand the power that so many Brands and business actually have.
Russ & Daughters will outlast them all…and if that isn’t a lesson to learn, I don’t know what is.
“The great use of life is to spend it for something that will outlast it.”
- William James
Take a step back and think about people…about legacy. Think about marketing, not digitaling. Somehow, the very millennials we all chase and the value that we all strive for are resident in a business that still celebrates the pushcart it started in while expanding in “Brooklyn.”
Think on that!
What do you think?