In an industry where surviving for five years is cause for celebration, 104-year-old institution Russ & Daughters is legendary for its staying power. It takes a powerful mix of delicious food, loyal customers, and the right leadership to get to this point.
— Erika Adams
The first Skift Restaurants Forum will be held on Monday, September 24 in New York City. Join us, our stellar lineup of speakers, and 250+ industry professionals to discuss the future of the industry.
Niki Russ Federman and Josh Russ Tupper are not your average restaurateurs. The business is in their blood — the first cousins are fourth-generation co-owners of Russ & Daughters, a New York eating institution — but neither would have guessed this is where they’d end up when they were formulating their careers.
Niki’s parents were the third generation of the family to run Russ & Daughters, and she grew up inside the shop, as restaurant kids do. “I was kind of encouraged and educated to do anything but to help the family business,” she explained. When the time came for her father to step down and hand over the reins, she at first refused. Josh, on the other hand, caught wind that the family was looking for a new owner and stepped in as Niki stepped away, giving him the room to get acquainted with Russ & Daughters on his own terms.
When Niki returned to the business a couple years later, the two went into co-ownership of Russ & Daughters. Since then, life has been moving quite fast. Until four years ago, Russ & Daughters operated just one location, a small, incredibly famous Jewish appetizing shop on the Lower East Side. In 2014, in the shop’s 100th year, the pair launched Russ & Daughters Cafe, a sit-down restaurant down the block from the shop that could accommodate customers looking to stay and eat a meal. Another location soon followed inside The Jewish Museum on the Upper East Side, and Niki and Josh are currently finishing construction on Russ & Daughters’ largest expansion to date: a 14,000-square-foot hub inside the Brooklyn Navy Yard that will serve as the company’s center of operations for bakery production and shipping logistics.
Here, Niki and Josh give a broad overview of how they have grown Russ & Daughters while still maintaining the brand identity that has kept the business running for over 100 years. Don’t miss our conversation on stage with the restaurateurs at Skift Restaurants Forum on September 24.
Skift Table: When did you each come into the business, and how long you both have been working together?
Josh Russ Tupper: I came into the business in 2002. I was working in semi-conductors in the Pacific Northwest. I was having conversations with Niki’s father, my uncle, and he basically invited me to come and start working in the store.
I came in and Niki was sort of going out after being there. She was going to explore, to check off some boxes on her list of careers. So, she went away for a few years and ultimately came back into the business in 2006 and we’ve been together ever since.
Niki Russ Federman: I think it worked out really well, because I grew up in Russ & Daughters, and Josh didn’t. So, it gave Josh a couple of years to establish himself, and get his own footing there without me. I think that’s one of the reasons we work really well together. I think we would have gotten off to a bad start otherwise.
Skift Table: What is your working relationship like now?
Niki: Terrible! No, I’m just kidding. We have kind of fused together over the years, where we know each other so well, and we know each other’s strengths and weaknesses. It’s an unchoreographed dance of sharing and coming together, and knowing when I should take the lead because I’m more suited to it, or when Josh needs to take the lead because he’s more suited to it.
Now we have multiple locations, right? So having the two of us also means that we can divide and conquer, and move around as needed. There’s just a lot of trust. We know that we both see eye-to-eye, not on everything, but certainly on the important things. And trusting that we’re both doing what’s best for the business at any given moment. We’re very lucky in that sense. Most businesses where there’s shared leadership, it doesn’t always work out so well.
Skift Table: What’s an example of something that might come up that you’re more suited to, or something that might come up that Josh is more suited to handle?
Niki: Josh is a former engineer, so he’s much better when it comes to quantitative areas, equipment facilities, analytics. And then I’m more of a people, idea, and communications person.
Skift Table: How are your conversations, your business relationship, affected by the fact that you are family?
Josh: That’s a strange question, you know, because being related in a family business gives an extra sense of trust. But that could be established, I guess, if you have a very close relationship with someone. We’re not best friends, but we have 100 percent trust in each other to do what we think is best for the business, as opposed to being good for us, or good for someone else.
Plus, we’re cousins and we didn’t grow up super close together so we don’t have the dynamic of a sibling relationship —
Niki: And we’re not married, so we don’t have to go home with each other.
Josh: So there’s not a whole lot of baggage, but there’s that wholehearted trust in each other.
Skift Table: Are there unique challenges that come with expanding a brand that’s so heavy with history and nostalgia?
Josh: I don’t know about unique challenges, but there’s a unique fear of screwing up when you’re representing a 104-year-old family business. Our family history surrounds us at Russ. If we eff it up, we’re extra screwed.
Skift Table: Is the weight of responsibility different for you because you are family? This has been in your family for 100 years and you’re the ones who are taking it on and expanding it, really trying new things with it.
Niki: I think we’re very conscious of the importance of Russ & Daughters and the meaning it has for so many people. And the way in which our customers and the public wants Russ & Daughters to very much stay the same. We’re always informed by that in our expansion decisions. We’re growing, but really only for the sake of being able to continue to keep Russ & Daughters vibrant, relevant, and able to reach more people. And I think it’s a healthy sort of learning curve, and holds us back from potentially doing too much, overextending. It reins us in.