Don’t Call It a Deli

The three-block span between New York’s Delancey and Houston streets morphed from shtetl to barrio to hipster haven in the last century or so. And that pretty much tracks the folks behind the counter at Russ & Daughters, the Lower East Side’s landmark purveyor of lox, caviar, herring, and other old-country treasures. The store (“Russ’ Cut-Rate Appetizers”) was founded in 1914 by Joel Russ, an Eastern European immigrant who started out with a pushcart; now it’s run by fourth-generation Russes—31-year-old Josh Russ Tupper (voted “Best Easy-on-the-Eyes Fishmonger” by the New York Press) and his willowy 28-year-old cousin, Niki Russ Federman.

CHOW sat down with Josh and Niki, a former engineer and a yoga instructor, respectively, to find out what it’s like to be at the helm of a neighborhood institution.

Have you made any major blunders since taking up the reins?

Niki: I’m supposed to know who everyone is [who comes in here]. I don’t always. That’s embarrassing.

Russ & Daughters was founded when the neighborhood was mostly Jewish immigrants. The last 20 years have brought tons of development, a Whole Foods, and an influx of trucker hats. How has that changed things?

Josh: We’re selling more of some things, like pastrami salmon, but mostly the models, famous actors, and hipsters don’t come in looking for chicken salad. We’re not changing for them, and they don’t expect us to. That being said, we don’t sell a lot of schmaltz herring.

So what’s coming up in the future?

Niki: Everybody knows what “deli” means. Nobody remembers what “appetizing” is [when used as a noun to denote certain kinds of foods]. It never made it into the general lexicon, and I want to change that.

Yeah, you’re going to have to bring us up to speed on that.

Niki: According to Jewish dietary laws, meat and dairy can’t be eaten together. So “delicatessen” [is a shop that sells] meat, and “appetizing” [is one that sells] fish and dairy—plus the things that go with it, so there’s often a sweets section as well. To some that seems odd, to have the savory on one side and then—surprise—chocolate! But that’s how these stores traditionally were. The iconic triptych of bagel/lox/cream cheese: That’s quintessential “appetizing.”

Other than that, we need to increase our Web presence, make sure we can continue to deliver nationwide, and eventually expand to open a café.

Why do you want to keep running your family business?

Josh: Abject fear of looking stupid and letting down the family and the customers. Less than 1 percent of family businesses make it to the fourth generation. There has to be so much drive and desire to make a small business work.

Niki: The Lower East Side is changing so dramatically. It’s a great scene, but it also means we’ve got Whole Foods and chain businesses popping up.

Rumor has it that the lines at Russ & Daughters, which are legendarily long during the High Holidays, are a hot and heavy pickup scene for Jews.

Josh: I noticed, more than once, that people would call and ask, “How long are the lines?” and I’d say, “Not bad, right now— it’s a good time to come,” and the caller would say, “Nah, I’ll come later.” I thought that was a little weird …

Niki: Then someone revealed to us that people wait on line as long as possible so they can scope each other out and, you know, hook up.

Did you pick up any dating tips that could work outside the shop?

Niki: I was working too hard to notice, unfortunately.

Josh: I’ll just say this: This store as a destination is common ground for anyone with good taste and intelligence in the Jewish community. If you list it on your MySpace page, you’re going to get some interesting responses.

Photographs by Michael Harlan Turkell.