If you were to walk down Houston Street in the Lower East Side today, what would you see? High-rise condominiums? Boutique hotels? Designer clothing shops? Trendy restaurants? Those were the kinds of places that I saw as I strolled around the neighborhood this past winter. I was looking for a business that seemed like it might have a history rooted in the neighborhood’s past – specifically, I had in mind a business that had either been around since the neighborhood’s Kleindeutschland heyday in the 1840s or a Jewish store that had survived since the area was a Jewish immigrant enclave of 400,000 in the 1910s. I ended up coming across a store at 179 East Houston Street that seemed to fit into the latter category – a rustic-looking store with a World War II-era neon sign spelling out “RUSS & DAUGHTERS” in bright green with the word “APPETIZERS” in dull red underneath it, flanked by a sturgeon on either side. Recognizing the last name Russ as a Jewish one and wondering what “appetizers” could possibly mean for a store that apparently sells fish, I entered the store, determined to find out more about it.

The Store

Push open the door at Russ & Daughters and the first thing to hit you is the store’s unique aroma. It’s a combination of smokiness from whitefish, salmon, sturgeon, and sable; the brininess of herrings and pickles; the yeastiness of freshly baked bagels and bialys; and the sweetness of rugelach, babka, chocolates and halvah lining the counters on either side of the store. There are antique black and white photographs on the walls of the first and second generations of the Russ family and the first generation of the store’s predominantly working-class Jewish customers. The strong aroma of the place, coupled with its antique photographs and old signs, gives it an old-world ambience – despite much of the store being recently renovated in 2001. However, the prices of most items do not reflect the working-class origins of the store (although the food does): smoked salmon – the store’s best-selling item – fetches $42 a pound and schmaltz herring sells for $10.50 a pound. This can be best explained by the neighborhood’s shifting demographics – today, rather than catering exclusively to a local, working-class Jewish customer base, Russ & Daughters sells its famous lox and schmaltz herring to a more cosmopolitan, urbane and wealthier base. As Mark Russ Federman, the third generation owner of Russ & Daughters, writes in his well-crafted book, Russ & Daughters: Reflections and Recipes from the House that Herring Built: “…It is a neighborhood that has gone from pushcart to posh; a customer base that has evolved from Jewish and local to ethnically mixed, urbane, young, and far-flung.” More on these historically-based changes in the next section.

It is a neighborhood that has gone from pushcart to posh; a customer base that has evolved from Jewish and local to ethnically mixed, urbane, young, and far-flung. Mark Russ Federman

From Pushcart to Posh, and the Bumps Along the Way

In 1907, Joel Russ, a Jewish immigrant from Poland, arrived in New York. He started peddling schmaltz herring (Yiddish for herring caught just before spawning, when the fat, schmaltz, in the fish is at a maximum) from a pushcart on Orchard Street. At the time, the Lower East Side was a predominantly Jewish working-class neighborhood, and so the herring that Joel sold is what Herman, the Dominican general manager of the store (whom I interviewed) calls “survival food” – it’s cheap and, because it’s salted, it doesn’t go bad. Joel’s pushcart business was fairly successful, and he was able to save up money to open a storefront on Orchard Street in 1914. With more space, Joel was able to expand the products he sold to include other types of fish – in particular, smoked salmon. His business boomed and in 1920 he relocated to the business’s current location at 179 East Houston Street because the new location had twice the amount of square footage.

At the time, the neighborhood dominated by a working-class immigrant population that was crowded into squalid tenements. There were many ethnic groupings in the neighborhood, including a large Eastern European Jewish population, which numbered about 400,00 at its peak in 1920.  However, shortly thereafter there was an exodus of the mostly Jewish and Italian immigrants of the neighborhood, which included Joel Russ and his family, to newly constructed buildings and homes in the outer boroughs and suburbs. This white flight continued for decades. After World War II, the Lower East Side saw an influx of African Americans and Puerto Ricans, resulting in it becoming New York City’s first racially integrated neighborhood. But by around 1960, the influence of the Jewish and Eastern European groups declined as many of these residents had left the area, while other ethnic groups had coalesced into separate neighborhoods, such as Little Italy.

The Lower East Side then experienced a period of store closures, poverty, crime, drugs, and abandoned housing during which the Russ family struggled to keep the store open. The Sunday blue laws were repealed, which allowed stores in the rest of the city to open on Sundays (which had previously been prohibited for all retail stores except for those on the Lower East Side). This, along with the advent of suburban malls, meant that Jewish consumers living in the suburbs no longer drove into the Lower East Side from Long Island or New Jersey to do shopping, so most Jewish-owned businesses shuttered. Worse yet, city services all but abandoned the neighborhood. Crime skyrocketed, poverty became widespread and entire buildings were abandoned. The neighborhood’s decrepit state continued until well into the 1980s, when the Lower East Side stabilized, and then it completely reversed in the late 1990s/early 2000s, when the neighborhood underwent full-blown gentrification.

The above image compares average family income in 1970, when the Lower East Side was riddled by poverty and crime, and 1990, when the neighborhood was attracting students, artists and immigrants hailing from South Asia, the Middle East and Latin America.  Clearly, the average family income in the Lower East Side increased significantly during this time. For instance, in census tract 30.01, where Russ & Daughters is located, average family income increased from $5,374 to $21,184. Inflation cannot account for this difference – $5,374 in 1970 is equivalent to $10,619 in 1989, which means that average family income doubled, even after adjusting for inflation.  Similar changes occur in the other census tracts of the neighborhood, as shown in the following table. This significantly helped Russ & Daughters’ sales and allowed the Russ family to raise prices despite the decline of the white population (and presumably the Jewish population) in the area.  The latter is evident in the following image, in which the percentage of the white population decreased significantly in the Lower East Side – in census tract 30.01, it decreased from 78.83% to 45.45%.

So what does this mean for Russ & Daughters? Does a decline in the total and white population in the area mean that it is less successful today than it was in 1920? No. Whereas in 1920 the customer base of Russ & Daughters was almost entirely made up of local working-class Jews, today it is made up of a multiethnic customer base that has proved to be unwaveringly loyal – thousands of people come back year after year from all over for the store’s delicious schmaltz herring and smoked salmon. Plus, it helps that the average family income in the area and the city as a whole has increased significantly.  This has enabled the store to sell more expensive products, like caviar, and to increase the prices of its best-selling products. Based on my interview and the aforementioned data, I can conclude that, despite vast (seemingly unfavorable) demographic changes, today Russ & Daughters has a larger, more diverse and more affluent customer base than it has had in the past, which translates to more success. Here in New York City, there is currently an enormous documented decline in the number of small independently-owned storefront businesses. Fortunately, Russ & Daughters is bucking that trend thanks to its devoted national clientele.

However, this does not mean that Russ & Daughters is not facing its fair share of difficulties. Perhaps the greatest issue it has is finding the right people to hire – Russ & Daughters needs employees who are willing to dedicate a lot of time, including time around important holidays, to the business. Its employees also need to be passionate about their work and need to cherish the traditional food-making process in order to be happy and productive, since the traditional food-making processes used by Russ & Daughters are often painstakingly arduous. They cannot be indifferent to the store’s history or to the cultural values that define the place – in fact, they must embrace it in order to satisfy its customers, especially the old-timers. Another major obstacle that the store faces has to do with supply: getting consistently high-quality merchandise from suppliers at a reasonable price is difficult. For instance, right now there is a shortage of high-quality wild salmon, and so the prices charged by suppliers has shot up, which in turn has forced Russ & Daughters to raise their own prices. However, thankfully, rent or lack of customers are not issues for Russ & Daughters – Joel was shrewd enough to buy the store back when property values were low in the neighborhood and so this appetizing store does not pay rent and has been able to stay in the same location, both of which benefit it tremendously.

The Interview

Though I expected to be able to get to interview the owner, I was only able to interview the general manager of the store. He introduced himself as Herman Vargas, the only non-Jew involved in store management (Gee, I thought, now I’m not going to get the real deal!). He told me that he is a Dominican immigrant that has been working at Russ & Daughters for 37 years – since he was 18! I wondered how he felt working in what seemed to be a Jewish business that still largely caters to the Jewish community, but he answered my question before I could even ask it. He says that he had originally only started working there because he needed a part-time job, but he soon grew attached to the store’s tight-knit working culture, built a rapport with its employees, and came to cherish the home-like feel, delicious food and old-world ambience. “I’m from a small town in the Dominican Republic where everyone knows each other – and that’s what I sought out here. The moment I started working here, I felt at home and I developed an attachment to the store – to the family that owns it, to the store’s cultural heritage and history, and, of course, to the food.” Herman has even picked up some Yiddish over the years and in the interview it was readily apparent that he also probably knows as much about Jewish culture and history as a Jew.

The moment I started working here, I felt at home and I developed an attachment to the store - to the family that owns it, to the store's cultural heritage and history, and, of course, to the food. Herman Vargas

What stood out in the interview was Herman’s emphasis on the significance of schmaltz herring. Although it is not the best-selling food item at the store (that distinction goes to smoked salmon), it is the staple food item – it is what defines the store. It was what Joel first started selling from his pushcart and it is what got the business started. The process of preparing it, cutting it, presenting it and sourcing it properly is a very intricate old-world process that embodies the cultural heritage of the store. At this point, it is more about the cultural and historical importance of it than the financial aspect. As Herman put it in the interview, “It’s beyond doing something to make money – it’s to preserve tradition.” Clearly, schmaltz herring encapsulates the traditions upheld by Russ & Daughters for generations and it has made the store the single most well-known place in New York City to buy high-quality herring. R.W. Apple describes this perfectly in a New York Times article he wrote in 2002: “Russ & Daughters, a bastion of tradition on the Lower East Side since 1914, is the city’s herring-to-go headquarters.”

So What’s an Appetizing Store, Anyway?

An appetizing store is best understood as a typically Jewish store that sells foods that one eats with bagels – including both dairy and “parve” (neither dairy nor meat) food items such as lox (smoked salmon), whitefish, and cream cheese spreads. The foods are typically eaten for breakfast or lunch and, based on Jewish kashrut dietary laws, include no meat products (kosher fish products are not considered meat). Appetizing stores differ from Jewish delicatessens in that delis sell meats while appetizing stores sell fish and dairy products.

Appetizing stores have no known foreign origin. Stores specializing in smoked, cured and pickled fish did not exist in Eastern Europe – there were only local fishmongers who sold pike, carp and herring to their neighbors. In the U.S., newly available fish, such as whitefish, sable and salmon – which along with the familiar herring lent themselves to smoking, curing and pickling – gave rise to a uniquely Jewish-American phenomenon: the appetizing store. From the 1920s through the end of World War II, there were twenty to thirty of these stores in the Lower East Side. Russ & Daughters is the only one left.

In a Nutshell

Since its opening in 1914, Russ & Daughters has been operated by multiple generations of the Russ family – the 4th generation (Niki and Josh, the latter of which I had the pleasure of meeting) is now running the show. Today Russ & Daughters has 20-25 permanent employees (it hires many others seasonally) and business is going well at this renowned cultural landmark.

Russ & Daughters has had a history of incredible success even through some very rough patches – in fact, it has been able to not only succeed, but to flourish, despite the numerous obstacles it has faced and continues to face. This is fortunate, for Russ & Daughters is a cultural gem that has been able to remarkably thrive in a market dominated by corporate chain stores. In his book Russ & Daughters: Reflections and Recipes from the House that Herring Built, Mark says: “We’re proud that Russ & Daughters is different from the rest of the food world. We’re not an impersonal big-box store; we don’t sell mass-produced, extruded and prepackaged products. We live and breathe the most important Russ family traditions – a passion for what we sell and a dedication to providing the best possible service to our customers.” According to Anthony Bourdain, the famed chef and TV personality, Russ & Daughters is a place you should eat at before you die: “Russ & Daughters started as a pushcart nearly a century ago, and it now serves some of the last traditional Eastern European Jewish-style herring and belly lox, smoked sable, and sturgeon. This is what New Yorkers do better than anybody else. And here’s where they do it.” In 2014, on the centennial of Russ & Daughter’s opening, a well-done documentary called The Sturgeon Queens (named after the daughters of Joel Russ) was released. It features the two surviving Russ daughters and Ruth Bader Ginsburg and is a comic yet very informative film that provides a different perspective from that of Mark Federman’s book. Clearly, positive and extensive media coverage has not hurt Russ & Daughter’s business – quite to the contrary, actually.

It is indubitable that today Russ & Daughters is booming and will continue to be extraordinarily successful for the foreseeable future. The clientele of Russ & Daughters has expanded from its small, localized Jewish customer base to a much larger international and cosmopolitan one. The cured and smoked fish sold at the store is no longer “survival food,” but rather, it is now upscale food that can fetch prices in hundreds of dollars per pound. The store’s current owners, Niki and Josh, have also opened two other locations: one is a cafe on Orchard Street and another is a Kosher store located uptown. Although these two new locations are clearly different from the original Russ & Daughters appetizing store, they also have the same old-world ambience that the original location has and sell many of the same products (don’t worry, I checked both of them out for you). Today the original location has almost 1500 reviews on Yelp and a 4.5 rating. It is difficult to imagine a future in the Lower East Side in which Russ & Daughter’s does not play a role – for this bastion of tradition is an enormous success and a crucial part of the neighborhood’s history and that of its inhabitants. Cheers to a prosperous and promising future for what is the “best thing in the world,” according to Oliver Sacks.

The best thing in the world is to go to Russ & Daughters.


Federman, M. R. (2013). Russ & Daughters: Reflections and Recipes from the House that Herring Built.

Social Explorer. (2017). Retrieved May 30, 2017, from http://www.socialexplorer.com/

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