NY shop Russ & Daughters survived Spanish flu, but coronavirus is ‘uncharted waters’

New York City appetizing shop Russ & Daughters has weathered the Spanish flu, wars, depressions, recessions, terror attacks, and hurricanes. But the coronavirus pandemic is unprecedented. 

“This is uncharted waters,” said Niki Russ Federman, the fourth-generation co-owner of the shop, which serves Jewish delicacies like smoked fish and latkes.

Russ & Daughters began business 106 years ago on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

Russ & Daughters

The business closed both of its restaurants in Manhattan last week. It has reduced operations to take-out, delivery, and nationwide shipments.

In its 106-year history, Russ & Daughters has never laid off anyone, said Federman. Now, within a matter of days, the company has laid off nearly half of its staff.

“I’m sick to my stomach still thinking about it,” said Federman. “It’s so hard to tell folks who have been so important to us that the least bad option is to lay them off to get unemployment, knowing that unemployment benefits, at least here in New York state, are unacceptable.”

Weekly jobless claims saw an unprecedented spike in March, and economists expect those numbers to reach a scale the U.S. has never seen. Restaurants have been hit particularly hard because of state-mandated closures and social distancing efforts.

The maximum unemployment benefit in New York is $504 per week. 

“You can’t tell someone to shelter in place if they don’t have the money to pay for that shelter or to feed themselves or their families,” said Federman.

On Monday the Federal Reserve announced a lending initiative for Main Street businesses, though details about that program have yet to emerge.  

Russ & Daughters fourth-generation owners Niki Russ Federman and Josh Russ Tupper.

Russ & Daughters

“I certainly hope that the government recognizes small businesses for what they are, which is the lifeblood of the economy in this country,” said Federman.

“We don’t answer to shareholders, we answer to our communities. And all we want to do is keep our communities going.”

Russ & Daughters bagel & lox.

Russ & Daughters

Famous for its bagels and lox, babka, black and white cookies, herring and smoked fish, Russ & Daughters says it will continue to ship its products nationwide for as long as it can.  

“It is comfort food for so many people. It’s a reminder of where they come from, their families, a sense of normalcy,” said Federman. “To be able to deliver that directly to people in their homes feels truly essential.” 

Russ & Daughters

Federman said she has seen an outpouring of support from her customers, some of whom have built relationships with the business over four generations. She said continuing to order shipments for themselves or for others will help support the business through the crisis.

“If you could place an order to someone else you know who is in need, send them a care package,” said Federman. “Your local hospital, your FedEx workers, anyone who is on the front lines of this crisis, send food to them.”

She added, “Food is love, and we need it more than ever.”

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