It’s hard to believe that there was a time when Niki Russ Federman, now co-owner of Russ & Daughters, considered walking away from the family business for good. Today, the New York City staple serving bagels, smoked fish and other “Jewish appetizing food” is a beloved brand that includes sit-down restaurants at its historic East Houston location and at the Jewish History Museum in Manhattan, a bakery, a retail counter, and an e-commerce arm, with plans for expansion.
But the business had incredibly humble beginnings—it began as a barrel filled with herring sold on the street by Federman’s great-grandfather and Polish immigrant Joel Russ. As the business evolved to a pushcart, then a wagon and finally, a storefront, Russ knew he needed help. He brought in his three daughters—one of which was Federman’s grandmother—and the family business was born. As the store was passed down from generation to generation, Federman knew she’d one day have to decide whether or not she’d want to continue the tradition, but she delayed making the choice.
“I used to think that if I just do what my grandparents used to do, then that means I somehow failed in this American individualistic ethos that we all have,” Federman said at the TK TK TK. Her father had been running the business since the 70s, but by the early 2000s, he gave her an ultimatum: she had to take over, or he would sell it.
It was a breaking point for Federman, who was still unsure that she wanted to dedicate her life to Russ & Daughters. She applied and was accepted to Yale Business School to buy herself some time, but realized that a business degree wouldn’t solve her internal dilemma and left the school after a semester. By that point, her cousin, Josh Russ Tupper, had expressed interest in running the business and it seemed that Federman finally had a way out.
But it was this very shift in responsibility that awakened something. “I left the business, and I left business school. I was hiding out in New Haven, Connecticut. And at this point, because there were no expectations on me,I was able to look at the business with a fresh set of eyes. I began to realize that this is a tremendous gift to be part of a lineage like this. Small businesses are disappearing, and there’s such a loss of character as a result,” she said.
By 2006, Federman was back in the family business as co-owner, alongside Tupper. Together, the two have been unstoppable, expanding the business across multiple locations and formats. Their latest endeavor? An 18,000-foot space for Russ & Daughters at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, featuring a sit-down restaurant, retail counter, and shipping business. “I love what we’re doing today,” she said. “I love the way in which it forces me to live in the past, present, and future all at the same time. The baton has been passed.”