Located in the lower east side of Manhattan in a small shop on East Houston Street,its name emblazoned in neon green and red lights over the front doors, is Russ & Daughters, a landmark institution famous for its high-quality smoked fish, caviar and specialty foods and storied history.
Joel Russ, an Eastern European immigrant, started the business with a pushcart in 1914 to meet the dietary needs and habits of Eastern European Jewish immigrants. Today, nearly a century later, Russ & Daughters' reach extends far beyond the neighborhood and its original customer base. Though it has grown in its product line and reputation, it remains a family business; operated by fourth-generation family members Josh Russ Tupper '97 (Joel Russ' great-grandson) and his cousin Niki Russ Federman.
Josh Tupper has co-managed Russ & Daughters since 2002, when he left a successful career in engineering with the Fujimi Corporation near Portland, Oregon, to move to Manhattan and take over the business's day-to-day operations.
For Tupper, it was the right move at the right time. "I enjoyed engineering and I had a very successful career," he says. "But my uncle who had been running the business since 1978 was ready to retire. It was important to me that the business stay in our family."
An Unconventional Upbringing
Tupper grew up in upstate New York, near Monroe, spending his earliest years living at the Ananda Ashram with his parents who were committed to yogic principles and practices. "A very different experience than my ancestors who immigrated to New York City," he admits. In fact, today he considers himself culturally, not religiously, Jewish. "It wasn't really part of my upbringing."
As a child, Tupper enjoyed playing lake hockey with his friends, although he never played in an organized hockey league. Still, he found himself playing in a hockey game at West Point when he was approached by a scout from a prep school in Minnesota. He was eventually offered a Headmaster's Scholarship to attend the boarding school and play on the hockey team.
"I played one year on the hockey team and quit after I sustained a concussion in a game," he says. "That was pretty much the end of my very short hockey career. But I excelled in chemistry and mathematics and my AP chemistry teacher encouraged me to go into chemical engineering. And so I did."
Tupper knew about Clarkson from spending summers up at Higley Flow (his father's family was from Canton). "I worked really hard at Clarkson, but I also had a lot of fun." Shortly after he graduated in 1997 he moved to Portland, where his sister lived and began casting about for work.
At that time, the Portland area was becoming known as "Silicon Forest," because of the concentration of high-tech manufacturing firms that were locating there.
Tupper was in the right place at the right time. He was also good at what he did.
He started working as a process engineer making polishes for semiconductors for Fujimi Corporation. Soon he was a lead engineer, working on products for Intel and winning awards. "I became something of an expert in chemical-mechanical planarization," he explains.
In addition to his technical skills, Tupper had a knack for the business side of things and he eventually moved from engineering into technical sales. But in 2001, he decided it was time to leave Silicon Forest and go into the family food business.
"To be honest, the only food experience I had was serving campers dinner in New Hampshire during the summers when I was at Clarkson," he says. "But I convinced my uncle I could learn. I got a lot of help from him and some of the employees, one of whom has worked here for 30 years."
"It took me a year to really absorb it. There was a lot to learn. I had to learn about fish quality, and fish distributors, and different kinds of preparations. We hand slice all of our fish to order. We sell a huge variety of fish - from smoked and cured salmon to 10 or 11 types of herring. We work with smoke houses all over - Brooklyn, London, Denmark. Our reputation is based on the quality of the food we sell. So everything has to be of the highest quality."
Technology Meets Tradition
With his background in engineering, one of the first things Tupper did when he took over the store with his cousin was to update the technology.
Prior to his arrival, orders were still hand written on triplicate forms. He understood that upgrading systems through technology would improve operations and open up new opportunities for expanding the business through e-commerce.
He installed point of sale system technologies to computerize ordering, track sales, and developed a network of computer scales for weighing so everything can now be managed electronically. Tupper also revamped the website and Internet sales have gone from comprising two percent of Russ and Daughters' business to 15 - 20 percent today.
All the media attention the store receives doesn't hurt either. Last year, Oliver Sacks wrote about the herring at Russ & Daughters in The New Yorker's "Talk of the Town" section while Anthony Bourdain included it on his "13 Places to Eat Before You Die" list. Tupper himself appeared on Martha Stewart's television program last year and was interviewed last January on National Public Radio's "All Things Considered."
Still, despite growth opportunities and media attention, Tupper is adamant that the Russ & Daughters store and what it stands for will remain the same: a family operated business known for its quality and selection, with great service and a close relationship with its clientele.
"That's really who we are," he says.