Mark Russ Federman is a third generation Russ. He tells the story of his grandfather, Joel Russ, who came to America from Poland and began peddling herring from a pushcart shortly thereafter. In 1914, Joel opened a storefront in Manhattan, but it wasn't until his three daughters -- Hattie, Ida and Anne -- hopped aboard in 1935 that the store became Russ & Daughters, a Lower East Side haunt.
Federman's story is one of perseverance and passion, family and fish.
Below is an excerpt from Mark Russ Federman's Russ & Daughters: Reflections and Recipes from the House That Herring Built, which came out March 5, 2013.
Russ & Daughters
The Art of the Schmooze
You’re either born a great schmoozer or you’re not. Grandma Russ was always happy to schmooze. Since she spoke so little English, her schmoozing was limited to Yiddish with the pushcart vendors on Orchard Street. They were happy to schmooze with her because she was one of their few customers who never hondled. Grandpa Russ, on the other hand, had neither the time nor the patience to schmooze. But Aunt Hattie and Aunt Ida were great schmoozers; they could charm a herring right out of the barrel. My mom took after her father; no patience for schmoozing there. But my dad was a natural-born schmoozer, and the customers lined up to be waited on by him. I was lucky enough to inherit the family schmoozing gene. Maria is a terrible schmoozer. Whatever the opposite of a schmoozer is, that’s Maria. Fortunately for our business, Niki is an even better schmoozer than I am. Josh is not a natural-born schmoozer. Until he came into the business he was an engineer, and they are not known for their schmoozing skills. But he has other essential qualities. For example, Josh finishes one task before starting another, a definite asset in running a business. Schmoozers, on the other hand, have difficulty getting things done; they’re too busy schmoozing. But as I have watched Josh run the business these past few years, I have seen his ability to schmooze improve along with his slicing skills. Customers now line up to wait for Josh to slice their salmon and listen to their stories. Behind the counter, he has become his Grandpa Herbie, world-renowned salmon slicer and schmoozer.
People who are born schmoozers often go into retail businesses, usually small, family-owned ones. They like, and maybe even need, the personal interactions such places offer. People shop in small retail stores because they, too, like—and maybe need—that same personal interaction. Among people who work in retail, the great schmoozer doesn’t just talk but also knows how to listen. The ability to be a good listener is derived from a basic love of people. This must be genuine. It cannot be faked. There is no doubt in my mind that this joy in listening to people, in hearing their stories, sharing in their nachas and their tsuris, is genetic in origin. The schmoozing gene will soon be mapped.
Some things distinguish a great schmoozer from a merely good one. The ability to make the customer feel as if he or she is the only thing the schmoozer is interested in at that given moment is essential. To achieve this, you yourself must feel that this customer is your friend, and that the interaction is personal as well as commercial. Of course, the schmoozer must not forget that he is running a business, so this is where multitasking comes in. While listening intently, eyes and ears fixed on the customer, the schmoozer will be able to notice that there are dirty spots on the showcase, herrings in disarray, salads that need to be filled in, and a ringing phone that needs to be answered. A truly great schmoozer can direct other people to accomplish these tasks without ever taking his focus away from the customer with whom he is schmoozing. A good memory is essential, even if you are a natural-born schmoozer. Memory for names is a given, not only the name of the customer as he or she walks in the door but the names of the customer’s spouse and children, as well as any tsuris or nachas related during the last visit. A quality schmoozer remembers what the customer bought last time, which part of the fish he prefers, how she likes it sliced. The perfect schmooze must be a seamless resumption of your last conversation, even if the customer’s last visit was six months ago. For example:
The good schmoozer: “Hello, Mrs. Schwartz. How’s your daughter Rebecca?”
The great schmoozer: “Hello, Mrs. Schwartz. How’s your daughter Rebecca? Did she recover from that twisted ankle? Did you help take care of her two kids, Betsy and Andy? Your grandchildren are so adorable. And smart, too.”
The great schmoozer will attempt to bring other customers into the schmooze. When two or more customers are introduced into the schmooze, they are likely to discover things they have in common: their kids go to the same school, their grandparents came from the same shtetl in Poland, they used the same “top” doctor for hip-replacement surgery. This provides them with a more unique experience, a story to tell over the salmon and bagels when they get home. The schmoozer is humble, more of a good listener than a good talker. While the customers may ask the schmoozer personal questions, that is merely a rhetorical device. They don’t really want to hear about you; they want to talk about themselves. And since they are spending their money in your store, your conversation should be about them. The schmoozer must be able to distinguish between nachas and tsuris, and show the appropriate amount of joy or sympathy, depending on the individual situation. This is not always as easy as it seems. Of course, a birth, bris, bar/bat mitzvah, or wedding is clearly a major nachasdik life event that requires a great display of empathetic joy. Illness, death, and investments with Bernie Madoff clearly fit into the tsuris category. But be careful: divorce, which could be tsuris for the son who is being divorced, might be regarded as a joyful occasion by the mother who never liked her daughter-in-law in the first place.
I learned something very interesting during my years of schmoozing with my customers: the less you say, the greater the aura of knowledge and wisdom you acquire. From years of schmoozing, I came to be regarded by some of my customers as a chochom, a wise man, and I was often asked for my opinions about politics, finance, international relations, religion, and even car repair. Of course, true schmoozer and chochom that I am, I would never give them.
Truthfully, beyond the fish we sell, I know very little about anything else. It is assumed that I am a repository of great bits of worldly knowledge just because for thirty years I stood behind the counter in the same store in the same neighborhood and sold the same fish products that my family had been selling for a hundred years. So I try to accept the role with some grace, and have grown a beard—by now a very white beard. I continue to say very little and listen very well, and at least try to look the part.