Russ & Daughters Café on the Lower East Side un-lox its doors after long pandemic closure

Initially, they thought it would take a few weeks, maybe a few months max, to get everything rolling again. The original shop was a shell of itself, keeping its core kitchen staff and relying on online orders — people were mostly ordering things like bagels, Nova, cream cheese and babka — to keep from closing entirely. The cafe basically served as a delivery service while the actual restaurant remained closed.

“We [are] a family business that thinks in terms of doing things for the next generation,” she said. “And in those first few months, with everything imploding the way that it was, we started to wonder how many months we had left.”

The owners had a few ideas on how to keep themselves busy though. They participated in online fundraisers, including their annual Russ & Daughters Second Seder, which raised over $20,000 for their out-of-work staff members. They shipped thousands of meals to frontline workers. Federman got involved with the Independent Restaurant Coalition, which was instrumental in the creation of the $28.6 billion federal program, the Restaurant Relief Fund.

And they launched two merch collaborations with actor Jake Gyllenhaal, raising more than $130,000 to support independent restaurants and theater workers. “People were looking for ways to help and this was such a fun way that people could,” Federman said.

All the while, they were plotting their return. But the various variants kept getting in the way. They wanted to reopen in the summer of 2021, and then the Delta wave hit; they tried again last winter, but Omicron put a stop to that. And seeing other restaurants struggle to restaff and comply with the shifting rules of the city and state only made them more wary.

“We felt that it made more sense to just keep doing what we were doing behind the scenes, and avoid the tumult that, unfortunately, so many other restaurants had to endure,” said Federman. “Being a legacy business that is committed to survive and thrive for another 100 years means that our decision-making is unusual compared to most other businesses. We chose not to rush back into reopening, and we were lucky that we were in a position where we could wait.”

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