Originally printed in the January 2019 issue of Produce Business.
Freshness shines at this suburban Boston favorite.
Unlike other stores, where visitors see towering displays of products, when shoppers walk into the entrance of Russo’s, they immediately see produce and people.
At the suburban Boston grocery store and wholesaler, produce is displayed horizontally, as opposed to vertically, with no shelving above shoppers’ heads.
A Watertown, MA, legend, Russo’s bills itself as “An experience for food lovers,” while reviewers describe it as, “More than a grocery store; Russo’s is an experience.”
Fresh produce constitutes a little more than half of the space of the 15,000-square-foot store, which is run by third- and fourth-generation family members. Refrigerated cases of dairy products, drinks, cheese and floral line the store’s walls.
Freshness is critical. “We try to keep our produce department as fresh as possible,” says Tony Russo, president and owner. “The idea is to provide nice, full and large displays, with plenty of selection.”
Russo’s wants a store where shoppers can find a variety of produce, including exotics such as Cayenne, pumpkin leaves, Boniato leaves, potato leaves, yam leaves and a half-dozen varieties of Chinese vegetables. “Ultimately, if you’re interested in food, you can’t walk by these products without trying some of this Chinese broccoli,” says Russo. The store provides information to show shoppers how they can make recipes by including those items and “having some fun in the kitchen.”
LOCAL PRODUCE PIONEER
Local produce grown by quality growers has long been a store practice. When he was a child, Russo, 76, viewed the disciplines his family used when procuring produce. Certain characteristics can be detected about particular growers, including their growing practices. After a while, if one pays attention to it, they won’t sense much dissimilarity between one season and the next, he says.
During the 1950s after work, Russo and his grandfather would procure fruit by visiting apple growers. The store still purchases cider from the same family operation.
Russo’s works with many local growers, including picking up blueberries every other day during the season from Kelso Homestead Blueberry Farm in Chester, MA, which has grown blueberries since the late 1700s. Sunny Crest Orchard in Sterling, MA, is known for the apples and peaches it has grown since 1850. The Russos purchase sweet corn from an East Hartford, CT, grower, and every day during the summer through late December, Stonefield Farm in Acton, MA, trucks the vegetables it has been growing since 1929 to the store.
“Those are the kinds of relationships that are central to our business and the way the companies have been managed,” says Russo. “We like to stay with our growers throughout the course of the season. The red delicious apple will always look good. It’s grown in areas that produce the best fruit. It’s to our customers’ advantage for us to determine the growers that grow the best apples.”
To stock the store, Russo’s buys directly from California and Florida growers and works with , Inc., in Nogales, AZ, and McAllen, TX, for Mexican product.
Symbolic of lesser importance, groceries and shelf-stable items are positioned under the tables of produce. “Produce is central to our operation,” says Russo. “It’s our focus. Without produce, we wouldn’t be an operation.” Almost all of Russo’s time involves taking care of and purchasing produce. “We want to have the very best characteristics you expect to find in an apple, an orange or a cherry,” he says. “They must be sweet.”
DEEP PRODUCE HERITAGE
While 2019 will mark the 50th year Russo’s has been selling produce at retail, the company’s produce heritage, which began in wholesaling, goes back a century.
In 1918, Antonio Russo, the family’s patriarch, emigrated to Massachusetts from the Campania Region of Italy. The Watertown area was full of farmland, including greenhouses. The Russos grew vegetables, including lettuce, green beans and tomatoes.
Antonio Russo brought his produce to Boston’s Faneuil Hall and Quincy Market. As customers there and in the city’s neighborhoods requested more product, business at A. Russo & Sons, Inc., a service wholesale company which serviced small grocery stores and medium-sized supermarkets, developed and expanded.
Business prospered until the 1960s, when heightened competition from supermarkets forced the closings of most of the small independent stores in Boston’s western suburbs that A. Russo & Sons, Inc., serviced.
In 1970, Antonio Russo purchased Foxes Market on Main Street in Watertown, which was remodeled and renamed Town Garden. Though small, the location, accessible to Boston’s wealthy western suburbs of Brookline, Dover, Newton and Westwood, was a favorable one to attract customers. It quickly became successful, and the Russos filled it with fresh produce.
By the late 1980s, the Russos realized they needed another location to better handle retail and wholesale. In 1992, the Russos opened their current operation with a new name, Russo’s.
Today, the wholesale operation distributes produce to customers in Eastern Massachusetts and parts of New Hampshire and Rhode Island via tractors, trailers and 40 straight trucks.
Russo’s tries to keep markups reasonable. Although others sell similar products, Russo’s wants to add another dimension of value by creating a pricing structure that invites shoppers. “We want people to get away from the hustle and bustle of the daily pressures of life,” says Russo. “We want this to be a little safe space where they can do something for themselves. They can spend a little time on themselves and enjoy a moment or two while doing their shopping.
“We are always trying to find the best product we can and try to sell it at the lowest price we can. That’s our interest, to marry those combinations of interests with the products all the time.”
In addition to produce, Russo’s sells breads baked fresh daily as well as cakes and pastries. A smaller area markets meat, and the store offers a delicatessen and a cheese department. Prepared foods, hot and cold, also are served. Additionally, the store provides catering.
Catering and prepared foods are the store’s fastest-growing items, in terms of sales. In the store’s early years, produce increased in sales by 10 percent per year. While that sales growth has lessened, produce is still selling well and business, overall, is favorable, he says.
560 Pleasant Street, Watertown, MA 02472
P: (617) 923-1500
Hours: Mon. -Sat. 8am – 7pm
SIGNS TRUMPET LOCAL PRODUCTS
To merchandise the produce, Russo’s employs signage that trumpets local berries and other produce. The store places as much information as possible on the signs to alert shoppers to the local product, including the growers’ names and farm locations.
Russo’s advertises in its local newspaper, marketing through a small ad inside the first page since the 1970s. It also markets in two Massachusetts food and agriculture magazines.
Tony Russo’s brother, Olgo Russo, retired a decade ago while their father, Olgo, died in the early 2000s. Gildo Russo, the Russo brothers’ uncle and father’s partner, died in the 1980s. Tony Russo’s daughters are the company’s fourth generation. Christina Russo is a manager, while Karen Russo handles marketing and social media.
The store’s demographics are diverse. Its location a couple of blocks from the Waltham, MA, city limits and bordering on some of the region’s affluent communities, attracts customers from the wealthier neighborhoods as well as working-class areas.
“Our trade is fortunate that we are close to the wealthier communities,” says Tony Russo. “That’s where the business grew. It grew organically. It didn’t grow because grandpa solicited the trade. We had a reputation for carrying good merchandise and always being competitive on price.”
Located five miles west of Harvard University and close to the Charles River, Russo’s attracts a mix of shoppers who originated from many ethnic and religious backgrounds. Standing in the front door, one can hear 10 languages spoken in 15 to 20 minutes, which produces a lot of energy, observes Russo.
As the hub of Massachusetts, Boston boasts a cultural diversity and attracts people from all walks of life, says Russo. People attend school there, and liking the environment, permanently relocate to the region. Ethnic groups from Southeast Asia, South America, Central America, Eastern Europe and other places, enjoy the region’s jobs and economic growth, he says.
“This area has an energized life here,” says Russo. “All of Massachusetts is busy. isn’t slow-paced. Every part of the country has opportunity, but over here, there’s opportunity for everyone. Opportunities are all around for those that want to work. We see it every day here.”