Russo’s grocery store is the answer to all our jaded prayers. With a variety of fresh, local produce at affordable prices, Russo’s makes the trek to Watertown worth it’s weight in gold(en delicious apples).
What do we want from our food system? High quality, fresh produce from local farmers, sustainably-raised animal products, small-scale and family-owned operations, cultural inclusivity, equal access, minimal waste, transparency, and all at an affordable price. Sometimes it feels like we are asking for a lot, but it also feels like it shouldn’t be this hard. Enter Russo’s, a family-owned and operated grocery store in Watertown, MA that has been serving customers from all walks of life in the Boston area for over 100 years. It is a one-of-a-kind cornucopia of freshness, quality, inclusion, and equity that is sure to make you feel like your demands of our food system are being answered in earnest.
Antonio Russo grew produce on a farm in Watertown in the 1900s and sold his harvest at Faneuil Hall, Quincy Market, and throughout his neighborhood. Antonio’s farm soon became a wholesale business that supplemented what he was growing with produce from other farmers in the area. Today, the Russo family sells produce, meat, dairy, cheese, baked goods, prepared foods, flowers, and much more at their permanent store location in southwest Watertown. They still sell produce from some of the farms Antonio worked with over 50 years ago, according to Karen Russo, a fourth-generation grocer who has been working for the family business on and off since she was seven years old.
For the Russo family, sourcing from local farmers is their first priority. “That’s not because of this current movement, which is amazing” Karen says, but more so because her father Tony “wanted people to know about all the great produce available in our state.” Tony also buys some of the excess produce that local farmers have throughout the growing season by leveraging his large wholesale and retail customer base in a way that supports farmers.
Because of seasonality or regionality, there are times when Russo’s can’t find what they and their customers want from a local producer. In those cases, they first look elsewhere in the US; if they still can’t find what they’re looking for, they source from some of the best producers around the world. When Karen was growing up 30 years ago, she couldn’t get strawberries in January. “But now,” she says, “it would be astonishing to people if they came to a produce company and couldn’t find berries year-round.” Being able to fill that need for their consumers is also important to Russo’s.
The other aspect of Russo’s sourcing methods comes down to their commitment to sell culturally appropriate items, whether they are produced in the US or abroad. That might be a special kind of lemon, products unique to Israel, or a beautiful cheese from Italy. After all, “no one is growing saffron in Watertown,” Karen notes. The other side to that commitment is “making sure that people from all over can come to Russo’s and see something familiar to them from their childhood,” Karen says. They love when customers get really excited when they see Thai basil in the store. Some of the other diverse offerings at Russo’s include everything from fiddleheads and plantains to okra and Chinese eggplant.
When we hear about a store with high quality, local, diverse products, we expect it all to come at a very high price. Places like Wholefoods and price premiums on organics in general signal that good food is only for the wealthy. But because her father “tries really hard to make sure everybody has what they want at a price they can afford,” Karen says the decision to source organic produce was not an easy one. Today, Russo’s does offer organic produce, and not surprisingly, at a reasonable price, but finding organic producers who are willing to sell at the price that Russo’s customers are willing to accept has been a real struggle. At the end of the day, they do it because Karen believes “people deserve that.”
They stick to their commitment of providing affordable produce by also offering “seconds.” In the front left corner of the produce section, surrounded by bok choy, daikon radish, leeks, collard greens, and peanuts, sits one or two glorious silver racks filled with pre-bagged bell peppers, eggplant, tomatoes, artichokes, and anything else that is either not the most aesthetically pleasing, or may be nearing the end of its ripeness. Providing “seconds” helps Russo’s reduce waste by providing items that people might want at a discounted price. Each bag of “seconds” costs $1.50 no matter what it is, so if you really want to be a smart shopper, head there first.
If Russo’s wasn’t the coolest grocery store already, they also have a clever waste management strategy that benefits both the bugs and the bunnies. First, the prepared foods and bakery sections utilize a lot of the food that doesn’t get sold before it expires, so very little food waste is generated up front. For the food that does need to get thrown out, Russo’s has a composting system for everything. And less so as a waste management strategy, and more so because they want to, Russo’s frequently donates food to various farms and animal sanctuaries across Massachusetts. But bunnies and pigs aren’t getting rotten food. Russo’s donates only “nice quality produce that will make them healthy and happy,” Karen says.
So why don’t we see this model everywhere? For one thing, achieving what the Russo family has accomplished is incredibly difficult. It requires longstanding relationships with local farmers, a deep-seeded passion for food, and a true understanding of who the consumer is and what they deserve. And because Russo’s itself is a local, family-owned store, the trust they have built with suppliers has withstood multiple generations, making farmers more willing to work with Russo’s at a designated price point. Perhaps if more families like the Russo’s took on the grocery world, we would have a far more just food system.
The one downside to Russo’s is all the plastic produce bags. To minimize your impact, simply reuse your plastic produce bags every time you come back. Because you will be coming back. And be sure to sign up for their newsletter to receive information on specials and discounts.
560 Pleasant St.
Watertown, MA 02472
Open Daily 8am-7pm (Sundays 8am-6pm)
Sam Jones is a second-year AFE student and the co-editor of The Friedman Sprout. After graduating, she will be working full-time as the Nutrition Communications Lead at 88 Acres in Boston, MA.