When he was 10, Tony Russo pitched in on his family’s small plot of land in Watertown, helping his grandparents grow potatoes, green beans, peppers, lettuce, mushrooms, and tomatoes, which they then sold at the produce stalls at Faneuil Hall and Quincy Market.
Sixty-five years later, Russo laughs when he recounts the current inventory at his Pleasant Street store that bears the family name. The mushrooms alone go far beyond what his grandparents could have ever imagined.
“Back then we grew button mushrooms. Today we sell 60 different kinds of mushrooms,” he said. “Same with eggplant. We now have six varieties of eggplant. And bananas. When I was growing up, there was one kind of banana. Now we sell burro bananas, Thai bananas, plantains. Whatever our customers want.”
Bananas, of course, are not grown locally but reflect the far reach of modern-day Russo’s, which has built a reputation by sourcing from the best local, regional, national, and international growers.
This year, Russo’s is marking a centennial of sorts: 100 years, according to family history, since Antonio and Jenny Russo began farming in Watertown. Their grandson Tony, who took over the business from his father in 2002, has witnessed decades of change in the business, as it evolved from a small farm to a wholesale distributor to a neighborhood market on Main Street called Town Garden to the thriving retail business he runs today.
The 15,000-square-foot space on Pleasant Street opened in 1992, its design modeled after the very same building where the Russos’ story began.
“I wanted to recapture the feeling of Faneuil Hall,” Russo said. “I really admired the architecture of those old 19th-century structures where the vendors did wholesale business in the cellar and had retail space on the main floor. And so I asked the architects for brick and wood and steel everywhere, with lots of arches. They thought I was nuts; they were accustomed to designing supermarkets.”
The competition has changed over the decades. In his grandparents’ day; customers who chose Russo’s produce at Quincy Market were comparing it with the offerings from other local farmers in adjoining vendor stalls. In more recent years, Russo’s competition has been mega-supermarkets, starting with Purity Supreme in the 1980s and evolving to Market Basket, Whole Foods, and Wegmans.
But Tony Russo has an advantage now that he never could have anticipated when business was at its most challenging in the 1970s. The trend has turned away from shopping in supermarkets and back to produce grown at local family farms.
Though the Russo family no longer harvests its own gardens, today Russo’s offers goods from farms all over Massachusetts and beyond, many of which Russo has done business with for years: Stonefield Farm in Acton; Four Town Farm in Seekonk; Burnham Farms in East Hartford; Wilson Farm in Lexington; High Lawn Farm in Lee; Outpost Farm in Holliston; and Volante Farms in Needham.
“I look for long-term growers with a commitment to their products,” Russo said. “My grandfather established a legacy as an honest hardworking businessman who cared about the products he sold. We’ve never wavered from that.”
“We’ve done business with Russo’s for 25 years without a single bump in the road,” said Adrian Collins, co-owner of Outpost Farm, which supplies Russo’s with corn, tomatoes, peppers, and other seasonal crops. “That in itself is notable. But what’s also notable is that Tony Russo always returns phone calls. That’s unusual in business these days.”
“There’s a new generation that’s really appreciative and curious about where their food comes from in a way I took for granted growing up,” remarked Tony’s daughter Karen Russo, who along with her sister Christina helps her father with marketing and other aspects of running the business. “I love meeting younger farmers who are focused on bringing in lots of new offerings to their repertoire. Not just tomatoes or eggplants: new items that maybe have not commonly been grown around here in the past.”
Karen Russo cites as an example Clark Farm in Carlisle, where Andrew Rodgers has started growing bitter melon in response to a new wave of interest in this traditional Asian fruit and supplying it to Russo’s. “We have not had a source for bitter melon in years,” Karen Russo said.
“My father still remembers getting deliveries to our old farmstand with a young Tony Russo hanging off the back of the truck,” recalled Teri Volante Boardman, owner of Volante Farms in Needham. “When we can’t grow a certain crop due to climate, such as citrus and tropical fruits, we turn to Russo’s to pick the best from the market and deliver straight to our store. And if we have gaps in any of our own crops, we call Russo’s to see if they have a fresh alternative from another nearby farm so that we can keep that product on the shelf for our customers.”
In addition to welcoming a nonstop stream of customers through the door every day, Russo’s provides produce to local restaurants and has a catering department. But the mainstay of the business today is the retail space, which offers not only fruits and vegetables but also meats, cheese, flowers, baked goods, and specialty pantry items, as well as Christmas trees and other holiday wares.
Lisa Sama grew up in Watertown and remembers visiting Town Garden, the predecessor to the current shop, in the 1970s.
“My mom was from the North End and was accustomed to buying high-quality vegetables from Haymarket,” Sama said. “When she moved to Watertown as a young wife, she was disappointed by the produce at the supermarkets. Finding Town Garden solved that problem, and when Russo’s moved to its current location, she loved it.
“For years she bought her produce there, and then when my father died and she was on her own, she’d buy meals for herself at the prepared foods counter. When she finally moved out of Watertown, she always said that the two things she was sad to leave were her church and Russo’s.”