The Legend & Legacy of Tony Russo and Iconic Russo’s Produce Market in Watertown, MA

By: Patrick Maguire

Book Chapter: Human-to-Human Service

Posted: 09/28/2021

The accolades pouring in for Tony Russo, his family, and legendary Russo’s Market in Watertown, Massachusetts appear very well-deserved. But there is never a shortage of divergent viewpoints, even when a venerable, veteran icon closes out an extremely successful run.

On 8/15/21, via Russo’s Facebook Page:

To Our Devoted and Loyal Customers,⁣

After more than 70 years working for the family business, Tony Russo is retiring. ⁣

Our business will close this fall.⁣

It has been Tony’s privilege to serve our many wholesale and retail customers for seven decades.⁣

Our business began as a small farm in Watertown more than 100 years ago. Every day at Russo’s – while surrounded by fresh produce – Tony is reminded of working alongside his grandparents on the farm and later, of working alongside his father and uncle at their wholesale warehouse. Their work ethic became his inspiration. Throughout the years, Tony has worked in all areas of the retail and wholesale business including trimming vegetables, driving trucks, loading and unloading trailers, putting up wholesale orders, sweeping the floor, buying produce and overseeing the most subtle details of the retail store. At any time, customers can find him involved in the displays of the fruits, vegetables, flowers, bakery, deli, cheese and garden departments. His days begin around 3:30 AM and end after 8 PM.⁣

Tony has treasured watching generations of families shopping together as they choose their first spring vegetable plants, or the first local apples of the season and as they shop for Christmas trees (with classical music playing in the background, of course).⁣

Tony deeply appreciates and will truly miss the employees who have worked everyday, sometimes outside in the harshest of weather conditions. These employees represent the backbone and the energy of the Russo’s environment, and their efforts will never be forgotten. ⁣

We cannot overstate Tony’s dedication to the world of fruits, vegetables and flowers. We also cannot overstate his dedication to Russo’s wonderful employees, customers, growers and suppliers. And we cannot thank Tony enough for what he has brought to so many people’s lives.⁣

Thank you,⁣
Russo’s ⁣

Thousands of comments, the majority laudatory and congratulatory, followed the gush of reporting. Here’s a small sampling of the media coverage:

Boston Globe, 8/23/21. Sheryl Julian, Boston Globe Correspondent and former Globe Food Editor, Dear Tony Russo ‘The author writes a farewell letter to the owner of Russo’s, the 100-year-old Watertown produce market that will close this fall’

“When we met in the late ‘70s, I had just moved back to Watertown (my father was stationed at Watertown Arsenal when I was born) and had switched my allegiance from DeVincent Farms in Waltham, which grew a lot of its own produce in season, to what was then a tiny A. Russo & Sons, never particularly easy to navigate, where the seasonal fruits and vegetables came from farmers and distributors with whom your family had decades-long relationships…

Years ago, when we were chatting between the produce aisles — you always stopped to say hello to customers if you were on the floor — you told me that sometimes you came to work with a blinding headache because you lived on so little sleep. Yet, in all the years I’ve been shopping at your farm stand, I have only seen you very courteous and gracious to everyone. And I’ve noticed many fussy and grumpy customers. Bravo to you for how you handle them. Someone can be berating you for something they bought that wasn’t up to snuff, and Tony, quite frankly, you should give lessons to other customer service reps on how to offer a sincere apology. Even your own staff never learned to finesse that aspect of the business…

Watertown is very different from the place you or I knew decades ago. Developers have probably been after you for years. Although you won’t discuss it, you sold four parcels of land, which included the market, for $36.5 million, according to Massachusetts Land Records. There is some talk in town that the land may become a biolab. I have no doubt you will help the 240 workers who have made the shop hum all these years find their next jobs…

…You’ve been at this for 70 years. Your energy and curiosity and general good will kept the market fresh and new, and all those generations of families returning.

Just one of thousands who are sorry to see you go, Sheryl Julian

WBUR, 8/17/21,  Magdiela Matta‘After A Century In Business, Russo’s In Watertown Will Close’:

“Local shoppers are in disbelief after learning that Watertown’s beloved market, Russo’s, will be closing permanently this fall. Russo’s began as a family farm more than 100 years ago. Tony Russo has worked at the market for more than 70 years and is retiring, according to a company statement…”

Just as shoppers will miss Russo’s, so will the employees. An employee for 14 years, Marvin Rodas, was notified last Friday about the closure. With the community Russo’s has built, Rodas says that “Shoppers know us even by our first names, a lot of people have even left us business cards and encouraged us to apply to other places.”

Mildred Avila , an employee of Russo’s for eight years, says the announcement was a shock to her. She says “Here, no one treats you badly—none of that.  [Tony’s] been a good boss, but he’s getting older now and needs the rest.”

Wicked Local-Watertown Tab, 8/19/21, Joanna K. Tzouvelis: ‘Russo’s property on Pleasant Street in Watertown sells for $36.5 million’:

“Russo’s, 560 Pleasant St., Watertown, in business for 100 years, announced on Aug. 15 they will closing this fall because owner Tony Russo decided to retire after 70 years. According to Massachusetts Land Records, 4.8 acres of property located at 532-542, 550, 560 and 570 Pleasant St. was sold on Aug. 18 to NewTower Trust Company of Bethesda, Maryland for $36.5 million.

More than 230 will be jobless.

Russo sent a letter to the Town Council on Aug. 13 to notify the town under the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification (WARN) Act, and applicable regulations and state obligations, 239 employees will be permanently laid off beginning around Oct. 12 or within two weeks thereafter or later based on business needs and circumstances…

…The letter states, “We are mindful of the difficulties that this closure and layoff poses to employees and the Watertown community, given Russo’s longstanding presence here. Accordingly, we will make efforts to provide as smooth a transition as possible under the circumstances.”

[The final day of business at Russo’s was actually September 18, 2021. And many of the employees interviewed for the news and newspapers were surprised by the announcement. It appears that they did not receive much more notice than the public did.]

Boston Globe, September 19, 2021, Adam Sennott: Customers make one last trip to Russo’s in Watertown

Christopher Walker, 34 of Everett, said he’s been shopping at Russo’s for about eight years and called the market an institution.

“You’re kind of seeing a great thing go, and you have all the nostalgia from all the times you shopped and the great produce and seasonality of it,” Walker said.

“I just feel for all the people who put in, employees wise, put in all that time and effort in, and I feel like they’re the true heartbeat of this institution,” Walker added. “I’m just curious to know what they’re going to do. It seems like it’s very abrupt. [It’s] shocking.”

Most of the praise in the public comments in response to the features covering the closing of Russo’s echoed this one in the Facebook Group, You Know You’re From Watertown, MA If……  [The original post this comment was in response to was simply, 36.5 Million!!?!?!?!!?!! and included a link to this article in Watertown Tab.

Sparsely sprinkled in with the praise, congrats, and well-wishes were jaded criticisms about development, ‘progress,’ (change in general), greed, and the lingering questions, “What will happen to the employees?” “Will they be taken care of, especially the veterans?” “Will they receive a bonus/severance compensation?” I wondered all of those things.

Here are a few more examples of the replies to the Facebook group post:

Nicole Sapienza: “More condos. Watertown is not the close knit community it once was Too bad.”

[I walked Pleasant Street in Watertown on Sunday, 9/26/21. It’s a non-descript, ‘industrial/business’ stretch of road. Not the best location for condos, in my opinion.]

Elisabeth C. Strekalovsky: “I don’t think we need any more science buildings!”

[‘Science buildings’ and labs are shaping up to be the ‘best use’ of land along Pleasant Street, based on the huge Real Estate marketing billboards currently posted there.]

Laureen Pollard: “I just have to say, put yourself in his shoes and were given this much to walk away, tell me you wouldn’t take it!! Give the guy a break! Would most of you walk away from the highest bidder on your house or sell it to someone for half the price? I’m sure you wouldn’t!”

And this was an interesting, creative comment in the group:

In addition to my comment (Patrick Maguire) above, I added another comment to the Facebook thread:

“It’s a wonderful story. I wonder how it will end for the 239ish displaced (especially long-time, loyal) employees.
Usually when a ‘Mom & Pop’ shop closes, amongst the public outcry of, “Just what we needed, more condos or another bank,” I defend the owners for closing ‘on their terms’ and cashing in their de facto (often non-existent) 401k. [This is especially true for operators who were smart and fortunate enough to own the appreciating real estate they worked out of.]

 I’ve read almost every piece (and many of the comments) on Russo’s closing, including the Watertown News article stating, “The Russo’s market property was sold for $36.5 million to NewTower Trust Company, of Bethesda, Md., according to a report on Wicked Local Watertown.”

I’ve also been emailing and texting local friends and journalists wondering if anyone was researching the angle of the story that many people are wondering about–Will Tony take care of his employees (especially the long-time, loyal staff)? It’s a perspective that’s rarely researched and reported on in detail, including interviews with several employees, not just a small sampling of disgruntled ax grinders. I’d love to hear that Russo’s employees were given ample lead time to plan their transition, and told that if they stayed on through closing, they would receive a bonus based on a creative formula of years of service and hours worked. Hopefully, they’ll receive a bonus and transitional assistance, even if they move on before the final day (some won’t be able to wait).” 

Rather than speculate, I decided to ask Tony Russo. I started by sending a message via the ‘contact tab’ on the Russo’s website. The first message I sent on August 31 was quickly confirmed, but went unanswered. I followed up with 4 more messages on the Russo’s website from September 2nd through September 8th. All messages were confirmed via email. Here is confirmation from Russo’s, and a copy of the fifth message I sent on 9/8:

On 9/14, I also mailed a printed, hard-copy of the message above, and called Russo’s.  After identifying myself and asking for Tony, I was sent to his voicemail where I left a detailed message reiterating the info above. I never heard back from Tony or anyone from Russo’s.

This troubling public (albeit anonymous), comment from ‘Fred’ was posted in response to the article by Charlie Breitrose in the Watertown News on 8/20/21:

I am still trying to obtain a copy of the letter sent to the Russo’s staff. I will edit/add it to this blog post if it’s forwarded to me.

How much money is enough?

I once worked for an extremely privileged, silver-spoon wealthy, oblivious company owner who stated in one of our management meetings, “People aren’t motivated by money.” Bullshit. Obviously, respect, trust, gratitude, and company culture (to name a few) are essential components of employee satisfaction and retention, but competitive compensation absolutely plays a critical role in motivating employees.

It’s very refreshing to learn about companies like Gravity Payments, and Chobani ‘sharing the wealth’ with their employees.

CBS News, 9/16/21: CEO on why giving all employees minimum salary of $70,000 still “works” six years later: “Our turnover rate was cut in half”:

It was six years ago when CEO Dan Price raised the salary of everyone at his Seattle-based credit card processing company Gravity Payments to at least $70,000 a year.

Price slashed his own salary by $1 million to be able to give his employees a pay raise. He was hailed a hero by some and met with predictions of bankruptcy from his critics. 

But that has not happened; instead, the company is thriving…

…Price thinks Gravity’s returns are up in large part because bigger paychecks have lead to fiercely loyal employees.

[So much for the old adage, “You can’t ‘buy’ loyalty.” You can reduce ‘owner’ compensation/profit and more equitably incentivize employees.]

NPR, Yuki Noguchi, 4/28/16: ‘Why Chobani Gave Employees A Financial Stake In Company’s Future.’

 It’s been a good week for employees of Chobani. They learned that they could eventually own about 10 percent of the rapidly expanding Greek yogurt company. That could potentially make millionaires of some workers, if the privately held company is sold or goes public…

…Founder Hamdi Ulukaya’s only experience in the dairy business was that his mother made delicious strained yogurt in his hometown in Turkey…

…Ulukaya — still Chobani’s majority owner — told employees on Tuesday to think of the grants as a pledge to expand the company even more.

“We used to work together; now we are partners,” he told workers at the company’s facility in New Berlin, N.Y.

Ulukaya is outspoken about corporate civic duty. Ten percent of Chobani profits go to charity. One-third of its workforce is made up of refugees. And an employee ownership grant was always part of Ulukaya’s dream plan.

…”One of the hardest things to do for a program like this, is when you have 2,000 employees that you want to participate in it, is figuring out that allocation,” Gonda says. “Obviously, time and role at the company have a huge part to play, but this is a very personal part of the process for Hamdi, and he spent a lot of time going through that.”

The company didn’t disclose details about the allocations, but the longest-serving employees received the largest shares.

Which leads us to the question, When companies like Russo’s realize a hard-earned, significant windfall after selling their business, are they ‘morally’ obligated to share a portion of their good fortune with the people who helped them achieve a tremendous outcome? Or is it enough that they provided stable employment, benefits, and more for the duration of the relationship with their employees? In these instances, are employers indebted to compensate loyal, long-term workers anything beyond what they legally ‘owe’ them? I say, yes. Lastly, aside from the local, state, and federal legal requirements, does a privately-held company owe anyone an explanation beyond their employees?

Every situation is unique, and Russo’s is no exception. Without intimate knowledge all of the personal, family, business, and financial circumstances and details behind the scenes, who are we to judge?  I’m just hoping that the ‘lifers’ got a lucrative ‘shot in the arm’ on the way out the door…

One Response to “The Legend & Legacy of Tony Russo and Iconic Russo’s Produce Market in Watertown, MA”

  1. Diane C Wolf says:

    I can totally see myself on both sides of this situation. There were years when I took out personal loans to make sure I could meet payroll at the end of the year at my seasonal restaurant.
    I’ve also locked up on the last day of a business that had liquidated and felt heartbreak for the owners. I’ve also walked away from a successful business that I built with nothing but a sad smile.
    I’ve worked for years and years for places and when I left, it was just a few COBRA payments and the occasional social media affection.

    I like to think, if I got a huge payday, that I’d take care of my crew on the way out the door – but only once I paid off my debts and took care of my family. One can only use conjecture to think that perhaps, if the long-time crew there was truly unhappy, we would have heard about it. Maybe they are playing it close to the vest out of respect.
    It’s hard to know what is the right thing to do here, without seeing every facet of the jewel that was Russo’s. Perhaps we’ll never know.

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