What our day schools can learn from a 70-something Italian grocer

If you live anywhere near the Boston area, or have friends in the area, you may have heard the hue and cry sparked by the announcement that Russo’s, a beloved wholesale and retail grocer, is closing. Many locals have shed actual tears upon learning this news. Stories about the store have been featured in all major local papers, on local news, and even NPR did a national spot about it.

One could ask, “What on earth could be so special about a grocery store?” There are many reasons Russo’s was so beloved, and we in the Jewish day school community could learn valuable lessons from Tony Russo, the proprietor. 

Lesson Number 1: Be creative and be able to pivot all the time (not just during COVID).

Russo’s started over 100 years ago as a family business. At first it was a farm, but as the area became more and more urban, Tony decided that a wholesale grocery was far more profitable. After that, he realized that many local residents missed buying direct from the old farm stand — so he opened a retail store too. It took some vision and creativity to do both wholesale and retail, but by thinking out of the box and being willing to take a risk, Tony built two successful revenue streams. Our schools need to be able to pivot and think creatively as well. Of course, serving our students comes first, but there are other things the schools could be doing — after-school for wider audiences, Sunday sports, extracurricular Jewish learning for non-day school kids, camps, adult education, etc. 

Lesson Number 2: Know how to attract people.

After Russo’s opened the retail side, the locals still missed other things about the actual farm stand. So, Tony added seasonal plants and flowers, as well as pumpkins in the fall, Christmas trees in the winter (these Jewish girls are really going to miss the smell of pine when buying potatoes for latkes) etc. These were a big draw, although not the most profitable aspects of the business. Our schools need to hire talented, effective, and creative marketing professionals who know their local market and to figure out how best to draw prospective families in. Understanding your market — especially as it shifts — and marketing creatively and consistently are not “nice to haves,” they are must haves.

Lesson Number 3: Be passionate about your product.

One of the joys of Russo’s was being greeted by Tony and having him show you all the wonderful things that had come in. “You HAVE to see the tomatoes that we got today! They are like art!” “Have you ever seen flowers so beautiful?” “Just smell that rosemary!” We need to be our own biggest cheerleaders, and everyone, from senior leadership to faculty and staff, to parents and students, need to be authentic, positive and passionate advocates for our schools. This may require skill building training and providing ongoing talking points for consistent positive messages. Organizing, informing and energizing our biggest fans is vital to create the culture we desire. 

Lesson Number 4: Keep what is core and what people love but change to address the needs of your customers.

At first, Russo’s catered to the mostly Italian community in Watertown, and yes, one could always find three different kinds of eggplant, the very best Italian olive oil or imported pasta. But as the population changed, so did the stock.  More recently, as the immigrant community grew, one could find every type of Asian green, rice wine vinegar and South American fruit. Our schools need to examine and cater to the Jewish educational needs of a changing Jewish community while holding on to Jewish values and traditions. 

Lesson Number 5: Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name, and they’re always glad you came.  

The changes made to accommodate customers from different ethnic and religious communities made everyone feel welcomed at Russo’s. The incredible staff there – from Tony Russo himself down to produce stockers and cashiers were trained to make you feel valued and comfortable, and got to know their repeat customers. It evoked such a sense of warmth and belonging that people would go out of their way for one item rather than grab it at a closer supermarket. Our schools should feel like the home away from home within our communities. They need to create that sense of belonging for all prospective and current students and families.  

Lesson Number 6: Give customers the very best quality at the best price possible. 

No examples needed. Granted, our schools are not grocers. But we need to do our best to keep tuition as low as possible to not price families out, while maintaining excellent programs and facilities. This means our schools need to collaborate with others to realize efficiencies of scale and build robust development operations and endowments. 

Lesson Number 7: It’s all about the community.

The best part of Russo’s was that you always ran into someone you knew. Or met someone new. Conversations started with strangers over unusual vegetables “How do you use that — could you share a recipe?” Pre-holiday shopping was the very best — you could get in as many “Shanah Tovah” greetings at Russo’s as you could at your synagogue. And this, of course, is what made Tony, and the rest of us, so very happy to be there. Our schools must not operate as siloed educational institutions. They must be able to take their place as Jewish communal institutions, a place of connection not just for their students, but for the families, and the Jewish community at large. Schools must also work across the Jewish community with other organizations to address communal needs and seize opportunities to bring Jewish educational excellence and joyful Judaism to life. 

Tony Russo reportedly sold his land and building for north of $30 million. He probably won’t be looking for a new job. However, we can all be inspired by Tony and emulate his perseverance, nimbleness, creativity, passion, customer-centricity, inclusivity, and community-mindedness for our schools.

Lisa Coll, MA, MPP is a freelance nonprofit consultant and an active lay leader for both Jewish and secular institutions, and is particularly interested in serving Jewish day schools.  She currently sits on the board of Prizmah: Center for Jewish Day Schools. Lisa can be reached at lisacoll@comcast.net

Nanette Fridman, MPP, JD, is founder and president of Fridman Strategies Inc., a consulting firm specializing in strategic planning, financial resource development, governance and leadership coaching for mission driven organizations and leaders. She is the author of two books about governance. Nanette can be reached at fridmanstrategies@gmail.com.

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