Jake Gyllenhaal and Russ & Daughters Made the Most Viral Shirt of the Summer
Proceeds from their collaborative lox-colored T-shirt will go to the Independent Restaurant Coalition
The word “unprecedented” gets tossed around a lot these days. But when we’re talking about the ways in which the COVID-19 pandemic has completely decimated the restaurant industry, it’s absolutely warranted. Niki Russ Federman knows — she’s got over a century of family experience to pull from, and as the co-owner of New York’s iconic Russ & Daughters, she’s quick to admit that this is the most trying time in her restaurant’s history.
“This has by far been the toughest challenge Russ & Daughters and my family has faced in 106 years,” she tells InsideHook. “We were started in 1914 by my great-grandfather, so he went through the Spanish Flu. I unfortunately can’t communicate with him about what that was like, but Russ & Daughters has survived that pandemic, multiple World Wars, recessions, depressions, floods, terrorist attacks, and you name it. But this is really unprecedented in its impact and that there is no road map. There’s this abyss of not knowing, right? We’re all experiencing that.”
Russ & Daughters now has half the staff it did before the pandemic, and several of its locations are “essentially shut down,” according to Russ Federman.
“It’s been so hard because we do everything with the goal that Russ & Daughters will be around for another 106 years,” she says. “When the crisis started there in the beginning, we went from thinking about 106 years down the road to not even knowing what the next hour was going to bring.”
Still, despite all the uncertainty, she knows she’s in a better position than most independent restaurant owners. “Restaurants can’t survive on a few tables out front, but we consider ourselves very lucky that Russ & Daughters is not just a restaurant,” she explains. “We have our original 106-year-old shop on the Lower East Side, and we have been shipping around the country for decades now, so we had that in place. We didn’t need to create a whole shipping business out of nothing. That has been huge for us. That is what is carrying us through right now until we can become whole again. I know that in a way we’re in a privileged position compared to our colleagues, our fellow chefs and restaurateurs and bar owners who that’s all they have and can’t be open. So that’s why we felt we wanted to use our position to help the greater effort to help save our industry.”
To do that, they’ve teamed up with one of their most loyal customers, actor Jake Gyllenhaal, to create a special tie-dyed Russ & Daughters T-shirt (lox-colored, naturally) to raise money for the Independent Restaurant Coalition.
“Jake is a longtime Russ & Daughters diehard,” Russ Federman explains. “He comes to the shop, and he sends care packages of our food to people he cares about. He has leisurely meals at our restaurant, and we’ve developed a friendship with him through that. The original shirt was a one-off that he had that we did not make. This guy, Simon Golby, just decided for fun to tie-dye the shirt, and Jake got his hands on it and it became his favorite shirt. Every time he would wear it, we would get all these calls and emails, ‘I don’t see the shirt online. Where do I buy it?’ So we would tell people we don’t actually make this shirt. Then Jake did this viral video that you might have seen where he’s doing this headstand challenge.”
A lot of people saw it. The video became a news story and also got other celebrities in on the act.
“He told me afterwards basically right before he shot the video, he decided, ‘well, if I’m going to do this handstand challenge, I might as well use it as a way to make a bigger message,’” Russ Federman continues. “So he thought, ‘oh, perfect. I’m wearing my favorite Russ & Daughters shirt.’ And at the end of the handstand in the video, he says, ‘Don’t forget to support your local businesses.’ And again, we got flooded with calls and requests for the shirt, and again we said, ‘Sorry, we don’t make the shirt.’”
Trying to run the business in the middle of 2020 was already difficult enough, but Russ Federman started to consider the possibility that maybe making the shirts wasn’t such a bad idea. In the middle of scooping whitefish and slicing lox, they got to work on the shirts. The only thing left to do was try and get their celebrity friend involved.
“I reached out to Jake, and he immediately was on board.”
The limited-edition shirt, which you can buy here, costs $40, and for the next month, 100 percent of the proceeds from it will go to the Independent Restaurant Coalition and their efforts to lobby Congress to pass the RESTAURANTS Act to provide relief to the industry.
“New York City will not be the same if our favorite restaurants go away,” Gyllenhaal said in a statement. “I can’t imagine our city without Russ & Daughters, just the same way countless small restaurants, bars, coffee shops and distilleries across the country form the backbone of their own communities. I’m proud to be working with my friends Niki and Josh to support the Independent Restaurant Coalition and the urgent work they’re doing to make sure Congress takes action to save one of our most essential industries.”
As Russ Federman points out, the need for government intervention to save our restaurants is clear: if passed, it’s estimated that the RESTAURANTS Act’s $210 billion revitalization fund would pay for itself more than double and single-handedly drop the unemployment rate by 2.4 percent.
“What inspired us was the sad truth that unless the restaurant industry receives targeted aid from the government, we are going to lose close to 85 percent of independent restaurants in this country,” she says. “So that’s 500,000 restaurants — and that’s bars, restaurants, food trucks, caterers, et cetera. And in jobs, that’s 16 million people’s jobs, 11 million directly within restaurants and bars, but then another five million up and down the food supply chain. So it’s dire, and I want people to really understand the unique ways that the restaurant industry has been disproportionately decimated by the pandemic.”
Fortunately, so far, the response to the collaboration with Gyllenhaal has been overwhelming. Russ Federman says they sold 1,600 shirts in the first day alone, meaning they raised $45,000 for the non-profit in just a day.
“It’s been huge,” she says. “I think the shirt even in just one day has blown up the way it has because restaurants and bars and neighborhood spots are so important in the fundamental ways that we understand and live our lives, and make meaning of it, and come together, and celebrate different milestones in life, and socialize. They’re the centers of our community not just as social centers, but also as economic centers. Restaurants and bars drive so much of our local economies. So I think people just understand that and want to help. Now we just have to make our leaders in the House, at the very top, understand that as well.”
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