BYRON TOWNSHIP, Mich. (WOOD) — A well-known name in Grand Rapids groceries is returning after a four-year hiatus with a new store at Tanger Outlets south of the city.
As guests walk into the new Russo’s Italian Market and Wine Bar, located in the entertainment district of the mall across from 5 Lakes Brew Pub, they will be greeted by a mural that will depict the family’s history. To the left will be a restaurant and to the right a market and deli.
One of the focuses will be the wine bar, said CEO Greg Russo, who is taking over for his dad John Russo. Along with full hot meals like spaghetti and meatballs or sandwiches, there will be lots of appetizers and sharable plates to pair with wines.
“A lot of people are intimidated by wine in general. They think, ‘Well, I don’t know anything, so I don’t even want to try it,'” he said.
The family will be there to help educate guests.
“We do a lot of educating to the public because people want to learn about the wines and the different kinds of food,” John Russo said. “Here, they’ll be able to try it in the restaurant, but if they want to cook it at home, we got the ingredients on the shelf, they can take it with them and we’ll have a lot of really great lines.”
Along with Italian food, there will also be some Middle Eastern and Greek dishes.
“We like to have fun. We really want to change it up as the seasons and weeks, months go by; have specials on the menu,” Greg Russo said.
The new Russo’s location is set to open up sometime this summer.
“The Russo family has been a well-known provisioner of Italian and Mediterranean cuisine in western Michigan since the late 1800s, and we are thrilled to welcome Russo’s Italian Market & Wine Bar as the latest food offering at Tanger Outlets Grand Rapids,” Tanger Outlets Grand Rapids Marketing Director Ashli Schoonmaker said in a release. “We’re confident our shoppers will find plenty of delicious eats and treats among the shop’s extensive selection of authentic, fresh foods and specialty market items.”
CENTURIES OF SERVICE
John Russo said they have traced their family through the generations back to the 1700s in Sicily, where the family was already working in the food and wine industry. The family started immigrating to Grand Rapids in the late 1800s and his grandfather arrived in 1902 at age 17. His siblings and parents followed suit soon after.
The family ran kiosks near a furniture factory, offering Italian food to the immigrant workers.
“So they’d have a taste of home because … they were young guys that were alone. They didn’t have family (in America),” John Russo said.
The family has had several iterations of Russo’s throughout the years, first at a space on Reed’s Lake and then in a large building at the corner of Division Avenue and Franklin Street, now Martin Luther King Jr. Street.
They operated an Italian grocery store there for almost a century. It had an event space on the upper floor, where weddings were held and musicians entertained crowds — Nat King Cole performed there, John Russo said.
The family claims creation of the first fast-food pizzeria in the area, with John Russo saying his grandfather started it in a building connected to the grocery store.
“That’s what started the whole pizza industry here in the area,” he said.
In 1967, the family moved the retail portion to a building on Eastern Avenue near Burton Street. They soon outgrew that and built a larger store on 29th Street.
John Russo’s two brothers eventually took ownership of the grocery store and he left to start a Carrettino Italian Market, which he ran for five years. Phil and Dave Russo retired and closed Russo’s International Market in 2019 after serving West Michigan for almost 115 years.
When John Russo closed Carrettino Italian Market, he started looking for a new location. The family and their realtor, John Russo’s cousin, looked at several locations before things worked out at Tanger.
“We were just thrilled to be able to come in here,” John Russo said.
A FAMILY AFFAIR
For Greg Russo and his siblings, Dominic, Gina and Mike, starting the new Russo’s location means going back to their roots.
“We’re very passionate about the business,” he said. “It’s in our blood. Can’t get away from it.”
Greg Russo said he’s excited to bring his son into the family business.
“(To) bring that to a sixth generation is exciting to me,” Greg Russo said.
Four of John Russo’s five kids are involved, as are three grandkids.
“It’s something we were born with. It’s a joke, but it’s true — the minute we learn how to walk, they put an apron on you, put you to work,” John Russo said. “One of the nice things about owning a small business is you can keep your family together and you teach them life skills and how to make a living and it keeps them out of trouble.”
Dominic Russo, the vice president of the company, said he is excited to rebuild the family’s brand.
“I’ve grown up with it … it’s something I’ve been very passionate about,” Dominic Russo said. “Rebuilding the brands, like bringing back Russo’s, it’s something that I’ve been wanting to do since I started in school.”
Some of the vendors the family works with has been passed through the generations, too, as the kids of vendors John Russo used to do business with are starting to do business with his kids.
“We’ve had relationships with some of the best vendors for generations,” John Russo said.
Most of their suppliers are family-owned farmers, artists and producers, he said.
‘IT’S GOING TO BE FUN’
Since the announcement that Russo’s is coming back, thousands of people have responded, John Russo said, saying the community response has been “fabulous.”
“We’re still getting calls,” he said. “Everybody was waiting for us to come back.”
The family said they will have lots of surprises for customers and will host fun activities and events, in coordination with 5 Lakes Brew Pub.
“For Tanger, this is the entertainment district. So we’re going to keep everybody entertained,” John Russo said with a laugh.
“Get ready. It’s going to be fun,” Greg Russo said.