Russo’s International Market, founded by a 20-year-old Italian immigrant in 1905, is celebrating its 112th anniversary this year with a major rebranding effort. Courtesy Russo's International Market
Family-owned grocer G.B. Russo & Son changed its name to Russo’s International Market in an effort to promote its offerings to a generation unfamiliar with the Russo family history.
Founded by 20-year-old Italian immigrant Giovanni Battista “G.B.” Russo in 1905, the market originally named G.B. Russo Importer specializes in fresh and prepared gourmet foods, olives, oils, deli meats, international wine, beer, spirits and kitchenware.
In the past few years, the market has expanded to include catering, wine delivery, custom corporate gifts, in-store beverage tastings, more private-label items, a larger selection of Michigan- and Grand Rapids-made products and more homemade foods, such as sandwiches, dips, sauces and breads.
A host of Italian aromas — most powerfully the scent of sausages — greets customers visiting the 18,000-square-foot store at 2770 29th St. SE.
The market has been especially busy on weekends lately, as it celebrates its 112th anniversary with sales and rebranding promotions from March to May.
Kelley Russo, a fourth-generation employee and great-granddaughter of G.B., said her great-grandfather immigrated to the U.S. at the age of 17 from Montelepre, Sicily.
G.B. decided to start his business after realizing many fellow immigrants were homesick for the food of their homeland.
“He started with the idea of selling Italian and other European items, to ease the people migrating from Italy who wanted their staple foods,” she said. “Three years later, after he saved enough money, he opened the store and moved all the family over to America.
“We were the only ones in town who had their comfort foods.”
Originally located in East Grand Rapids near Reeds Lake, the store moved to South Division and Franklin in what was then the heart of “Little Italy” in 1908. In Russo’s early years, The Black Hand mob plagued G.B. and family, leading him to send two of his daughters back to Sicily for their safety after one was nearly kidnapped. Russo then assisted local police and the courts to resist and prosecute the gang.
G.B. Russo remained in the South Division building — where G.B. also owned a macaroni factory, other retail space, apartments and a dance club called Roma Hall that booked famous performers from B.B. King to James Brown to Mary Wells — until moving to Eastern Avenue near Breton Street in 1967. The market moved to its current location in 1976.
Russo’s changed names in 1916, 1967, 1976 and now 2017, but one thing hasn’t changed, Kelley Russo said: the family’s commitment to serving all customers with kindness and high-quality products.
G.B.’s son, Frank, took over ownership after the death of his father in 1952 and ran the business alongside his sisters, Jennie and Rose.
Following G.B.’s example of kindness and hospitality, Kelley Russo said Frank and his sisters treated their customers like family and gained a reputation as a place where all people were welcome regardless of race or religion.
As the family tells it, during the Grand Rapids race riots in the 1960s, local civil rights activist Jerry Brown told his associates not to harm the Russos’ property because of Brown’s friendship with Frank — even as rioters set fire to all the neighboring properties.
Phil Russo, the market’s current president and co-owner with his brother, Dave, said their philosophy of kindness and compassion began with G.B., and the family still makes it a priority today with their customers and 35 employees.
“(G.B.) made it his mission to serve the community and fed many through the Great Depression regardless of background or race,” he said. “He was an entrepreneur and risk-taker, and in spite of natural disasters, the Great Depression and race riots, the store continued to prosper and expand to make us what we are today.”
That legacy includes the current store, which the family expanded from 10,000 square feet to 18,000 square feet in 2007.
The Business Journal reported at the time that the project included exterior upgrades to the existing façade and renovation of the entire store, parking lot, utilities and landscape.
Kelley Russo, who graduated college with a degree in business and marketing in 2007, jokes that she has been an employee at the market since she was “still in the womb.”
“I’ve worked here my entire life,” she said. “I admired my father for keeping our family tradition alive, and I planned on always being a part of that.”
Russo’s husband, Nate Follett, works as a chef at the market, creating from-scratch meals to sell to-go, as well as for catering.
She said the family soon plans to add e-commerce capability on its website, “but we still want to put the focus on the personal experience with the customer.”
Educating customers, whether via in-store tastings or day-to-day interactions, is one of the things the Russo family believes gives the store longevity.
Along with its online plans, Kelley Russo said the market will be unveiling more new offerings in the coming months that will “have a big impact” on the community it serves.
“Russo’s is here to stay,” she said. “We still get customers coming in and saying, ‘Your store is a family tradition.’ It’s not just about us being a family operation, but it’s about catering to the Grand Rapids community and their families. It’s an honor to be part of their family traditions, as well as our own.”