It’s hard for Gail Guerrero to imagine a life without Russo’s.
“The pasta, the tuna fish, the teriyaki salmon, the ravioli!” she lamented, ticking off a list of her favorite dishes at the venerable grocer. “Oh, the chocolate mousse. The cheeses!”
The Newton resident was one of many longtime customers wandering the aisles of Russo’s market in disbelief this week after learning that the Watertown institution, which has been in business for over 100 years, would be shutting its doors this fall.
Guerrero and her 19-year-old daughter, Millie, went shopping at Russo’s on Monday after they heard the news, and joked sadly that they’d get sandwiches there daily until it closed.
“There is no world without Russo’s,” Guerrero said of her daughter’s experience. “She only knows a world where Russo’s exists.”
But that time will soon come to an end. The site at 560 Pleasant St. is being sold to a developer who is planning to build a lab space in what has become a red-hot market for the biotech industry, according to two people familiar with the deal. Real estate firm Cushman & Wakefield brokered the sale. The Russo family anticipates they will close the store in mid-October and sent a notice to Watertown Town Council last week indicating that 240 workers would be laid off at that time.
Tony Russo, the third-generation owner of the market, spoke briefly with a Globe reporter, saying only that he couldn’t comment on the deal as it has not yet closed.
“It’s too busy to be sad,” he said.
Russo’s started as a family farm and wholesale business in Watertown in 1893, after Tony’s grandfather, Antonio Russo, emigrated from a small village outside Naples, Italy. Tony’s grandparents did all the work on the farm and sold their produce at Faneuil Hall and Quincy Market. As a child, he once asked his grandfather where they used to keep the horses before they sold off part of the farmland. “I was the horse, Tony,’” he recalled his grandfather telling him, in a podcast he recorded with his daughter Karen Russo about the family business. (His grandfather used to pull the plow while his grandmother steered it.)
Eventually, the eldest Russo incorporated the business in 1947 as A. Russo and Sons, and handed it down to Tony’s father, Olgo Russo, and uncle, Gildo. Tony started working in the family business as a child, picking crops and weeding, packing produce, and taking care of the chickens. At age 7, he’d hang out in the greenhouses packing carnations while his father would play a round of cards at the end of a long day.
“I liked being around the guys and I liked the flowers, too, they smelled so great,” he said in the podcast. “I thought it was a privilege to work, I wanted to be like a worker.”
Over time, Tony Russo took on a greater role within the company. When he first got his driver’s license, he started sourcing the produce for the store on Sunday nights, wandering the stalls in Faneuil Hall between 5 p.m. and 1 a.m. “I’d go back and forth between two piles of cabbage and check every box before making my decision,” he recalled. The salesmen used to rib his father about Tony’s painstaking attention to produce.
Today, it’s that dedication and service that leave customers like Guerrero bereft about the store’s closure. “For a lot of people on a budget, it’s a place you can go and get good quality produce and not pay a lot of money,” she said. “Not being able to go there for a long time during the pandemic was devastating. When they opened back up, it was like Christmas.”
Daniel Saldarini of Newton, also at the store Monday, admitted getting “a little weepy” when his mother first texted him with the news the night before.
“It kind of feels like a death in the family,” he said. “My grandparents shopped there, my mom shopped there, and I shop there and I bring my kids there.”
Saldarini remembers trips to Russo’s as a kid. “There was a guy — we called him the melon man — and he used to flirt with my grandmother,” he said. These days he brings his kids for weekend trips, or whenever he gets a craving for lasagna or prosciutto. Now he says he doesn’t know what he’s going to do. “If they knock that place over and put condos up, my head is going to explode. We’re all hoping someone swoops in and buys it,” he said, to keep it open.
But Greg Reibman, the Newton-Needham Regional Chamber president, said that the parcel has been on developers’ radars for some time. It’s situated in a light industrial region of Watertown that has been a hotbed for biotech developers as of late. A parcel right next door at 580 Pleasant St. recently sold to a developer for $21.5 million.
Still, the loss to the region would be immense, Reibman said. Restaurants, farmers, and artisan food makers have all come to rely on Russo’s as a valuable pipeline. “The 360 degrees of what that business offered is irreplaceable,” he said. “There is nothing comparable to Russo’s in this market.”
Remon Karian, owner and president of Fiorella’s Cucina in Newton, has been both a patron and a vendor at the market for decades; Fiorella’s buys all its produce from Russo’s, and the market carried the restaurant’s marinara sauce. Karian said he loved working with likeminded family businesses, and is now scrambling to determine where he will source his supplies.
“We’re neighbors as well as vendors and we’ve been doing business for 20 years,” he said. “My dad knows Tony well and we’ve grown over the years together. It’s devastating.”