J. Russel Bouws, founder, began operating his first restaurant in 1934 at twenty years of age. It was this year that his fatherpurchased "Doc's Barbeque" on Chicago Drive in Holland, Michigan for him to run. When Russ graduated from Zeeland High School in 1932, his dream was to be a farmer. Had his egg business been profitable, he may never have gotten into the restaurant business. Due to the depression, eggs were selling for 12 cents a dozen, pork and beef for 8 cents a pound, and corn for 53 cents a bushel.
The first Russ' Restaurant
"Doc's Barbeque", a 12' x 16' wood structure included a three burner gas plate, a 12 inch skillet, a kitchen table and five chairs, a Heatrolla and a small sign for "Curb Service". They purchased all this for $147.00. The land was leased from John Zoerhof, owner of the gas station next door, for two meals a day. Soon after taking over, Russ and his father, John Bouws, added a 6 foot by 16 foot kitchen and a small bedroom in the rear of the building so Russ could sleep at the restaurant to ward off break-ins.
The kitchen assembly line
At first sales ran from $4 to $7 a day, but in April 1935, Russ grossed $197 and the business was paid for with money in the bank to spare! Russ' sister-in-law, Metta, helped out and soon Russ' brother, Gord, came around to help with dishes and odd jobs. By 1937, Russ had met his future wife, Julia Klinge, and soon she too was helping out! In 1940 they married and built their new home across the street from the restaurant.
Along with the original equipment purchased was an old hang on tray. Russ' inspired tray service in the area, which soon became very popular. The trials of walking through puddles while balancing a tray on a windy night as car lights blinked and horns honked can only be appreciated by members of that era.
Russ' Restaurant in 1956
As the years progressed, the war ended and business was booming, expansion and enlargement became almosts a yearly ritual with Russ' Restaurants. Russ' sons, John and Bryan, joined the operations of the business in 1965. The first Russ' Restaurant in another community was built in Muskegon. Russ' Restaurants now has numerous restaurants, a Commissary division, and a Corporate Office.
In 1968 Howard De Haan began pursuing his lifelong dream of owning his own business. While continuing to work full time at Keebler Co. in Chicago, Howard started negotiating with Russ Bouws for the Franchise rights to Russ' Restaurants in the Kent County area. This negotiating and planning involved countless weekend trips between Chicago and Holland during the two years prior to the 28th Street restaurant's opening in 1970.
Russ' East 28th st. in 1970
Whether you eat at a Russ' Restaurant in Holland or Grand Rapids or any of the chain's locations, the food should have the same homemade taste. The task of maintaining Russ' "homemade-goodness" reputation falls to employees at the chain's sprawling commissary in Holland Township.
The First Commissary
The 28,000 square foot commissary, in the Northside Industrial Center, turns out all the chain's soups, desserts, dressings, and gravies. Russ' Commissary also prepares its own croutons, muffins, dinner rolls, buns, bread, cinnamon rolls, and pig in the blankets. In addition, commissary workers bread a number of menu items, like mushrooms and fish, and they process some of the meats for the chain's sandwiches and salads under a U.S.D.A. Inspector's watchful eye. The commissary is also used as a storage and distribution center for bulk foods that are delivered to all the restaurants.
When asked "Why are you so successful?" Russ would answer, "We love our work, we love our people and God has blessed us throughout all these years." J. Russel Bouws died August 18, 1992 leaving a heritage that will be remembered for a long time. Sons, John and Bryan say, "We are deeply appreciative of the vision, humility, compassion and faith that marked his life." Russ' maintains the tradition of service, quality, consistency, friendliness and cleanliness throughout Western Michigan yet today.
J. Russel Bouws