After growing and nurturing Murray’s Cheese, Rob Kaufelt steps aside
Big is a small word that succinctly describes the role cheese mecca Murray’s Cheese has played in Rob Kaufelt’s life. The relationship began in 1991 when Kaufelt — badly in need of a job after a failed New Jersey business venture and divorce — moved to Greenwich Village looking to start over. He got his big break when, by chance, he was standing in Murray’s Cheese and learned that New York’s oldest cheese store had recently lost its lease and owner Lou Tudda was thinking of returning to Italy.
Twenty five years later, Kaufelt’s purchase, enhanced by astute vision and tireless efforts, has grown Murray’s Cheese’s revenue to a $250 million national enterprise. According to the Specialty Food Association, these sales represent a big share of the $3.7 billion gourmet cheese market that places cheese at the top of the fast-growing $100 billion artisanal food industry. Along the way, Kaufelt has grown into an important presence in the specialty food industry as an innovative retailer, author of The Murray’s Cheese Handbook, educator and sought-after speaker.
And most recently, this led to big news throughout the cheese industry.
In early February, Kaufelt announced that Cincinnati-based Kroger — the country’s largest traditional supermarket — had purchased Murray’s 2,000-square-foot flagship store at 250-254 Bleecker Street for $20.6 million. In a separate deal, Kroger’s also bought the company’s equity and forged a merger between the two companies. Kaufelt will remain as a strategic adviser, and the store will stay in place while Nick Tranchina, executive vice president, will continue to lead the Murray’s Cheese team in New York. He will report to Daniel Hammer, Kroger’s vice president of culinary development and deli/bakery merchandising.
The partnership between the supermarket chain and Murray’s began in 2005, when Kroger’s then vice president of deli and bakery, Margaret McClure, approached Kaufelt about working together to develop a broader market for cheeses and charcuterie across the country. After taking a few years to strategize how to duplicate the New York stores’ experience and the staff’s expertise to “bring the neighborhood across the country,” Kaufelt accepted the offer. Donald Becker, the company’s late corporate vice president, then set the relationship in motion.
What began with the first kiosks in 2008 blossomed to where today there is a Murray’s presence in 350 Kroger stores across the country, including those under the Ralphs, King Sooper, Fred Meyer, QFC and City Market names. Ironically, there is no Kroger presence in New York City.
Although the kiosks carry the Murray’s name, it is Kroger employees personally selected by each store’s manager for their passion for cheese and enthusiasm who communicate with customers. The number of cheeses in each location is selected by the store and varies widely, depending on the available space within the cheese shop itself. Some have around 100 cheeses, while the Bleecker Street store can carry up to 400 at peak times of the year. About 60 percent are domestic, with imported cheeses mainly from European countries, but this mix also changes throughout the year.
In its close to eight decades, Murray’s has become an icon and must-visit stop for cheese devotees. But early on, cheese wasn’t the primary focus. The store’s original owner, Murray Greenberg, was an Eastern European immigrant and veteran of the Spanish Civil War, who opened his store at 42 Cornelia Street in New York City in 1940. He stocked general foodstuffs like butter, eggs and cheese typically in big hunks. In an era when business was often cash only, the savvy Greenberg had a knack for buying and selling advantageously — including trimming and repurposing products on the edge of viability — and the business prospered.
When Greenberg retired in 1970, he sold the store to his longtime clerk, Lou Tudda, an Italian immigrant. By this time, the neighborhood was primarily Italian and Tudda featured Mediterranean provisions like vinegar, olive oil and cured meats, along with cheeses, to suit his clients’ tastes. Then his lease expired and Tudda was thinking about moving to Calabria.
It seemed to be his destiny to become a part of this thriving business, since Kaufelt was literally born into the grocery business. His Polish grandfather, Irving Kaufelt, immigrated to the United States in 1914 and opened Felt Brothers Fancy Groceries in Perth Amboy, NJ in the 1920s. In the late 1940s, Kaufelt’s parents, Stanley and Florence, convinced his father to shutter the store and buy a 6,000-square-foot supermarket in North Brunswick. The larger market concept was rapidly expanding to include health and beauty aids and photo development, along with pre-sliced meats and cheeses and salad bars. Mayfair Supermarkets eventually grew to include 30 stores.
Two years after graduating from Cornell University, Kaufelt joined the family business in 1971. He saw an opportunity for the retailer to distinguish itself and pushed for innovations in the growing area of prepared foods, fresh fish displayed European-style on ice and sales of artisanal products like pastas. He also felt that good service and the quality of food were as important as convenience and quantity. As president for a few years, he felt constrained by his father, who didn’t share his views, so he left in 1985.
When he opened his two full-service gourmet stores in Summit and Princeton, NJ, he named them Kaufelt’s Fancy Groceries in homage to his grandfather. But unfortunately the business climate in the late 80s was challenging. When the Princeton store failed, he sold Summit and left. In the process, Kaufelt discovered his passion for cheese.
Shortly after moving to Cornelia Street, Kaufelt walked into Murray’s and overheard that fateful conversation. Using the capital from selling his second store, he quickly negotiated a deal with Tudda, who he convinced to stay on for a while, and began his climb back up. The staff also included a Dominican counterman named Emilio and Frank Meliak, a local Maltese high school student who was a stock boy and made deliveries for the store at the time Kaufelt bought it. Before retiring more than 25 years later, Meliak had become the vice president of operations. He also represented Murray’s in the International Best Cheese Monger contest in Lyons, France, in 2008 and 2012. Murray’s has dozens of cheesemongers in New York and thousands in their Kroger locations.
Throughout the 90s, Kaufelt worked behind the counter and did whatever it took to succeed. While expanding his knowledge of cheese, he also explored creative merchandising ideas like having his staff share the romance and journey of each cheese to help customers better appreciate what makes it unique and, borrowing a page from Grandpa Irving, he offered them samples. He also stocked products like homemade preserves purposefully chosen to pair with cheese.
By the end of the decade, business was growing and Kaufelt knew he needed to travel to develop a closer relationship with international cheesemakers and to bring fine artisanal products directly from these artisans and farmers to Americans. He says New Yorkers first bought Spanish Idiazabal and Manchego, now household staples, at Murray’s. Along with familiar and lesser known cheeses from Italy, France, Spain, Great Britain and Switzerland, he ventured further afield.
As for some of the weirdest or more exotic cheeses he’s tasted, he says, “Casu marzu, a Sardinian sheep cheese that includes maggot larvae, is always fun; yak cheese from Afghanistan? Not so much fun. Breast milk cheese from France is an urban cheese myth and camel cheese is not recommended.”
A Big Step Forward
In 2002, the expansion of food purveyors at Grand Central Terminal led Murray’s to open its second location. A charcuterie, Murray’s Real Salami, followed in 2008; the two merged two years later to become Murray’s second flagship store. Like the Greenwich Village original, it grew to include a cheese-centric restaurant and wine bar.
Meanwhile, by 2004, the Greenwich Village store was beyond crammed full of hundreds of small and large pyramids, wheels and logs of cheese, sometimes teetering precariously. So, for the second time in its existence, Murray’s Cheese moved across Bleecker Street to number 254. With more than twice the space, the emporium included more dairy products, charcuterie, specialty foods, cheese-based take out foods and a yogurt bar.
Upstairs in the new education department is where thousands of classes and special events have been held, including a popular three-day Cheese U Boot Camp and 90-minute participation evenings where cheese is paired with beer, whiskey or chocolate truffles. “Originally, Kroger’s main interest in us was teaching their sales staff and customers about cheese. And Murray’s is all about education,” says Kaufelt. The store’s most popular class is still Rob’s Cheese 101, where typically participants have a tasting of seven families of cheese — from fresh to bloomy to blue and everything in between — along with unlimited house sparkling and red wine
This focus on education led to Murray’s Red Jacket or Certified Cheese Professional (CCP) program. “Now, besides chefs and sommeliers, there is a new career path for people with a passion for cheese,” says Kaufelt with pride. Participants take several classes and must pass a rigorous test from the American Cheese Society. “Of the more than 3,000 attendees who have gone through the training, hundreds of New York and Kroger staff are certified CCPs.”
Below ground, three rooms for aging and storage were added, plus a window in the sidewalk where customers could look down from the street to see the cheeses. The caves became a very big deal for chefs of A-list restaurants like Jean Georges in New York. Eventually, they outgrew the Bleecker Street caves space and moved to a large warehouse in Long Island City, where they finish their own cheeses and those from other cheesemakers, as well. It’s a boon for small farms that would otherwise not have the necessary space. Murray’s customers include the best restaurants across the country. The former caves were turned into walk-in coolers.
In their new space, Peter Jenkelunas, an affineur or cave manager who closely monitors the aging process, works in a state-of-the art environment of strictly controlled humidity and temperature to ensure cheeses are ripened to perfection. Greensward, one of the Murray’s proprietary cheeses, is a pasteurized cow’s milk cheese first created in a secret partnership with Jasper Hill Farm of Greensboro, VT, for Eleven Madison Park in New York City. The cheese was recognized as an Industry Best by the American Cheese Society in 2016 at its annual awards presentation, and was also acknowledged as number one in the Washed Rind Cheese category and took third place in the Best of Show category.
Another major improvement was building a proper kitchen for the company’s catering department, which led to developing an on-site prepared foods program. “In 2009, we instituted Murray’s Melts — the world’s best grilled cheese sandwiches served all day — and, in 2012, we opened Murray’s Cheese Bar nearby at 264 Bleecker,” described by some food lovers as a shrine to cheese, says Kaufelt. The selection varies according to the seasons, as cheeses can be affected by factors like the kind of grass the cow or other animal eats, how much humidity is in the air, and the time of year. On average, there might be cheeses from 15 different countries, but this changes all the time.
The State Of The Industry
Kaufelt sees more commendable American cheeses today as part of a steady trend he noticed in his 25 years at Murray’s. “It started in a few places like Northern California and Vermont. At this point, however, it’s everywhere,” says Kaufelt. “One of our main accomplishments is that because we have so many stores throughout the country, many artisanal cheeses have a local outlet beyond what was previously available to them. Cheesemakers need an outlet to survive. With educated professionals, the chances are much greater that they can make a proper living from what they are passionate about.”
At the 2016 World Cheese Awards in San Sebastian, Spain, Michigan cheesemakers Anne and John Hoyt of Leelanau Cheese Co. recently won a Super Gold award for their Raclette. The competition included more than 3,000 cheeses from around the globe. The only other American cheese on the list of the 66 World’s Best Cheeses was Harbison from Jasper Hill Farm.
When asked about the timing of the sale, Kaufelt answers wryly, “Well, Kroger wanted to buy it. With Murray’s in hundreds of Krogers locations, I realized I’d taken the store much further than I’d ever anticipated. It’s taken on a new life and so it’s a good time to exit. Besides, it’s the opportunity of a lifetime.” While the terms of the property sale are public, the rest of the deal is not.
Clearly one compelling reason for the exit is that Kaufelt and his wife, Nina Planck, have three young kids at home: 10-year-old Julian and seven-year-old twins Jacob and Rose. Planck, a celebrated journalist and author of The Real Food cookbook, originally came to New York to be the executive director of the New York City green markets. Some of her recipes are used for Murrays’ prepared foods.
The couple now divides their time between a recently restored townhouse in Greenwich Village and their 18th century farmhouse in Stockton, NJ. Kaufelt laughs when he says he never expected to be having mature conversations with their wise-beyond-their-years kids, recounting a recent one about the taste properties of a certain cheese.
He says he enjoys cheese at any time of the day. Standards in the refrigerator typically include raw milk Cheddar, Parmigiano Reggiano, a blue and a goat cheese. For parties, there’s usually a triple crème. These days, he adds, it’s more often sliced cheeses for his kids’ sandwiches and, of course, Mozzarella.
As for his favorite, Kaufelt reveals that “as a kid, cream cheese was my favorite…and it still is. Nina recently made banana bread and spread it with Ben’s Cream Cheese.” The tangy, dense, all-natural product is made without stabilizers and gums and is sold at Murray’s. It harkens back to earlier days on East Houston Street when immigrant peddlers sold bagels, pickles and knishes in the neighborhood. “Now that’s a high-level food experience,” says Kaufelt.
Of the people who played important roles in his career, Rob mentions two — Gerd Stern, the first president of the American Cheese Society in the ‘80s, and Kroger’s Don Becker, who became a close colleague. Stanley Kaufelt once asked his son rather scornfully if he could make a living at “just selling cheese,” referring to his plans to buy Murray’s. Recently, he said he was very proud of him.
In a Crain’s New York Business article, writer Richard Morgan wrote that Kaufelt transformed Murray’s into “America’s Apple Store of Fromage.” Now it seems the seeds of Murray’s orchard will blossom across the country.