As the senior vice president of merchandising and operations for Murray’s Cheese, Steve Millard wears many hats. “I’m responsible for a little bit everything, it seems like,” he told Cheese Connoisseur with a chuckle.
Due to his background as a chef, leadership experience at Whole Foods Market, and a true passion for cheese, Millard is the perfect fit for his role. Cheese Connoisseur recently spoke with him about everything from a life-altering taste of Stilton to what’s next for one of the country’s biggest names in cheese.
CC: What were your earliest experiences with cheese?
SM: I grew up in a town called Newburyport, MA, just shy of the New Hampshire border. My earliest memories are of eating lobsters in the summer, farm fresh corn in August and Kraft Singles on cheese burgers. My early cheese experiences were always of the kind that was in a box, a slice or in a can — not for a want of cheese, but because of what was available at the time. Being in a coastal community, it was easier to get haddock than Havarti.
CC: How did you embark on a career in food?
SM: I started cooking in restaurants while in high school and had the fortune of working for a great chef, Glenn Mayers, when I was 18. He opened my eyes to professional cooking and how chefs can impact a menu and the food they’re producing. He was also an early pioneer in being aware of where his food was coming from. This was in 1987, and the American cheese movement was just getting started. Fresh goat cheese was pretty exotic back then!
After a six-year stint in the Marine Corps, I returned full force into food and went to Johnson & Wales University with the desire to become a chef. My first gig as a chef was at the Doral Golf Resort in Florida, and I was always fascinated by the garde manger station and all the cheeses that went out.
CC: What inspired your transition from working as a chef to working with cheese?
SM: Through a chance conversation with a recruiter, I left hotels and restaurants and joined Whole Foods Market, first as a chef and then as a Specialty Team Leader (the person who runs the department that is primarily cheese, but also includes products like charcuterie, tea and olives). That’s definitely the point at which I went from just living in the kitchen to actually living out on the sales floor and working directly with products and the customer.
CC: Did you have a cheese mentor?
SM: It really was [Whole Foods Market global cheese buyer] Cathy Strange—I worked with Cathy when she just became the national cheese coordinator for Whole Foods. I had a wonderful opportunity to go to France with her for a week to see cheesemakers and understand that side of the business, working directly with producers and farmers.
CC: Was there an “aha” moment when you fell in love with cheese?
SM: Cathy actually put Jason Hinds of [London cheese shop] Neal’s Yard Dairy in touch with me—they were just in the early stages of bringing their cheeses into the United States. So Jason was traveling, and in his carryon luggage was this half a wheel of Colston Bassett Stilton. He said, at that point, “This has been in my bag for about 24 hours,” which probably led to a mystique in my head about why that was such an amazing cheese!
When I tried that piece of Stilton, I was absolutely blown away. It was by far the best cheese I had ever tried at that point. That moment was when I said, “I have to make this a career and pursue cheese and everything that cheese is about.”
CC: How did you come to work at Murray’s Cheese Shop?
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SM: I first met [then-owner] Rob Kaufelt during my days at Whole Foods, when he visited the Union Square Whole Foods Market after it opened. Rob liked to be aware of the competition and was price checking us. At that meeting, he handed me his card and said that if I ever wanted to work at a real cheese shop to give him a call.
I did not give him a call right away. I joined Murray’s Cheese in 2010 as the director of retail for the Bleecker flagship store. My desire was to work for a small retailer where I would have the opportunity to learn all the intricacies of running a store. Working for a large retailer [like Whole Foods], you often don’t get exposed to things like banking, 2 a.m. alarm calls and everything else that comes with running a small business [like Murray’s Cheese]—it was critical for me to dive into that experience and really understand it.
I also wanted the challenge of working one of the busiest cheese counters during the hectic holidays where we work intimately with the customer and cut cheese for them right then, not ahead of time with it is wrapped in plastic. Working for Rob was an amazing experience and one that was both challenging and incredibly fulfilling.
CC: What’s a typical day like in your current role as Murray’s senior vice president of merchandising and operations?
SM: I spend a lot of time on the day-to-day operations of our businesses. Whether that’s in the warehouse, our two stores or the restaurant, it’s a lot of managing by walking around and developing the leaders of those various businesses.
The other side of my time at Murray’s is spent on merchandising: selection, working on the private label products that we have and overseeing a lot of the imports that we’re doing. I do a lot of producer relationship building, so I spend a lot of time visiting makers, going and seeing producers around the world. I’m going to Switzerland in a week to see where our Gruyère is made.
And then in between, there’s a lot of overseeing our food safety and quality assurance and working with our cave master on producing our next new cheese. And just about anything in between. No two days are the same, I can tell you that. My life is constantly in flux.
CC: What’s the background on Murray’s relationship with grocery retailer Kroger?
SM: In 2008, Murray’s opened the first kiosk in a Kroger store in Newport, KY. There were a lot of challenges within that first store, as you would expect. By 2010, when I joined Murray’s, I believe we were up to five stores at that point. And it just started growing organically from there to 50 stores, to 100.
From that initial kiosk there are now 415. There are Murray’s Cheese counters from Anchorage, Alaska to Atlanta and many places in between. In February 2017, Murray’s joined the Kroger family of businesses.
CC: Having a presence in Kroger stores across the country makes Murray’s Cheese visible to a wide range of consumers.
SM: It certainly goes a long way in solidifying our mission statement, which is to be the household name in cheese.
CC: What sets Murray’s apart in the industry?
SM: Murray’s Cheese directly imports most of our European cheese and has done so for at least 15 years. We joined the Cheese Importers Association of America in 2017, and we’ve started importing a selection of wonderful items from Denmark.
CC: Why Denmark?
SM: Everyone’s familiar with Havarti and Danish Blue—we wanted to find some of the small producers that were making really great cheese that we could work with to bring into the United States.
So in the spring of last year, we started importing several different cheeses from all over Denmark. They’re also all made by relatively small producers, they’re organic and they’re really doing some amazing, amazing stuff.
CC: Over the years, Murray’s Cheese has expanded to become much more than a cheese shop.
SM: Murray’s is a very multi-faceted business with a restaurant, a robust education department, wholesale business, e-commerce retail, two flagship stores in New York City, Murray’s brand items, rapidly growing events and catering, and 415 kiosks in Kroger stores around the country. We also operate an affinage program with 20 Cavemaster cheeses that range from the one-year aged Annelies to our washed rind award winner Greensward.
CC: How did the affinage program start?
SM: In 2004, when Murray’s moved to our current location on Bleecker Street, we built four caves in our basement with the help of [renowned affineur] Hervé Mons. It wasn’t until 2012, when we moved our affinage space to our current distribution center, that our program really took off.
Our old model was based more on triage and not so much about affinage. Triage is taking already aged cheese, holding it for a non-specified length of time, and selecting based on ripeness. Affinage was our shift to starting all of our cheese either from a “green” state, or with very little age on these cheeses, and making these cheeses our own, whether through how we washed the cheese to how long we aged the cheese.
CC: In addition to your flagship stores, Murray’s Cheese also operates a New York City restaurant — what can cheese lovers expect to find on the menu?
SM: Murray’s Cheese Bar is a place to go and enjoy a nice glass of wine, hard-to-find local beers, and lots and lots of cheese. From day one, we have had a cheesemonger station as the first thing a guest encounters. While serving the cheese flights, the monger talks to guests about exactlly what is being served.
Our menu changes with the seasons but always has mac ‘n cheese, buffalo cheese curds and our rarebit burger.
CC: Besides selling cheese, Murray’s also offers educational opportunities to your customers.
SM: We do public classes, usually six days a week. Those can be everything from what we call a Cheese 101, which is a sort of introduction into cheese, to pairing classes—we’ve done whiskey and cheese, coffee and cheese, honey and cheese and making Mozzarella.
CC: A hands-on Mozzarella making class sounds fun—does Murray’s offer any other in-depth classes?
SM: Quarterly, we do a three-day intensive boot camp class. You start Friday night and learn everything there is to learn about cheese making, cheese retailing, cheese aging, the science of making cheese as well as eating lots and lots of cheese. What I’ve heard is that they eat about 2 ½ pounds of cheese over two and a half days.
Various people take that class, from people that have been in the cheese industry for awhile and just want a refresher to people who are just getting into the industry and want to know what it’s like to run a cheese business.
CC: When you’re not at work, what do you like to do?
SM: Eat cheese of course! I am a chef at heart and am constantly exploring new restaurants, new foods, other retailers and cooking. Perhaps the greatest thing about being in food retail is that there is no possible way anyone can ever know everything and to that end I am always reading about food, farmers, producers and cheeses.
I joke that people that know me know that I like running, cheese and vinyl. Running is the key to my sanity and what helps me stay focused. I am currently coming off of a couple of years hiatus, but I’ve run several marathons and four ultra-marathons. My longest race was a 50-miler around one of the Finger Lakes. Perhaps my greatest achievement was running the New York City and Philadelphia marathons in a two-week span and at the same finishing time.
CC: We’ve heard that you have a rock collection from places you’ve visited—how did that start?
SM: I love to travel and will always pocket a rock from wherever I am—I have rocks from Nepal; Spain; France; the United Kingdom; Belize; Guatemala; Okinawa; Australia; Italy; and various parts of the United States.
It all started when I visited Georgia O’Keefe’s house in New Mexico. She would go on walks in the desert and collect these beautiful, large, round river rocks, and they lined her studio space. During that trip, my luggage was over the weight limit and the ticket agent literally said, “Do you have rocks in there?”
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CC: What are a few of your favorite cheeses?
SM: This really depends on the season and the reason. My weekend cheese is Comté. My stuck on a deserted island cheese is Ossau-Iraty. My favorite Cheddar is our Stockinghall one-year clothbound Cheddar. Greensward [a collaboration between Murray’s and Jasper Hill] is my cheese that I eat when feeling seductive.
[I like] Challerhocker because Walter Rass is an excellent cheese maker and this cheese is consistently the bomb. Ciresa Taleggio is not only the best Taleggio, it is also a great cheese to spruce up a cheese board with. The cheese I always have in my home is Parmigiano Reggiano, and it is also the cheese, pound for pound, I eat the most of. Jasper Hill’s Bayley Hazen Blue when I want a dessert cheese that tastes like a bacon fudge brownie.
CC: What do you see as new opportunities for Murray’s?
SM: We think there’s a huge amount of opportunity to expand our culinary — what we’re doing at our restaurant. And we’re currently exploring some ideas as to what we can do to blend the two, a restaurant and retail operation.
In the caves, we are constantly looking at doing new cheeses and at new ways of aging cheese. We’re actually in the midst of starting to develop a new cheese. We’re working on initial concepts of a sort of mixed Taleggio that we could make and age in our caves.
I think some people are saying we’re sort of like the Apple of cheese, or I’ve heard the Starbucks of cheese. But even though we are seemingly so large at this point, I think we’re just at the beginning of where we can go.