Everybody loves a grilled cheese sandwich, but where can you find a gourmet’s selection of them? At Murray’s Melts, a grilled cheese counter inside Murray’s Cheese shop, which claims to be the oldest cheese shop in New York City. A new concept that Murray’s Cheese is trying three doors down from its original Bleecker Street location is Murray’s Cheese Bar, where some of the hundreds of varieties of cheese it sells can be sampled and consumed on-site with wine and beer.
There’s nothing moldy about the company culture at Murray’s Cheese, especially when employees are hard at work planning for the future. “If it’s not a creative, new, fun or tasty thing, then we don’t like doing the same thing over and over,” President and owner Rob Kaufelt declares. “Our company culture is very innovative.”
Among the new ideas being considered are establishing an app for the cheese shops, offering its in-store cheese classes online, or “things like that that are new and exciting and different,” Kaufelt continues. “Sometimes they work, and sometimes they don’t, but if they sound like they’re fun, they still might work, or at least generate some enthusiasm. If whatever risk we’re taking is unlikely to put us out of business, we’ll often try it. We’re of the ready-fire-aim school.”
Murray’s Cheese was established in 1940 by Murray Greenberg in New York’s Greenwich Village. Kaufelt purchased it in the early 1990s from Louis Tudda – one of Greenberg’s clerks to whom he had sold the store – and began traveling worldwide to bring back cheeses that were new to the United States. The Bleecker Street location has been joined by Murray’s Cheese Bar and a shop in the food market at Grand Central Terminal. In 2011, the company also established a 13,500-square-foot warehouse.
“Virtually everybody that works for me is a cheese specialist, from the buyers to the cheesemongers on the counter,” Kaufelt maintains.
“Employees seek us out – it’s a steady pipeline we have,” he adds. “A lot of times, we’ll get in kids who are out of school – perhaps from culinary school or college – and they’ll go off to work on farms or become cheesemakers. For some of the younger folks, Murray’s might not be a long-term career but an entry-level job into specialty cheese, or at least the food world we inhabit.”
One of the most productive recent initiatives is the establishment of Murray’s Cheese kiosks in more than 75 Kroger stores mostly in the Midwest, West and Mid-South. The kiosks carry 500 cheeses, meats and specialty foods, and plans call for the kiosks to expand to a total of 100 locations by year-end. The team is also working on new ideas for the Kroger stores for the future.
Kaufelt emphasizes that Murray’s is a real brand, not one made up by marketing people, and that Kroger customers can visit the stores when they are in New York. “That works to bring a little more personal feel, a little more passion around the product,” Kaufelt maintains. “People pick up on that. It creates a little more excitement in the Kroger store.” It also improves wine sales in the stores with kiosks, he asserts.
Murray’s Cheese creates its own unique styles of cheese in the five “caves” Kaufelt had built in the cellars below the Greenwich Village location. The five caves can age a total of up to 20,000 pounds of cheese. “We built real caves in the sense of real cheese-aging facilities, with double-poured concrete walls that are insulated to protect changes in temperature, as well as temperature and humidity controls in each cave,” Kaufelt says. “I researched caves in Europe and the U.S. and now, eight years after building the original caves, we are building even bigger caves at our new warehouse.”
In addition to aging and ripening more than half of the cheeses in the Murray’s cheese case, the caves contain a few dozen exclusive varieties that have been specially developed for chefs. “We work with local cheesemakers, and then take a special cheese and wrap it in herbs, or wash it in beer, or use an ingredient supplied by the chef,” Kaufelt explains. “Being chefs, they’re always looking for a way to be the most exclusive, and part of our job is to make them happy. Upping the ante on these cheeses is a slow process for us; it takes a long time and plenty of experimentation. We don’t rush that. If it tastes good, we sell it at retail, but right now it’s a very limited production.”
Murray’s Cheese operates a mail order business that ships nationwide and is experiencing the fastest growth this year of any department, Kaufelt says. The company also sells a growing line of charcuterie – smoked meats such as prosciutto and salami that are cured in European styles – produced with sustainable meats by U.S. food producers. “We are finding new charcuterie suppliers all the time,” Kaufelt says.
Kaufelt expects by next year the Kroger kiosks will be selling many times more cheese than his New York stores and his wholesale division combined. “I think that cheese is having its moment,” Kaufelt says. “It’s happening now, and not that many people know much about cheese. So we’re in a fortunate position to be able to teach them.
“There’s always the concern that something is a fad rather than a trend,” Kaufelt says, adding that there were times when cheese seemed to be in trouble. “When I bought Murray’s 20-some-odd years ago, my dad – who was an old grocer – said that was crazy because cheese was already over in those days. It was over because of fats and cholesterol. Fortunately, that turned out to not be the case.
“But I never had much confidence that this would be a trend instead of a fad,” he confesses. “But now it’s 20-some-odd years later, and I would say cheese is fully ensconced as a real trend, as so many other things have been, whether it’s wine, microbreweries – a lot of things that continually enter the mainstream. I think specialty artisan cheese is just part of a broader food movement.”