The oldest cheese shop in town has two establishments in New York City, with the main store on Bleeker Street and a smaller one in Grand Central Terminal. Thanks to Murray’s cheese seminars, over the decades New Yorkers have been taught to love blue cheese, cheese rinds, and goat milk.
As a kid I wanted to be a rock ‘n roll star, then an architect. Certainly never a cheesemaker.
Rob Kaufelt tells us how he became the cheese mogul from Greenwich Village almost by accident. For a long time, he did not have any great affinity to cheese and certainly did not plan to become the successful cheese entrepreneur he is today. Slow as his passion for cheese was to start developing, it has grown steadily since then.
Rob grew up in the grocery business. After school he used to work in the family store – part of a small retail chain in New Jersey. His father, Stanley Kaufelt, was convinced that there was no future anymore in grocery retailing and sold the family supermarket business in 1995.
I have very romanticized memories of my grandfather’s store.
After several years Rob moved to Greenwich Village and bought Murray's Cheese. Kaufelt loved his new neighborhood from the start. Authors, artists, actors, and a great number of life-embracing Italians lived in New York’s “little village.” The numerous small shops were full of life and contained a wealth of unusual food products. In the sidewalk cafes people joked and laughed, a joy for life was palpable, everybody was full of drive and passion. Of course, nobody had any money, but the mood in the Village was vibrant.
Close to his apartment there was a little grocery with an even smaller dairy counter. Initially established in 1940 by Murray Greenberg, a Jewish veteran from the Spanish Civil war, it had been sold to Murray’s longtime employee Louis Tudda, an Italian immigrant from Calabria, in the 70s.
One day, as Kaufelt was shopping at Murray’s, he heard that the shop’s lease had been terminated and that Louis planned to wind down the business. After spending 39 years in the trade, he wanted to go home to Calabria. He missed his country. Something in Kaufelt’s mind went “click,” and, on the spur of the moment, he said: “I’ll buy the shop off you!” Which is how Kaufelt ended up taking over Murray’s and reopening on Bleeker Street.
At that point I was just hoping to get a living out of it and be able to pay the rent. I had no further ambitions whatsoever.
It made him feel good to continue running the small shop that was already a neighborhood institution. Back then, Murray’s was already selling a couple of cheeses from Italy, but the store was better known for its fresh butter, eggs, and other comestibles.
It was the time when many of his customers started travelling to Europe – to France, Spain, Italy – and discovered cheeses there that they could not find anywhere once they got back to New York. To Rob the solution was clear. This was his opportunity! He would expand his cheese range. And so he travelled to Europe to track down the best cheeses for his store. He got more and more involved in the world of cheese, discovered the finesses; soon Murray’s boasted a respectable and, for New York, sizeable selection of cheeses.
At the outset, however, matters did not proceed according to plan. Only a few of his customers were interested in buying the new stinky and soft cheeses. Which is why Rob Kaufelt started teaching his customers about the world of cheese. By permanently offering new cheeses for tasting and giving cheese seminars, he is personally responsible for converting a multitude of New Yorkers into cheese lovers over the past decades.
During these last few years, the selection and quality of American cheeses has increased substantially, and the number of cheese lovers, also in the U.S., has grown exponentially. Retail sellers like Murray’s and Bedford as well as restaurants such as Artisanal have contributed to evermore customers discovering that there is a whole new cheese universe waiting to be discovered beyond the worlds of “Mozzarella” and “Swiss.”
We grew very organically. One thing just kind of led to another.
Today Murray’s Cheese is much more than just a shop in Greenwich Village. They also run one of the most successful online-shops for cheese nationwide, they have a second store at Grand Central Station, they continue to offer cheese seminars, and they are one of the major cheese suppliers of prestigious restaurants and hotels. A wonderful and gratifying success story for Rob Kaufelt you would be inclined to think. And, were this not an American tale, this is where it would surely end.
However, Kaufelt’s newest project is a partnership with supermarket chain Kroger who, with a turnover of $82 billion, is one of the nation’s largest grocery retailers. In the next few months, up to 50 small “Murray’s Cheese” kiosks will open in the supermarkets.
The “New York Times” compared the partnership with that of Daimler and Chrysler, though the cooperation between Kroger and Murray’s is more promising. The first joint shop-in-shops have started exceptionally successfully.
My employees think I’m nuts. I think they’re probably right.
Kaufelt considers it essential that, despite the massive scale of operations, his stringent quality demands be kept up. Naturally he is convinced that this is doable, and the initial success seems to be proving him right.
Kroger’s employees operating the kiosks have been trained in cheese lore for several months in order to meet these quality demands. They have had to work their way through a 300-page manual, and every single employee has been sent to visit the Bleeker Street premises personally so as to be able to experience the ambience for themselves.
There’s still a large number of cheeses we don’t have on offer because their storage is too complicated. But I’m sure we’ll eventually find a solution for that too.
To our question as to why he is putting himself through all this, despite already having a very successful career. Rob, for the first time, seems to be at loss for words. Or maybe a little irritated. “Yes, why? Why would I want to grow? Why would I want to set something new in motion? Why would I want to discover new things and provide new challenges for my employees?” Probably the kind of a question that one should not put to a New Yorker.
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