Rob Kaufelt, owner of Murray's Cheese in New York City's Greenwich Village, became a cheese mogul "semi by "accident." He claims he had no intention to create one of the world’s cheese havens or to bring excellent cheese to the masses, but that’s exactly what he’s done. And along that journey, he’s grown passionate about his mission.
Kaufelt grew up in the grocery business. After college, he came home to work for his family’s small retail food chain in New Jersey. When Kaufelt needed a change, he moved to Greenwich Village and "set out on my own to find something more interesting and exciting."
Down the street from Kaufelt’s apartment was a cheese shop. Murray Greenberg, a Jewish veteran of the Spanish Civil War, had opened the Cornelia Street Wholesale Dairy Outlet in 1940. In the 70s he sold the shop to his clerk, Louis Tudda, an immigrant from Calabria, Italy. When Kaufelt first visited the store, Louis was wrapping up his 39th year in food retailing.
Kaufelt loved his new neighborhood. There were writers, artists, actors, and old Italian guys. "Everyone did cool things." The streets and shops buzzed; it was a world apart from suburban New Jersey. But Kaufelt needed to pay his rent. One day he went to pick up some cheese at Murray’s and learned the store was losing its lease and going out of business. A light went on for Kaufelt: "I’ll buy it!" Louis Tudda went home to Italy, and Kaufelt moved Murray’s to Bleeker Street.
Kaufelt hoped he could make a living and pay rent; "I had no expectations about the rest of it." He knew quite a lot about the grocery business, but his father chastised him for his brazen decision. It was the 90s, the height of the fat-fearing era, and here he was peddling mozzarella and mascarpone. Who would want cheese?
"Fortunately, he was wrong," Kaufelt says. Kaufelt loved the shop right away. He would "look out the window and see the passing parade" that was Greenwich Village. As a kid, he sat on the stoop of his grandfather’s old shop in New Jersey. Kaufelt had always been "enamored by mom and pops. I didn’t like the idea that they were all going out of business." He felt good to be doing something about it—rescuing a neighborhood icon.
When Kaufelt bought Murray’s, the Village was just beginning a food renaissance. Mario Batali had opened his first restaurant, Po, across the street. Pearl Oyster Bar and Home came to the block. Home was one of the first places to "do the new American thing—reinvent meatloaf in a new, interesting way. All these talented people on a single block on Cornelia Street. And we still had time to hang out."
It was the perfect incubator for Kaufelt to get excited about cheese. They had some "great Italian cheeses, small purveyors giving us cool things," but he went out in search of cheese from Portugal, Spain, and France. Steven Jenkins, then from Dean & Deluca, would come by and help out and talk cheese. Max McCalman, who started one of the first serious restaurant cheese programs at Picholine, stopped in weekly, sometimes more, to chat and to taste the newest creamy or stinky or nutty find. At first, no one was interested in the new American cheeses they were starting to stock.
But something changed; cheese caught on. Soon, the selections were flying off the shelves. People were suddenly interested in what was local, artisanal, or just really good. Almost 20 years later, Murray’s is New York City’s foremost destination for cheese. The store had no small part in helping the city and the country discover, or rediscover, great cheese.
Now Murray’s has a thriving mail-order business, supplies restaurants around the country with serious cheese, and hosts cheese workshops—the classes sell out every night. Last year Kaufelt opened Murray’s Real Salami in Grand Central Station. It is "to cooked and cured meats what Murray's Cheese is to dairy: a shop where you can learn about, taste and buy the best artisan-made meats sourced from conscientious farmers and producers."
Kaufelt’s strategy has been to "patch things together until we figured out what to do." They needed a Web site, so they made one. The guiding force behind their patchwork growth has been "how do we reflect the store, what and who we are." They opened up cheese caves across the street so they could age their own cheeses. They have a second company that finds and imports cheeses from around the world.
The latest, biggest project is a partnership with the Kroger supermarket chain. There are plans to open 50 small Murray’s Cheese kiosks inside their grocery stores; seven are up and running so far.
Big chains seem decidedly un-Murray’s, whose ethos is all about the personal neighborhood shop. But Kaufelt is excited about the huge opportunity. "Why should people across this land eat all this processed stuff?" Good cheese is hard to find, and people are "ready for it," hungry for it. With more leverage, Kaufelt can import more and better product at more affordable prices. What’s good for cheese is good for Kaufelt. And, Kaufelt believes, what’s good for cheese is good for the world.