35 MIN READ
Ben Greenberg /
The Love Affair with Murray’s Cheese
35 MIN READ
The island becomes visible as I make my way across the industrial wastelands and transit arteries spanning the distance between Newark and The City. I am exhausted from an early rise, a missed flight, and the general drain one feels from sitting cramped on an airplane when one stands six foot three inches tall. I have been in the tristate area for thirty minutes, and my cabbie has already fleeced me out of $20 claiming that the tolls had gone up (I find out later that this is a common ruse); but when the buildings come into focus, all of them standing shoulder to shoulder like soldiers at attention, I feel in my gut a roller coaster rush of emotion equal parts nostalgia and anticipation.
In the opening scene of Woody Allen’s Manhattan, the main character types the first few lines of his novel as iconic black and white shots of New York City appear and disappear. He edits and re-edits the words as he reads them aloud: “Chapter one. ‘He adored New York City. He idolized it all out of proportion.’ Uh, no, make that: ‘He, he… romanticized it all out of proportion. Now… to him… no matter what the season was, this was still a town that existed in black and white and pulsated to the great tunes of George Gershwin.’ Ahhh, no, let me start this over.”
Until recently, I never realized how much that opening sequence serves as a metaphor for the city; a city defined by rapid movement and constant change, yet one that has held onto its identity since Ellis Island opened its doors to the tired, hungry, and poor. Spiraling glass structures mingle with pre-war brick and flourished facades, yellow taxis dart in between Ubers and Teslas, and the next important restaurant opens behind a one-hundred-year-old pizza joint. The city re-writes itself over and over again, both reflecting the world’s desires and defining them. I ask Amanda Parker and Lizzie Werber, two dedicated soldiers of the Murray’s Cheese army, to describe New York and they confirm this feeling that New York is a moving target, an identity projected.
But I’m not in New York to wax philosophical. I’m in New York to learn about cheese. More specifically, I’m here to learn about Murray’s Cheese and the curious relationship between the boutique cheese shop and our namesake grocer. Perhaps you’ve noticed their counters at your local Kroger or Kroger-operated grocery stores bursting with pops of yellow and red, with the words ‘Murray’s Cheese’ scrawled in their signature cursive across inviting banners? Perhaps you’ve noticed that the associates working behind those counters don spiffy red jackets? And if you’ve purchased cheese from these people, then you know how serious they are about the product, how knowledgeable they are about the various types and flavors and consistencies. “What a lovely experience,” you say as you leave with three different cheese varieties you never knew existed, a jar of fig jam to pair with the savories, and a delightful package of baked crackers to complete the bite. This is no accident. In fact, the experience you had with that cheese master, and they are truly masters, is the result of 76 years of refinement, and thousands more in the development of the craft of cheesemaking and cheese mongering.
As I write, there are 331 Murray’s counters across the US. It is possible that by the time you read this, there will be one hundred more (there are 354 now).
How did this come to pass? How did a vintage Greenwich Village staple like Murray’s Cheese pull off such a wildly ambitious project? That’s what I’m in New York to figure out.
The Murray’s headquarters sits in a nondescript building in the neighborhood of Long Island City. A tourist visiting New York would have no reason to visit this Queens hamlet, but many of the cultural staples they enjoy were, and are, created here. Wikipedia tells me that housed in a former Long Island City industrial bakery is the television production studio responsible for NBC’s 30 Rock and HBO’s Sex and the City; a fact that might lead us to conclude that New York’s most popular contemporary export has become The City itself. But cut a route through the center of this enclave of enterprise and you will not think much has changed from the days of American-made-everything.
Steam rises from buildings in the early spring chill as delivery trucks beeline for destinations unknown. Warehouses stow their wares, kitchen supply superstores wash used steel tops on the sidewalks and we pull up to a clean brick building with a giant sign letting us know that “This is Murray’s Cheese.” Just about every week, sometimes twice in one week, a new team of Kroger (and affiliated) associates and store managers arrive in The City for Murray’s Orientation. It is a whirlwind introduction to what could become their life’s work. A crash course in history, production, tasting, merchandising and sales techniques, the participants are asked to come prepared to open themselves up to an entirely new experience. I have arrived a day ahead of the orientation for a rare tour of Murray’s very own cheese caves housed in their Long Island City headquarters. It is somewhat unusual for a cheese retailer in the U.S. to own and operate a cheese cave. The practice of aging and refining cheese in highly controlled environments is called affinage, from the French word, affiner, to refine. Carefully chosen fresh cheeses, from producers all over the world, are delivered to Murray’s to receive the Midas touch of cave-aging. Murray’s began the practice in 2004 beneath their Bleecker Street location and has since expanded the program to this production facility in Long Island City.
After introductions and brief conversation, my guides take me down to the concrete bowels housing the almighty cheese caves. Outside of the caves, in a small dressing room/staging area, I meet the Zen Cave Master, PJ. He possesses the rare chill that tends to define people who make things that take time, like Japanese katana swords or cabinets or cheese. The group agrees that of all the professional titles one could hold, “Cave Master,” must be somewhere near the top.
PJ instructs us on the proper order and method of suiting up for the cave. First, you have to grab a hair net and put it on, then you take your shoes off and slip on rubber boots that would be perfect for fly fishing. After slipping on white lab coats, we wade through a special bath for disinfecting the boots. Thankfully, there are no pictures of me in this ridiculous getup. Only after touching all of the necessary garments are you allowed to wash your hands. This is because cheese is alive. It is breathing and growing; its tiny pores are constantly grabbing up whatever molecules happen to be in the air. This is why it is essential that PJ and his crew maintain laboratory conditions in the caves. As I will learn, every change in temperature, even changes in where the cheeses sit in the caves, can and does affect the outcome and flavor.
The caves, which are essentially temperature and humidity-controlled ventilated cells made from porous concrete, flank a bustling basement of activity where cheeses are being wrapped, labeled, and boxed. Immediately, we notice the temperature and sound. The radio is tuned into top 40 hip-hop as a monstrous HVAC unit hums out frigid waves of air. The first room PJ takes us into is called, “the drying room.” This is the first stop for fresh cheeses undergoing the aging process. Staying for about two to five days, the drying room’s low humidity and mild temperatures of around sixty degrees allow the cheese to begin growing a rind. To cheese makers, rind is God: it is the protector, the source, the beginning, and the end. There are tiny universes of microflora—the mold and bacteria responsible for creating the delicious flavors of cheese—constructing the soft and rigid barriers between the paste and the rest of the world.
From the drying room, PJ guides us through the four staples of cave-aging: the washed rind cave, the bloomy rind cave, the natural rind cave, and the alpine cave. Each is dialed into a highly specific temperature and humidity level. Each contains fans and humidifiers and racks of cheeses blooming and blossoming in their concrete gardens. The alpine room, with its wooden racks and giant wheels of heavy cheese, brings to mind rolling fields and cowbells and wooden shoes. If you want to know more about this intricate process, take a look at Murray’s Website, which has an incredibly informative page about their cave-aging program: http://www.murrayscheese.com/cheese-caves
Our tour through the caves serves as an excellent introduction to the business of selling cheese: old meets new, slow meets fast, nose meets smell. After the tour, we head back up to the office where, to my delight, several of the Cave Master Reserve products we have just observed in their elements are laying out with knives and crackers at the ready. Associate Director of Buying, Walshe Birney, talks us through each one with studied detail and genuine affection. We dive into a rich Valencay from the Loire Valley. It tastes of farmland and smoke. It is the best piece of cheese I have ever had and the first of hundreds of bites of cheese I will take over the next few days.
Over bites of goat and bleu, we come back to Kroger. How did this happen? What is the superhero origin story? Lizzie and Amanda are well-versed in both the facts and the lore. Legend has it that two members of the Kroger brass, and we’re talking major brass, came into the Bleecker Street store and asked to speak with then-owner, Rob Kaufelt. They were there to inquire about a deal that would put Murray’s counters in grocery stores across the country. Kaufelt kindly and swiftly escorted them to the door with a smile and a “no thanks.” As the story goes, they returned a second time with the same request, to which Mr. Kaufelt, a seasoned veteran in the grocery industry in his own right, once again refused. Finally, on the third visit, either having been charmed by their persistency, or after an expensive leak in the Bleecker Street basement (depending on who you ask), they talked numbers. They made a deal. They started small.
For Lizzie and Amanda, Murray’s is essentially a place where stories are told, where experiences are had. Amanda explains, “we do something really simple, but really well. We educate people, not just on high-quality cheese, but on high-quality food, and how these things can make our lives better, can make us happier.”
And that’s just a small part of what makes the Kroger connection so successful. “If you think about it, it’s a really funny match, but it makes sense. Murray’s is this small shop, but in many ways has a big reputation as a culinary institution, and Kroger is this big grocery store with a reputation for the kind of customer service you get from a small shop.”
So, what makes a Murray’s so unique? Day two begins to reveal answers to this question. We meet Lizzie in front of one of the most quintessentially New York places, Grand Central Station, to visit their second location in New York City. There is nothing I could write about Grand Central Station that will be in any way original. I will just say that when you enter the cavernous Main Concourse, you are forced to stop and look up. You are forced to contemplate everyone who has and will pass through its interiors, all the people doing all the things. You think about your past and your future, and you feel both very small and very large at the same time. And then you get hungry. And that’s why there’s an exquisite food hall just around the corner.
The Red Jacketed Cheese Monger manning Murray’s Grand Central location is unnaturally energetic for someone who has been awake since before sunrise. We talk to Adam Goddu about his background in theater and how that has helped him considerably in his current role. He talks about how he likes the slower hours of the day when he can talk with customers about what they like and steer them in the direction of cheeses he thinks they will dig. This is one of the single most important aspects of Murray’s. Cheese Masters and Red Jackets (I’ll get into the subtle differences) must be able to talk to anyone, from any background. They must be able to help the uninitiated find something unexpected, and they must be able to help connoisseurs find something that will remind them why they keep coming back. Our friend at Grand Central tastes us through a few of his favorites, including the delectable Challerhocker (pronounced, holler-hocker), a silky but dense cheese from Walter Räss, master cheese maker from Switzerland, which tastes of nuts and cured meat with a bit of caramel sweetness.
Next, we go to the main event, the beating heart of the Murray’s universe: 254 Bleecker Street. Not the original site of Murray Greenberg’s 1940 Greenwich Village egg and dairy shop, but quite literally across the street. Murray’s in Greenwich Village is a miniature mecca for gourmets, foodies, and turophiles. The store is a symphony for the senses, every surface covered in something tantalizing. White subway tiled walls hold endless wooden shelves of delectable edibles. Words and phrases written in bright red are plastered all throughout the store, gifting you the vocabulary of flavor and consistency: gooey, funky, tart, rich, delicate, pungent. There are olives and pickles and jams. There are infused oils and canned seafood. There are crackers and bread of various shapes and sizes, with various herbs and fruits embedded in them. Craft beer, cider, and soda call to you with filigreed labels and sumptuous descriptions. But center stage is reserved for the counter.
The counter experience is as New York as it gets. Take a number, wait for it to be called and when you finally get that precious face time, you better be ready to move with the master. One second you’re standing there not really sure what you’re doing, and the next you’re swept into the monger’s world, a swirling daydream of salami and soppressata, of manchego and triple crème. They know how to listen, but equally, maybe more so, they know how to talk. One cheese master, who looks like he’s been around, wears a sign on his coat that says, “I can’t hear you when you yell at my back.” The brutal honesty of a New Yorker combines with the charisma of a classic deli to create an experience anyone can enjoy. Taste a little, talk a little, buy a lot. That’s what I witness again and again as I stand by the counter watching the masters at work.
After soaking up the store, Lizzie takes us next door to the latest jewel in Murray’s crown, Murray’s Cheese Bar, a small bistro which serves flights of cheeses as well as a full menu. Again, I am introduced to dairy-obsessed professionals who take what they do very seriously. There is a strong theme of gratitude throughout the Murray’s organization. From the mongers who have been with Rob since he took over in the 90s to the director of the restaurant’s cheese-flight program, the people who work for Murray’s feel lucky to be doing what they’re doing. They feel a spiritual connection to cheese, and they want to spread the word. They feel like they are part of a tradition that is both a New York tradition as well as an ancient tradition of stewarding this living, breathing culinary delight from inception to plate to mouth to brain.
It’s around this time, after endless bites of cheese, after endless smiles and conversations with the most excited-about-cheese people I’ve ever met, that the truly extraordinary nature of the Kroger/Murray’s partnership hits me. What a monumental task it must be to take team after team of Kroger associates and indoctrinate them into this strange and funky world so much so that they are ready to go back home and spread the gospel of gouda. But that’s what they’ve done. Hundreds of times. And it all starts at the Cheese Bar.
Around 6:30 in the evening, a group of trainees begin to file in, blinking and looking around as if to say, “this is all new to me.” Their drawls reveal that they are from somewhere south of the Mason-Dixon Line, which I later learn includes parts of Tennessee and Mississippi. Murray’s education coordinator, Christine Clark, stands up and welcomes the group to town with gusto. Bryan Bland, Murray’s regional manager of merchandising, follows the opening act with his own words of encouragement, asking the group to open their hearts and minds, to bottle up this experience and take sips from that bottle when they’re back in their home divisions, bringing Murray’s to life. I assumed that most of the people going through orientation were future cheese masters and Red Jackets, but in fact many of the folks I meet are store managers all the way up to division leaders. This is because, as I learn, the Murray’s approach to grocery management is quite different than Kroger’s. Orientation is the beginning of a many-months-long process of what equates to, for many Kroger associates, downloading a new operating system, one that looks and feels quite different from what they’re used to. Both organizations have learned over the course of their partnership that for it to work, associates need to understand the meaning behind the brand, the secret sauce that has made them successful in New York, and that can make them successful anywhere.
After the opening speeches, slabs of slate holding slivers of cheese and accompanying nuts and jams and fruits and honey arrive at the tables. Many of the associates and managers admit that this is the first time they are tasting cheese that doesn’t come in shrink-wrapped plastic. They tell me this is just not what they grew up with, not what they know. Looks of hesitation followed by ‘oh-what-the-hell’ shrugs spread throughout the room as the team tastes through, from “mild to wild,” a range of Murray’s standbys like Greensward, the washed rind Murray’s original that was recently named the 3rd best cheese in the country by the American Cheese Society. Out come wine and fried chicken and greens and macaroni and, yes, cheese and everyone is settled in, basking in the glow of New York hospitality. Everyone sleeps well that night, even through that familiar pang of excitement one feels before the first day of school.
The next morning we gather in the second-floor classroom of Murray’s Bleecker Street, a room they use for their very popular cheese-tasting and cheese pairing classes as well as for continuing education for staff. This morning, the room is full of new friends, faces fresh from hot coffee and hotel bathrooms. As we take our seats, Amanda Parker takes the stage and welcomes the Kroger team to Murray’s. She speaks with confidence, like maybe she’s done this one hundred times before, like maybe she knows that this is going to work, that these people are going to get it. She talks about the history of the Murray’s/Kroger partnership, the mingling of two souls that somehow understand one another, learn from one another. She talks about how through attention and flexibility and repetition, they too will carry on the tradition of selling good cheese to anyone interested enough to ask simple questions.
After Amanda’s enthusiastic welcome, we are braced for the Rob Kaufelt experience. The inveterate former owner’s slot on the agenda reads, “History of Murray’s Cheese,” but it might as well read “Rob’s Personal Philosophy and Approach to Life.” Lizzie explains to me that Rob set a tone around Murray’s that someone might call, dedicated informality. Rob floats into the room a few minutes late still wearing shades to block out the bright morning’s sun. He’s in his late 60s, but he looks like he could at any moment launch into the entire Rolling Stones back catalog. His jeans and hooded sweatshirt mark him as a man who knows who he is and who he is not. He speaks about former owners Murray Greenberg and Louis Tudda, names that roll off his tongue like characters in a Scorsese film. He tells us about his childhood spent in the back of his family’s grocery store, about careers that happened and didn’t happen, about personal success and failure. He holds the room in rapt attention for the better part of an hour, concluding his talk with the legend of Murray’s and Kroger. He tells Lizzie and Amanda’s favorite story about how he spoke to a group of suited analysts and investors at the New York Stock Exchange during Kroger’s annual investor meeting in a pair of ripped jeans. As he puts it, he told them how little they knew about Kroger’s innovative spirit; a company with the chutzpah to partner with cheese-nerds on a mission. The very next day, as the legend goes, the stock price shot up.
We meet with Rob one-on-one to get more of his story, and he delights us with wit and wisdom. He’s the kind of person whose affection you seek. He’s equal parts East Village bohemian, trend-setting foodie, and shrewd business operator. He meanders between these roles like a figure skater, carving stories into lessons, explaining that Kroger has learned as much from Murray’s as Murray’s has from Kroger.
Back in the classroom, we’re again assaulted with dark gray slates of cheeses: Murray’s Double Crème brie, Vermont Creamery Goat Log, Murray’s Young Manchego, Murray’s Estate Gouda, and Cambozola Black Label. I write “assaulted” with a bit of sarcasm but, for me, this plate represents the first ‘bridge too far.’ Let it be known: I am a cheese lover through and through, but the week I spent with Murray’s put that love to the test. I was forced to reckon with the question, how much cheese is too much cheese? My new friends at Murray’s do not believe there is an answer to this question. For me though, the orientation becomes all the more fascinating as I watch the newcomers taste.
Education Coordinator Christine Clark leads us through Cheese 101. She begins with the fundamental question: what is cheese? We learn that cheese represents infinite permutations from the simple combination of four ingredients: milk, rennet, salt and cultures – as well as time. We learn about the different animals from which dairy is produced: cow, goat, sheep, and water buffalo. We learn of the various types of starter bacterium for culturing milk, how rennet works to coagulate the liquid to form a custard-like mass, and how then the curds and whey are heated until firm and then drained of whey. Christine explains how the curd can be handled in different ways to create different flavors and consistencies, how salting is used at this stage, how curds are pressed and formed. And then, of course, there’s time: the final ingredient that cures the cheese and fully develops flavor and texture.
Now we are ready to once again taste. As Christine explains, a truly effective cheese plate is laid out from ‘mild to wild,’ with the mild and familiar flavors to your left and the stranger, danker, funkier fromage to your right. With each bite, she asks us to close our eyes and think of the foods we know that correspond to the flavor of the cheese. Maybe this one tastes a bit like apples? Maybe this one tastes a bit like bacon? Maybe this one tastes a bit like dirty socks? I watch as the faces tell me whether or not the bite is a hit or miss.
Christine explains that no one is going to like everything and that’s ok, this is not about making people feel ashamed for disliking funky cheese. This is about telling yourself that you will taste everything, that you will know every product. So when a customer asks, you can answer honestly, “you know what, this isn’t for me, but people who love it say it reminds them of a farmyard and tastes grassy with a hint of lemon.”
And everyone indulges her, everyone tastes with open minds. A few are surprised by the bleu because it’s not pungent and sour like they remember, rather it’s supple and delicate, with just a hint of funk. Next, Christine explains how food pairings work with three easy-to-remember expressions: opposites attract, like with like, or what grows together goes together. All of the participants are familiar with ‘sweet and savory’ flavor profiles, but few have experiences with gooey salty cheese and dense sweet jam. All are delighted. All understand.
Cheese 101 is the intro course. For associates heading home to bring their Murray’s counters to life, they have their work cut out for them. Many will go for Red Jacket certification, a rigorous examination that tests acuity in cheese science, history, product variety, and sourcing. This is distinct from Cheese Master, which is the title given to the lead personnel who manage the counters. But for today, Christine is happy to see nodding heads and smiling faces. I finish my plate slowly as orientation moves to merchandising principles and standards, a brief window into what makes Murray’s shops so visually appealing. Like art installations, merchandising is about grabbing the eye and creating desire. Items must be organized and clean, but they must tell a story. They must stand out and sing as if they had microphones. As I listen to the lesson in visual marketing, I slowly finish my cheese plate and prepare for lunch: pizza.
Heavy with a morning’s worth of knowledge and cheese, we are ready to get up and get moving. There is no better neighborhood for walking than Greenwich Village. Murray’s splits us up into tour groups, ours led by Bryan Bland. Bryan is not only a cheese master and a Red Jacket, but he has a thorough command of the neighborhood’s history. He walks us around the storied blocks describing the cultural landscape of early-century Manhattan, its shops and tenements teeming with immigrants of all stripes, selling all manner of perishable and nonperishable goods, and how that neighborhood became the Village of Walt Whitman, and later John Coltrane, and later Bob Dylan, and later Rob Kaufelt. We finish our tour at John’s, the graffiti-laden traditional New York pizzeria that remains steadfastly itself as the rest of the neighborhood changes rapidly. I sit with a few of my new friends from Memphis and talk about barbecue and music. Overwhelmed, maybe they are a bit, but more so they’re intrigued by the Murray’s rabbit hole and look forward to climbing farther into its depths. Dire Straits’ Sultans of Swing plays on the jukebox as we sip ice cold Coke and down slices of piping hot pepperoni and sausage.
After lunch, it’s back to business, beginning with a test. The Murray’s team shows the Kroger associates images of product displays and asks them ‘what’s wrong with this picture.’ This is a shared language. Kroger people acutely understand product display theory and answer with aplomb. After the test, another topic Kroger people know a thing or two about: the customer experience. But here’s where things are different. Murray’s is all about opening a dialogue and tasting cheese. That is not something Kroger associates are necessarily used to. As Lizzie puts it, “the concept that, hey, it’s ok to eat the food you sell, actually, it’s more than ok, it’s mandatory, is extremely foreign and takes some getting used to.” This is the portion of the day where we descend the steps from the second floor to watch the masters at work behind the counter. We observe how they interact with each customer, drawing from their inviting spirit and honest deference. All of this is introduced, reinforced, and reinforced again. That is the theme: reinforcement. It’s the simplest equation: the more you do something, the better you become at it, like making cheese, like selling cheese, like telling a story. The customer service exercise comes to a close, the Kroger associates are pulled into a “Merchandising and Hiring Review,” and finally the day ends with the very exciting “Paperwork Review,” reminding us that, yes, this is still a business and a serious one at that.
The final day includes a product selection presentation from Walshe, a marketing presentation from Lizzie, a “Site Survey Guide,” a final spin around the store and an orientation wrap up. It’s a quick half day; the end of the beginning.
As I say goodbye to new friends, I take a breath and hold my stomach, churning with piles of dairy. These men and women will return to their stores and prepare for the next phase: theory to practice. With help from Murray’s, they will figure out what works in their market. At the very beginning of the week, Amanda explained that this whole thing isn’t about forcing fancy, stinky cheese on unwitting newbies, it’s about guiding people into the world of cheese, figuring out what their tastes and predilections are, and then landing on a few items that will delight them, and maybe a few that they’ll be surprised they like. It’s not just about selling fake post cards to New York, it’s about inviting people who are bored or tired or perfectly content in their shopping experiences to try something new, something honest, something dare I say, authentic, an overused word that Murray’s earns through dedication to craft and attention to detail and all the unknowable things that cause the passerby to stop and look and desire.
Sitting in the back of a cab to JFK, I think about the microscopic world of bacteria coursing through curds in a Long Island City basement, the thousands of years of trial and error that give us these gleaming laboratories of dairy delight. I think about Rob and his attitude of “let’s just do it, but let’s do it really well.” I think of Kroger, its 25-story headquarters casting a shadow over my four-story Italianate apartment building. Big and small, old and new, we are all tumbling toward oblivion, but little things like good cheese and long stories keep us firmly planted in the present.
I learn that almost every time a Murray’s counter opens in a Kroger or Kroger-operated supermarket, the entire store does better and I’m not surprised. Like New York, Kroger’s change is constant. Like Kroger, New York remains essentially the same. Those things that make them both who they are, those beautiful things that we love about them, their honesty, their quality, their attention to our desires, deepen with age. Like wine. Like cheese. Like life.
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