Murray’s Cheese owner Rob Kaufelt wants to bring quality cheese to the masses. But for a small cheese retailer with two New York shops – one in Greenwich Village and the other in Grand Central Terminal – that dream seemed daunting. So Kaufelt turned to what has long been considered the enemy of small grocers: giant corporate supermarkets. Murray’s Cheese entered into a partnership with Kroger, one of the largest grocery store operators in the world with more than 2,500 locations, to place boutique Murray’s Cheese kiosks in Kroger supermarkets. The program started with three partner locations and has grown to nearly 200 in the past seven years.
The partnership has allowed Murray’s Cheese to retain the intimate, neighborhood feel of a mom-and-pop store while creating a national footprint. In 2015, Murray’s will have opened another 90 Kroger supermarkets, bringing the total to more than 250 locations by year-end. To make those partner locations as successful as possible, Kroger shares its extensive sales data with Murray’s, allowing these cheese specialists to customize which products are available at each store in accordance with local tastes. Kaufelt explains that data is so detailed that Murray’s Cheese management might even know more about the 187 Kroger locations than it does about its own two stores.
Ensuring a steady supply of premium cheeses to stores across the United States is challenging for the small company. To solve the supply problem, Murray’s Cheese has approached local distributors and picks cheeses based on quality and its ability to meet demand.
“It’s all about flavor for us, as well as great ingredients,” Kaufelt says.
Although Kroger supermarkets dot much of the U.S. map, there are a few areas, such as the Northeast, where the grocery chain does not have a presence. Expanding into those markets will require partnering with at least one more grocery conglomerate, a move Kaufelt is considering but is still a ways off from happening.
Blending Old With New
Established in 1940, Murray’s Cheese is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year. Kaufelt, who purchased Murray’s Cheese in the early 1990s, has honored the brand’s long-held tradition of cheese selling and service, while still embracing new ideas. The Kroger partnership is one way Murray’s Cheese has blended the old with the new, but that ideology is reflected elsewhere in the company, as well.
In 2004, Murray’s Cheese constructed cheese caves below its Greenwich Village location. The artificial cheese caves emulate the European caves where many classic cheeses are ripened to perfection in humidity- and temperature-controlled environments designed to foster microbial activity. The Cave Aged program proved to be a hit with customers and in 2013 Murray’s Cheese expanded the caves to its larger production facility in Long Island City.
Those old world traditions are also finding their way into the company’s Kroger kiosks. Murray’s Cheese is working with an architecture and design group to redesign its displays to have lower cases that encourage better customer interaction. With an eye looking forward to new retail sensibilities and back to time-honored tradition, it’s the combination of old and new that has helped the Murray’s Cheese brand to grow.
As the oldest cheese shop in New York City, and therefore an industry leader, Kaufelt believes Murray’s Cheese has a responsibility to educate others on cheese. “We think everybody in the United States should have the opportunity to eat good cheese,” he says. “So any means by which we can communicate what these cheeses are, we’re the ones who take the intimidation out of it.”
Murray’s Cheese has found success in breaking down those barriers to quality cheese through online ordering; “The Murray’s Cheese Handbook,” a guide to more than 300 cheeses authored by Kaufelt; monthly cheese clubs; and in-store cheese classes held at the Greenwich Village shop. The informative and non-intimidating approach has helped grow customers’ appreciation for fine cheeses.
Although cheese classes are not yet consistently held at the Kroger locations, that desire to educate extends to the supermarket staff as well. Any Kroger staff member chosen to run one of the Murray’s Cheese kiosks must travel to New York to go through Cheese 101 training at the original store. During the class, new cheese mongers learn about cheese in depth and discover proper wine pairings. Kaufelt says it also gives the Kroger teams an opportunity to see that Murray’s is more than just a brand name, it is a real store steeped in old world traditions.
Kroger staff members are taught to express their personalities. “When people are unleashed their individuality tends to blossom,” Kaufelt says, adding that customers feed off a good cheese monger’s passion and enthusiasm. Creating cheese experts has been a key component of the Murray’s Cheese and Kroger partnership’s success. “Turns out the rest of the country is a lot more interested in this kind of thing than we would have guessed.”
As part of that effort to improve cheese education, Murray’s Cheese has worked closely with the American Cheese Society (ACS), an organization that promotes and supports American cheeses. As the company and industry has grown, Murray’s has helped the ACS develop a new field of study around the dairy product, similar to a sommelier for wine. That has resulted in a new test for cheese mongers, called the Certified Cheese Professional Exam, to verify their expertise and encourage food industry members to master their knowledge. Those wishing to become a Certified Cheese Professional (CCP) must first complete a four-month training course led by Amanda Parker, a CCP herself, and director of business development at Murray’s Cheese.
Kaufelt plans to take an army of more than 60 employees from his own stores and Kroger kiosks to this year’s Certified Cheese Professional Exam, which is held at the beginning of the annual ACS convention in late July, this year in Providence, R.I. It is the largest group of exam takers Kaufelt has gathered together since testing began in 2012. Those who pass the three-hour exam will join the more than 400 industry members who have already achieved the ACS CCP title. With the number of people holding the designation growing each year, Kaufelt is optimistic about the future of the cheese industry and the high-quality foods it can provide. “Our hope is to eventually have everybody in our field certified,” Kaufelt says.