By Caroline Benveniste
Most West Villagers were quite surprised to hear that Murray’s Cheese had been sold. And many were not familiar with the buyer, Kroger, as it is not a household name in New York. Kroger was started in 1883 as a single grocery store in Cincinnati by Barney Kroger, and is now a chain of over 2,700 stores in 35 states. (The closest Kroger is located in Virginia.) Kroger has used mergers to successfully expand, so its purchase of Murray’s is not an unusual move for the company. About 10 years ago, Kroger started opening little Murray’s Cheese shops in some of its stores. In 2012, it purchased a minority interest in Murray’s and, today, the number of these satellite stores stands at 350.
It might seem strange to think of a Murray’s inside a supermarket, however, it is less strange when you understand that Kroger stores range in size from 76,000 square feet to 161,000 square feet; a large New York City supermarket like Brooklyn Fare within the Archive building is only around 12,000 square feet. Therefore, Murray’s easily fits within the larger Kroger store dimensions.
The question that West Villagers are asking is whether this purchase would mean any change to the Murray’s flagship on Bleecker Street. According to Katie Kirby, the Director of Marketing at Murray’s, it will not, other than perhaps allowing Kroger to leverage its immense buying power to lower prices somewhat.
Murray’s Cheese opened at 42 Cornelia Street in 1940 and was more of a grocery store than a cheese shop. The owner and founder was Murray Greenberg, a Jewish immigrant from Europe. In 1970, Greenberg sold the store to one of his employees, Louis Tudda, an Italian immigrant. Under his stewardship, Murray’s morphed into an Italian specialty food shop; it fit in well with its Italian neighbors on Bleecker Street such as Faicco’s, Ottomanelli’s, Zito’s and Pasticceria Rocco. When I moved to the Village in the mid-1980s, I quickly found Murray’s and shopped there often. The store was small and pungent, with cramped aisles and cheap cheeses. It was a fun place to shop. Rob Kaufelt must have felt the same way. The story goes that, as he was shopping at Murray’s, he overheard Tudda saying that he had lost his lease. This led Kaufelt to buy Murray’s, and in 1991, the store moved around the corner to Bleecker and Cornelia Streets.
Under Kaufelt, the character of Murray’s Cheese changed. The store became focused on cheese, with an emphasis on unusual and lesser-known varieties. As the quality and selection improved, the prices increased. Murray’s was doing well with this new paradigm, and in 2000, Kaufelt opened a second store in Grand Central. When the Bleecker Street lease expired, the store moved to its current location at 254 Bleecker Street. In 2014, it expanded into the adjacent space in the same building. Today, the store has classrooms and a counter, which sells some cooked items, including New York City’s best bacon, egg, and cheese sandwich containing oozy Italian fontina. There are also caves for aging cheese in the basement, but much of the affinage now takes place at a larger facility in Long Island City, which opened in 2013.
As part of the sale, Kroger acquired the building which houses Murray’s (and Amy’s Bread as well). After experiences with losing two leases, Rob Kaufelt was smart enough to purchase the building. The one piece of the Murray’s empire, which was not sold to Kroger is Murray’s Cheese Bar at 264 Bleecker Street. So, whatever happens at the store, you will still be able to get the Cheese Bar’s excellent fondue, which scored the number five spot on Grub Street’s 2017 list of “The Absolute Best Fondue in New York.”