Is the legend of Murray’s Cheese only a myth?
For the past two decades, Murray’s Cheese has been Manhattan’s cheese tastemaker. From a small Greenwich Village store, cheesemongers enlighten New Yorkers on terroirs and washed rinds and supply upscale restaurants with camembert and French triple crèmes. Since 2008, Murray’s influence has spread across the country. Now fully owned by Kroger, the nation’s largest supermarket chain, Murray’s Cheese has over 750 locations across more than 30 states. The name Murray has become to specialty cheese what Nathan is to hotdogs — a New York Jew turned name brand.
I’d gone to the Bleecker Street shop for years without realizing that Murray’s Cheese had gotten bigger than Chuck E. Cheese. Like most New Yorkers, I knew it was a classic Village shop, but not much else. A counter man once told me that the store was founded in 1940 by a certain Murray Greenberg. Then I stumbled on the store’s About page and was shocked to read, “Murray Greenberg was a Jewish veteran of the Spanish Civil War.”
In the late 1930s, about 3,000 American idealists formed the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, a rag-tag battalion who arrived in Catalonia in their Keds to fight a brutal war against Spanish fascism. When they returned home, they were cast as communists, blacklisted, and harassed for decades. Could it be possible that less than a year after Franco’s victory, Murray opened New York’s cheese shop par excellence? It was like discovering Eli Zabar was a Navy Seal.
It’s a little hard to reconcile the Murray of truffle brie with the Murray of partisan warfare. I wanted to learn how Murray went from communist to corporate, from guerilla to gourmet. But Murray’s Cheese representatives could only point to “oral tradition” as their source. So I interviewed Murray’s son Allen Greenberg, former employees, his successor, and customers. I combed through decades-old news clippings, consulted the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives, and tracked down immigration, census and other historical documents.
In the end, I can say Murray Greenberg (born Moische Schuchelmann) was not a Spanish Civil War veteran nor was he a radical. During the years of the war, Murray was selling pickles and herring at his family’s appetizing store on the Lower East Side, not gunning down fascists in the Pyrenees. As for all those Murray’s Cheese “Est. 1940” totes, there wasn’t a Murray’s Cheese until the 1960s.
Murray, The Man and The Legend
Murray Greenberg, the youngest of nine children, was born in a shtetl in what is now Ukraine in 1909. Immigration and census records show his family arrived on the Lower East Side a little over a year later, squeezing into a tenement. Murray’s father peddled goods from a pushcart, and his teenage siblings worked in sweatshops. Within 20 years, the family managed to open St. Marks Appetizing and own a couple of tenements under the Second Avenue El. Murray would go on to have a large impact on New York cheese. But how the son of a pushcart peddler became the face of a multimillion dollar cheese empire is not a Jewish Horatio Alger tale. It is the story of the upscaling of the Village, the rise of gourmet food, and most of all, the gentrification of a man.
The origin myth of Murray’s Cheese started with Robert Kaufelt, the heir to the New Jersey supermarket chain that would become Mayfair-Foodtown. He bought the store in 1991, invested in it and hired a consultant, Steven Jenkins, who was the cheesemonger of the highly-regarded specialty market Dean & Deluca. Within a decade, the affordable neighborhood joint transformed into an upscale destination shop. Murray’s Cheese came to debut a European Union of rare cheeses and nurture a generation of American upstarts. They gained a reputation as a trendsetter when in the late 1990s, they began to sell wholesale to fine dining restaurants; they branched out to their own restaurants, a second location in Grand Central, and man-made affinage caves. Eventually they caught the eye of the Fortune 100 company Kroger (owner of Fry’s, Fred Meyer, Ralphs, King Soopers, QFC, etc.).
For Kaufelt, the year 2004 was a turning point. The store moved to 254 Bleecker Street, a space ten times the size of the original shop. That year, a laudatory profile of Kaufelt in the New Yorker entitled “Big Cheese,” called the store, “The Village Landmark that helped put cheese on the map.” In the New Yorker and elsewhere, Kaufelt promoted a backstory widely repeated and later adopted by Kroger. Murray, fresh from the Spanish Civil War, opened an egg and butter wholesaler in 1940. Then, as Kaufelt wrote in his 2006 Cheese Handbook, “in the 1970s, he finally sold the shop to his clerk, Louis Tudda, an Italian immigrant from Calabria.”
Kaufelt says he first visited the store in 1989. Recently divorced, uninspired by his position as president of his family’s 28-supermarket business, he had moved to Greenwich Village like many before him to find himself. “One day, I was standing in line at the original Murray’s,” he recounted, “and I heard Louis say he’d lost his lease and was closing.” Kaufelt, who had a romantic vision of his immigrant grandfather’s small butcher shop bought the store in 1991 for $50,000 and moved it from 42 Cornelia to its second location, at 257 Bleecker Street. “I’d be rescuing an old-time neighborhood business,” he told himself. Tudda, according to Kaufelt, stayed on for a year before retiring to Italy.
Tudda, speaking from his home in Nassau County, told me that he left Murray’s Cheese on bad terms. Only 46 years old when he lost his job at the store he once owned, he had no intention to return to Italy. “After I left, I worked in the deli department of King Cullen supermarket for 15 years.” Why he sold Murray’s, like most New York stories, is a tale of real estate.
Tudda’s family arrived from Calabria in 1957 when he was 11 years old. They lived across from Murray’s Cheese, and shortly after high school, he started working there as a stock boy. At the time, Italian was an asset in the neighborhood. Murray taught Tudda the trade and eventually passed ownership to him in 1973 before retiring a few years later. “He gave me a chance after I worked for him for eight years,” Tudda said teary-eyed. In the 1980s, high rents and the allure of the suburbs accelerated the exodus of most Greenwich Village Italian families. Tudda moved to the Five Towns in Long Island. The commute in was exhausting, and Bleecker Street was entering a renaissance; commercial rents were increasing. Finally, in 1991, he lost his lease.
I ran Tudda’s version of things by Kaufelt, who is now retired and living in a rowhouse in Greenwich Village. “I don’t remember any of that,” he said. As for his knowledge of Murray Greenberg, he claimed it came from Murray’s widow May, who he met twice in the early 1990s. May passed away in 2017, but Murray’s son Allen, a Citarella Manager, told me that wasn’t possible. May, he remembers, was very upset when she read that Murray was called a Communist Spanish Civil War veteran. But Allen, who is near 70 and describes himself as an East Village hippie, brushed it off as a misunderstanding: “I can see how stories got crossed.” Murray, a liberal, was close friends with Lincoln Brigade veteran Kenneth Graeber, father of noted anthropologist and inspiration of Occupy Wall Street, David Graeber.
Kaufelt never looked more into the store’s history or ever contacted Allen, perhaps because he wasn’t very interested in the details. “It was more about me honoring his [Murray’s] brand because my grandfather’s store was long gone,” Kaufelt said referring to Kaufelt Brothers Fancy Grocery — his Jewish immigrant grandfather’s butcher shop in Perth Amboy, New Jersey.
Murray’s: The Scorsese Version and the Non-Scorsese Version:
A picture of Kaufelt’s grandparents’ butcher shop used to be part of the décor of Murray’s. It’s gone, but they still display black-and-white photos of classic ethnic-looking cheesemongers. The images place the brand in the tradition of 20th century white immigrant communities, but the photos are not of Murray Greenberg or Louis Tudda. Rather, like the Murray’s origin myth, they are curated to give a patina of authenticity. Richard E. Ocejo, a sociologist at John Jay College who has written about the upscaling of traditional urban crafts, can see how this works for Kroger. “People like the idea of the mom-and-pop shop,” he said. “They like the social aspect of it, the romance of it. These things sell.”
For Elizabeth Chubbuck, Murray’s Chief Strategic Officer, the legacy of Murray Greenberg is not superficial; it is a guiding value, “We keep the spirit of the neighborhood store, like your local cheesemonger whose name you know,” she said. In the best light, a large corporation is channeling the ethos of a humble 1940s immigrant business, even if they get the history wrong. In the worst light, Kroger’s is indulging in a type of ethnic New York minstrelsy. For instance, a Kroger web article compares Murray and Tudda to “characters in a Scorsese film”. “It’s a bit of a manufactured romanticism,” said Ocejo, “and saying he’s a Communist lends additional authenticity.”
I asked Allen for the non-Scorsese version. “It started off as leftovers from my uncle’s business,” Allen told me from his home in the East Village. Murray’s future brother-in-law Carl Margulies opened “Tom’s River Fresh Farm Eggs” at 42 Cornelia Street (records suggest it was in 1942, shortly after the building was constructed in late 1941). “They had butter they cut with a wire and sold loose eggs.” The store was a continuation of Carl’s parents’ shop on East 9th Street, a block from Murray’s family appetizing store.
In 1949, Murray, the son of the herring man, married May Margulies, the daughter of the dairy man. Murray started to work for his brother-in-law’s business, then called “Glen Alden Farms.” Carl and his wife sold wholesale to restaurants. Murray and May stocked the shop with the surplus of eggs, tins of olive oil, maraschino cherries, and yes, cheese. This lasted about a decade. “My side of the family wanted independence,” Allen, who did the deliveries back then, remembered, “and my father bought the outlet from my uncle.” It was then, in 1962 that Murray’s Cheese was born.
Few records survive of the shop’s years under Murray. In 1976, New York Times food writer Mimi Sheraton called the selection “limited” but announced, “the quality of almost everything on hand is dependable, and prices are reasonable.” A few years later, Sheraton wrote about the dinner parties of a loyal customer, Mayor Ed Koch, who was quoted as saying, ”The meal begins with arugula and cheeses from Murray’s Cheese Shop on Cornelia Street, where I buy whatever is on sale.” The mayor raised eyebrows for sending the Gracie Mansion chef on chauffeured discount cheese runs.
By all accounts, Murray’s Cheese drew long lines. “The entire West Village was his customers,” said Allen. He associates the store with his father working 13-hour days, six days a week, and no vacation. His mother put in significant hours too. Still, he concedes that it was “romantic,” a neighborhood mom-and-pop shop. And not just any neighborhood. John Strausbaugh author of “The Village,” called Cornelia Street in the 1950s “a backwater of the Italian Village. It also had its bohemian credentials — the poet W.H. Auden lived at 7 Cornelia, and at number 31 was Caffe Cino, the birthplace of Off-Off-Broadway and an LGBTQ landmark. Joe Cino claimed he only got the lease because he was Sicilian.
By the 1990s, gone were the bohemians, radicals and immigrants. Mario Batali’s first restaurant, Pó, took over the former site of Caffe Cino, and in 1997, The New York Times celebrated a “Cornelia’s Street revival.” Kaufelt was one of several wealthy entrepreneurs who took over vintage Village spots, upscaled them, capitalized on their names, and fudged their history. By 2010, The Times deemed the Greenwich Village “a theme park of the past,” with businesses that “offer a vision of a lost bohemian New York — albeit with a well-heeled clientele and prices to match.” Kaufelt, always ahead of the pack, turned the Village into an export. “We’re taking the neighborhood national,” he told Crain’s in 2016, before selling his remaining stake to Kroger, who he had been partnering with since 2008.
What Would Murray Do?
The Murray’s Cheese brand is simultaneously classic and trailblazer. Kaufelt saved Murray’s only to upend it. In 2012, he told Edible Manhattan, “Louie’s store was essentially an Italian bodega.” As for Murray, Kaufelt described him to the New Yorker as a “Marxist capitalist shrewd with a buck,” accusing him of trimming the mold off “gray market” cheddar and palming off repurposed over-ripe brie. The message is clear: It may be called Murray’s, but Kaufelt built the brand.
I asked Allen about Kaufelt’s assertions. “I don’t want to say anything bad or good,” he said of Kaufelt, who he has never met. “He did a wonderful job with my father’s store.” The attacks on Murray as a cheesemonger do get under his skin, though.
Did his father sell moldy cheese? “Rob [Kaufelt] could tell you, on the semi-soft cheeses and on the hard cheeses, if there isn’t some mold on it, there’s something wrong,” he said bluntly. “You have to be trimming mold all the time in the cheese business.”
Jenkins, a James Beard award-winning cheese master confirmed this. “Every cheesemonger does that,” he said. The difference, according to him, is that “Louie and Murray specialized in distressed cheeses.”
Kaufelt told me his anecdotes were meant to be humorous, not putdowns. “I had much stricter standards than my predecessors,” he said but claimed he was not trying to not pass judgment. “They were trying to make a living.”
Allen clarified that his father didn’t buy “gray market” cheese. He looked for deals from wholesalers and sold cheap, and had a knack for finding value in cheese that was not pristine enough for the likes of Jenkins or Kaufelt. According to Allen, “he didn’t have the same inventory two weeks in a row. Whatever he could get a bargain on, that was what he was selling.”
Both Allen and Kaufelt liken Murray’s style of business to a “pushcart operation,” and see it as generational. “There weren’t any fancy soft ripening French cheeses and Italian cheeses,” Allen said of New York before the 1970s, “and nobody knew from goat’s milk.” Murray wasn’t looking to get into anything luxurious. “Cheese is food. During the Depression, nobody had enough food,” Murray told a local newspaper, The Villager, in 1975, explaining that he got into the business because he “learned food is important, food has value.” Then in the 1970s things started to change. All around him, the gourmet food movement was taking off. In 1977, his competitor Giorgio Deluca parlayed his cheese shop into the legendary Dean & Deluca. Murray’s nephew Arnold Greenberg converted the family business, St. Mark’s Appetizing, into the city’s first natural food store. It was there he created the Snapple brand. Even Allen decided against joining his father’s store in favor of working at Balducci’s, the pioneer specialty grocer. “The prices were going up like crazy, and my father knew from selling cheap.” Murray, by then at retirement age, called it quits.
For Murray, who grew up poor, places like Balducci’s “made absolutely no sense,” Allen said. “His mindset was ‘how can anybody in their right mind spend this kind of money?’” Ironically, it was Balducci’s that inspired Kaufelt to flee what he called “the boring, sterile markets” of the suburbs. Kaufelt’s grandparents may have had the same mindset as Murray. Kaufelt, however, came from money, had an Ivy League degree, and was well-traveled. For him, focusing on quality and service, not price, made perfect sense.
Allen wonders if Kaufelt lost his right to criticize once Murray’s Cheese became part of Kroger. Can Kroger maintain a gourmet experience on a large scale? Indeed, in 2003, Kaufelt wrote a New York Times Op-Ed about the failed attempt at a Balducci’s chain. He argued, “supermarkets are driven by efficiency, while specialty stores are about excellence of product and knowledgeable service. What’s more, New York City is unlike any other market in the country.”
Kaufelt came to believe he found a way to go from two Manhattan stores to a company opening 100 new locations a year without sacrificing quality. The Murray’s Cheese shops inside Kroger supermarkets and its affiliates have improved the cheese options for millions, but they fall short of the standards Kaufelt once set. The selection is impressive for a supermarket, but less varied and more affordable than the New York shops’ offering. For the most part, they do not cut to order, instead offering pre-cut cheese wrapped in plastic, a practice Kaufelt once admonished.
Before it became a chain, Kaufelt’s vision of a cheese shop did compete in real-time with the Murray Greenberg style of business. In the 1980s, Murray ran East Village Cheese. The popular store remained open till 2018. In 1981, Murray was back behind the counter, balding with white hair, in his usual pose, one arm resting on his belly, and his hand propping up his chin. The store owners were Alvin and Carol Kaufman. Alvin, a Jewish convert to Buddhism in the 1990s would hire a staff of Tibetan monks who eventually came to own the store. The Kaufmans met Murray at a wholesaler by serendipity. Murray, anxious to get back in retail, convinced the two strangers to open a cheese shop. For a minimal salary, he would run it. Their original plan was to open an Italian deli in New Jersey, but in one conversation Murray converted them. The no-frills store, was modeled on the original Murray’s, down to its handwritten signs plastered everywhere.
The tiny 9th Street store, like the original Murray’s, was the antithesis of Kaufelt’s vision of a specialty shop. If the Murray’s Cheese flagship is the “Apple Store,” as Crain’s New York called it, East Village Cheese was a bazaar stall; small, loud, and chaotic.
The store stuck to the Murray Greenberg model. It gave no samples, mandated a half-pound minimum, and kept the line moving; practices unheard of in gourmet shops. “What do you want?” asked Kaufman, “We were by far the cheapest cheese store in the world.” Whether true or not, a 2006 guidebook noted, “the most expensive cheese of East Village Cheese is about the same price as the least expensive cheese at Murray’s.” An accomplishment I imagine Murray would be proud of.
I asked Allen what his father would think of Murray’s today. He paused to think. “The word would probably be feh,” he said. “It’s too fancy for him.”
Andrew Silverstein writes about New York City and is co-founder of Streetwise New York Tours.