The famous Murray's Cheese Shop didn't start out as the epicenter of the cheese universe. Its roots were much more humble than that: a sort of general store founded in 1940 by Murray Greenberg to sell butter and eggs to area residents in Greenwich Village. It traded hands a couple of times before finally ending up in current owner Rob Kaufelt's hands.
Since purchasing the place in 1991, Kaufelt -- who is married to noted food writer and artisan/farm foods advocate Nina Planck -- has taken Murray's from those humble roots to a brand that is recognized worldwide, despite only having two New York City-based stores. Sales of $2,500 per square foot, an average growth of 15 to 20 percent per year, recognition from media outlets like The Today Show, Wine Spectator and nearly every arm of Martha Stewart's empire mean that Murray's is now the largest cheese store in the world -- at least, that's what Kaufelt thinks. It's been hard to get an accurate measure of worldwide cheese shop vastness so far.
Kroger, meanwhile, had been pursuing the cheesemonger doggedly for the past five or so years, hoping that a partnership with Murray's -- much like Kroger's partnership with Boar's Head -- would enhance its stores' offerings and bring a different type of customer in: the type that would normally head to places like Whole Foods, Central Market or Spec's for their specialty cheese needs.
In 2007, the two entities were finally wedded: Murray's opened its first non-NYC outpost in a Cincinnati Kroger. Fast-forward to 2010, and Houston is one of the three lucky cities in the U.S. (Atlanta being the other) to get Murray's Cheese Shops of its very own.
The oval-shaped cheese kiosks inside the three Houston Kroger stores could have ended up like any average cheese bin outside a grocery store's deli department. But Murray's wouldn't have that. True to the original gold-and-scarlet store in New York City, the cheesemongers working behind the counter actually know what they're talking about: they can recommend pairings and tell you the correct way to store and serve your cheese, and they'll even let you sample any of the wares you have on hand. This is especially useful when it comes to the bounty of unusual and hard-to-find cheeses that Murray's has on hand.
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The kiosks don't just stock cheese, though. Also available are a range of specialty items specifically selected to pair with the cheeses -- raw honey paired with pungent gorgonzola, for example -- as well as pre-crumbled or shredded cheese for cooking use and prepared cheese plates for those in a hurry. The plates in particular are great for parties, dinners or watching The Walking Dead in your pajamas. And rest assured that Texas cheese will be well-represented, locavores: Murray's reps are talking to local distributors about getting Texas cheeses in stock.
Right now, the River Oaks Kroger at 1938 West Gray is the only Houston location that has its Murray's kiosk up and running. On December 4 -- just in time for Christmas shopping -- the West University Kroger (5150 Buffalo Speedway) will open its Murray's section, followed by the newly revamped Heights Kroger (1035 N. Shepherd) on January 8.
Stay tuned tomorrow for more on the cheeses that Murray's is offering in Houston, courtesy of a highly educational tasting session with Liz Thorpe, author of cheese-lovers' bible The Cheese Chronicles and vice president of Murray's Cheese Shop.
For more photos from the new Murray's in Kroger, check out our slideshow.