Rob Kaufelt owned and operated Murray’s Cheese from 1991 to 2017. He grew the business from a small neighborhood shop to a multi-unit operation, with retail, import, wholesale, food service, education and online divisions, as well as licensed shops within Cincinnati, Ohio-based Kroger supermarkets, the nation’s largest supermarket chain. In 2017 he sold Murray’s to Kroger and today there are more than 800 Murray’s Cheese boutiques.
BY ROB KAUFELT | The post-COVID effect on retail has been well noted. Here are a few suggestions of what to do about it. In my own 45 years in food retail, I experienced many changes in the market, and influenced a few myself. So I speak from experience.
Real estate: It’s not enough to lower rents, although important for the tenants, or practical these days for the landlords. But where to locate, and how much to pay? I suggest a database system, similar to Airbnb or eBay, in which landlords can post their available spaces and the asking rents, and potential tenants can see by area, neighborhood, even block by block, this information, how negotiable the term is, and even if the property owners welcome pop-ups and shorter-term arrangements. An ask-and-bid system, in other words.
Hybrid food shops: It’s long past the time prepared foods — pioneered by Balducci’s, Zabar’s and others — were the most important innovation in food retail. Now it’s time for the food-service industries to move further into retail, with packaged foods, branded products and more convenient methods of putting their foods not just on the on-site tables, but in the home kitchens and dining rooms of their customers. There are few retail cases, displays, etc. in our restaurants, and there should be, for those willing to heat and eat, or to eat at home generally. I remember my first visit to the original Ottolenghi, in London. You couldn’t tell if it was a shop or a restaurant.
Stores need to be experiential, and most aren’t. The one my kids like best right now is the new Harry Potter store, and they waited for days to get in! An exciting experience doesn’t need to just be for kids. If a shop is less interesting than its online counterpart, and less convenient, then why shop there? If online shopping is more fun than live and in person, then someone needs to learn how to merchandise — like the department stores of old (and not so old, now that I think of it), and all those other places that generated buzz beyond cupcakes.
Education: More and more, customers want to know about the products they are buying. They may want environmentally friendly sources or products with some other features that make them unique. Classes and lectures on-site make the in-person experience more likely to happen, and viewers can link to these online, too. Basically, people want to know more about what they’re buying these days. Some shops are just brick and mortar, though, to advertise the brand sold online.
Service: Labor issues post-pandemic will not soon be resolved — too few people wanting retail jobs, levels of service from earlier times now financially unsustainable. So the people that are in the shops need a higher level of training, better career opportunities and great product knowledge. Only a few shops and chains know how to deliver these things, and those are the ones who treat their employees as assets, not just an expense.
Other uses for storefronts: Without a street-level vibrancy, New York is not New York. But you don’t just need to put retail shops there. We recently took a small space in Williamsburg — a retail space — and made it into a recording studio. People watched through the windows, delighted, though they couldn’t hear the music, but could see the musicians playing. We thought of a new business — walk-ins: Come in and for a fee we’ll record your song, either with our session musicians or yours. Or we’ll put it up on Spotify for you or on social media, for a modest price. A menu of services. As it turns out, we didn’t do it, and moved to a private location. But the point is what can you put in a ground-floor space? Mini-museums, galleries, spas, the list is endless. Recording studios, you tell me! But it all requires outside-the-box thinking.
Icons need updating, too: Maybe C.O. Bigelow brings back the soda fountain, or the Strand puts in a coffee shop and bakery. Who knows, but these are the places people visit and they are also our mainstays of local life. Of course, sometimes these stores just continuing to do the things they do well is enough, though hard to do in the post-modern world. Judging by the reception the Knickerbocker Bar & Grill recently got on its reopening, the comfort value of tradition can’t be ignored. There is no hard-and-fast rule. And even the less “glamorous” businesses — the dry cleaners, nail salons, hardware stores — all are needed in our neighborhoods so locals can live the city life properly, including doing chores on foot.
Interactive info: The Village needs a kiosk, for tourists mostly, in that little triangle where Ninth St. meets Christopher St. meets Sixth Ave. meets Greenwich Ave. A little booth, with a map of the area, showing historic highlights, where famous people lived (not live now, please) and shops, restaurants and all the rest to give people a sense of the place. This kiosk might sell books about the Village or have sponsors or be run by the Village Alliance business improvement district or the block association or whoever wants to do it. Nonprofit, of course, but a central place to glean info, including the latest interactive elements.
Washington Square Park needs help: It’s been the center of all sorts of social life for a long time, but the fear of drugs and crime makes it less appealing than it should be these days. The police do their thing, the Village Alliance does theirs, as does the Washington Square Park Conservancy, and the park itself is run by the Parks Department. We can do better by putting it all under one local umbrella. Why such crappy food carts? What about a skateboard area so we don’t get run over by skateboards around the arch? What about licensing the people who sell things in the park? Or enforcing the rules concerning the ban on bikes and the park’s closing time — maybe via a civilian volunteer group with teeth. And better signage is needed, too, while we’re at it. The park is the real heart of the Village and must be protected. New York University can’t be the elephant in the room forever; they need to step up, too. They give a few bucks, but really, we all know about N.Y.U. They need to upgrade their contribution to the ’hood.
It’s on us: The dearth of creativity is surprising and not just here in the Village. The new mayor has his work cut out for him, but, at the end of the day, it’s always been about local action here in the city. You can lament or celebrate the gentrification that’s taken place over the last generation or two. But do we really want to see the neighborhood full of empty stores, sidewalks filled with homeless people, and essential services (and infrastructure) crumbling? I doubt it. Pulling off the rescue is on us.
Kaufelt lives in Greenwich Village with his wife and three children.