Cheese Board Collective: 40 years in the Gourmet Ghetto

A recent afternoon of bread, cheese, and baking at The Cheese Board Collective. All photos: Christina Diaz

Exploring alternative ways to work in the food industry is a hot topic. Last week in San Francisco a sold out Kitchen Table Talks, a monthly panel showcasing local food folk, featured a discussion about successful edible enterprises that haven’t started the conventional route.

Two of the four panelists hailed from Berkeley. Three Stone Hearth‘s Jessica Prentice, previously profiled on Berkeleyside, talked about her cooperative kitchen model. Cathy Goldsmith represented The Cheese Board Collective.

Beyond the obvious culinary connection, each business is unique. What they have in common? A desire to build community — of workers, artisans, and customers — around their real food ventures.

Case in point: The Cheese Board Collective, which has served as a beloved anchor institution in Berkeley’s Gourmet Ghetto for more than 40 years.

Goldsmith, who has a restaurant background, has been a worker-owner at The Cheese Board for 16 years. She likes to say that the collective got going “back in the day” and people who work there do  everything “from soup to nuts.” What that means is the 52-year-old finds herself serving cheese one day, rolling out dough the next, dealing with health insurance and other human resource issues on another, along with stocking bread bags, sweeping floors, and scrubbing toilets.

Goldsmith also tends to do the collective’s media outreach, though she declined to be photographed for this story because, perhaps fittingly for a collective owner-worker, she wanted the spotlight to be on the group — which numbers more than 45 — not on any one individual.

The Cheese Board opened in 1967, when revolution was in the air, in the slip of a space that now houses The Juice Bar Collective. On the first day of business, original owners Sahag and Elizabeth Avedisian grossed less than a hundred bucks after an initial investment of just a few hundred dollars on cheese. The couple began selling a selection of high-quality cheeses in stark contrast to the massive orange blocks wrapped in plastic that passed for American cheese then.

How times have changed. And we’re not just referring to the fact that worker-owners no longer streak naked across the median strip (as they did, legend has it, “back in the day.”)  Today, the store sells 300 to 400 goat, sheep, and cow milk cheeses from all over the world, including many artisan American offerings. The store also sells its trademark sourdough baguette and baked goods, such as scones, muffins, cookies, and chocolate things, as well as focaccia, rolls, challah, and other breads.

The Avedisians, who had worked on a kibbutz in Israel, wanted to run a democratic shop where all the workers were owners and shared the wealth. So in 1971 the couple converted  the business to a collective, bringing their six employees into the fold as equal partners. To this day, a new employee earns the same hourly pay as one who has been with the cooperative since the beginning. Elizabeth Avedisian, now in her 80s, still does two shifts a week at the store, without fanfare. Her ex-husband Sahag, who left the collective and the Bay Area years ago, passed away in 2007.

Over time, batches of freshly baked bread were added to the shop’s repertoire, followed by pizza in 1985. The store moved from its original location on Vine Street to its current Shattuck Avenue spot in 1975. It has expanded twice since then. In 1986 the collective acquired the space vacated by Pig-by-the-Tail Charcuterie, which now houses the pizzeria. In 1990 the group expanded when the fish market next door went out of business.

The Cheese Board Pizza Collective operates as its own business, though the pizzeria and the cheese store operate under the same corporate by-laws. Wholly owned by its members, the business is incorporated for tax and liability reasons. All members have equal say in business decisions and are eligible for the same benefits. Profits are used to buy new equipment or maintain existing infrastructure, raise wages, and contribute to retirement funds. In keeping with the collective’s left-wing, pro-labor politics, the store is closed on May 1st,  International Workers’ Day. The collective with a social justice conscience routinely donates food to places that feed the needy — including Food Not Bombs — and hands out free sandwiches to the homeless.

Goldsmith declined to give hard numbers on the store’s financial health, saying simply that business is “fine.” She pointed to the heady dotcom days of the early 2000s as particularly good times. Over the decades, the store has dealt with varying nutritional whims where bread and cheese are concerned, including the Atkins diet, carbo-loading, and low-cholesterol regimens, along with fluctuations in the commodity markets for dairy, flour, and corn, which impact their operating costs.

The Cheese Board has nurtured other food collectives, and spawned another baked goods and pizza cooperative, Arizmendi Bakery, which opened in Oakland in 1997. The Cheese Board crew, which wanted to promote their way of doing business without expanding into franchises, shared all its recipes and even its sourdough starter with this nascent bakery. Since then four other Arizmendi stores have opened their doors in the Bay Area.

In 2003, with the release of The Cheese Board Cookbook: The Collective Works, the counterculture entrepreneurs shared their popular recipes with the public.

Goldsmith, who lives in central Berkeley, offers other examples of the collective’s community-mindedness. On a day of protests against the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, during the tenure of George Bush Jnr., the collective voted to close the store — on a Saturday no less, the busiest day of the week. Instead, members baked mini scones and made peace signs from dough and set up shop outside the North Berkeley BART station, where they dispensed the baked goods for free to residents on their way to the march. Once the scones were all spoken for, they headed to the anti-war rally themselves.

When the September 11 2001 attacks happened, people spontaneously started pouring into the store, said Goldsmith, not to buy cheese, just to be together during a very dark day. Likewise, the store showed its support in 2008 for then-campaigning Barack Obama by offering specials on “swing state” cheeses.

Such community kindnesses and civic engagement is rewarded by a loyal clientèle. In 2007, the group celebrated its 40th year at a dinner at Chez Panisse, which celebrates its own 40th next month. The chefs volunteered their time, and Alice Waters refused to accept payment for the meal, Goldsmith told the Kitchen Table Talks crowd. It was Waters’ way of giving thanks for the thriving business across the street on Shattuck Avenue that paved the way for others, like herself, to set up budding food enterprises in an area now dotted with restaurants, cafés, and fine-food purveyors.

Sarah Henry is the voice behind Lettuce Eat Kale. You can follow her on Twitter and become a fan of Lettuce Eat Kale on Facebook.

West Berkeley photographer Christina Diaz likes to shoot life as it happens.

Related:
The best pizza in Berkeley? Our readers decide [06.10.11]
Where do you get the best pizza in Berkeley? You tell us [06.03.11]
Out in Berkeley: Delectable blues with Cheese Board Pizza [4.21.11]
The lunchtime music scene at the Cheese Board [09.04.10]

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  • Jean

    LOVE the Cheese Board. As a former member of several worker-owned coops, I can really say that they have served as a model and paved the way for more community-supported, economically-viable businesses to be created in the US. May you have many more successful years!

  • Mlisakelley

    I gotta say, I LOVE Cheeseboard folks and the product as well. We have been going there regularly since our now seven and a half year old daughter was 2 and a half, and been welcomed liked family. I totally understand people flocking to the store on a day like 9/11. Even the musicians that the pizzaria hires are warm and lovely.
    It is a place that I hope we will call “home” until our daughter is grown with her own children. Great local food and wine at a fair price, supportive of the community, great music, great people……what better is there in life?

  • Anonymous

    Cheese Board = Great people. Great products. Great example.