This summer, Berkeley will lose another longtime small business, Country Cheese Co., located at 2101 San Pablo Ave. (at Addison). Current owner Shirley Ng will close the last remaining Country Cheese Co. store, a 50-year-old specialty grocery company, by July 31, although the final day of business may be in mid-July if the building sells before then. Ng, who has owned the shop since 1997 with her then-husband, Pete Raxakoul, said she’s selling the building to concentrate on her San Francisco specialty store, S.F. Wine & Cheese on Gough Street.
Ng and Raxakoul once co-owned several Country Cheese Co. locations together. In 1991, Raxakoul’s family bought the San Pablo Avenue store from its original owners, who founded Country Cheese Co. in 1969. In 2005, the company expanded, buying the original location on Hopkins Street, which Ng ran. The couple opened another location in Kensington in 2014 and the Hayes Valley location in 2015, purchased from French specialty store, Gourmet & More. But when the marriage ended, Ng and Raxakoul split up the businesses. She got the San Pablo Avenue location and the new Hayes Valley store, as well as the company’s name (he got the locations on Hopkins and Arlington, now renamed Raxakoul Coffee & Cheese). But as the flagship store hadn’t been updated in more than 20 years, Ng found it was a lot more than she could handle.
According to Ng, “the last two years have been rough.” Equipment was breaking down, and Ng said she spent a lot of money just cleaning up the San Pablo Avenue store. In the meantime, she was also looking into getting a liquor license to operate the Country Cheese Co. more like her San Francisco shop, where diners could get a sandwich or some cheese to enjoy with wine on the premises. Competing with bigger stores like Berkeley Bowl, Whole Foods and even online businesses like Amazon, Ng wanted to elevate her specialty shop’s offerings to bring up revenue. However, she soon realized the costs for her plan were out of reach. She was just breaking even at Country Cheese Co., something she said was only possible because she owned the building and didn’t have to pay rent.
While retaining and bringing in new business has been difficult, Ng credits her loyal customers for making Country Cheese Co. a worthwhile struggle. These days, Ng mostly works on Sundays and Mondays, sometimes Saturdays. Her regulars know her schedule and come by the shop just to see her.
“My customers, they’re my friends now. They’re more like friends than customers,” Ng said. “People come in just to say hi. During the Christmas holiday season, they will buy the fruitcake mix then come by with fruitcake for me. They’ll buy nuts and make pastries and bring it over. They’ll buy specialty cottage cheese and make a cheesecake for me to taste.”
“My customers, they’re my friends now. They’re more like friends than customers.” — Shirley Ng, Country Cheese Co. owner
Country Cheese Co. offers shelves of gourmet food items, like domestic and imported teas, coffee, jams, chocolates and candies, and of course, a large selection of cheeses. Although Ng is closing the store, she said she will continue to deliver some of her products to a few East Bay wholesale accounts, as well as for some of her dearest longtime customers.
But these are the last days for Country Cheese Co.’s bestselling item — its deli sandwiches. Ng said many customers come in at lunchtime, for favorites like the Cuban, Reuben or Italiano, made fresh and served on a cut baguette or soft roll.
Ng said she hopes she has a chance to say goodbye to all who’ve supported her over the years. The building is currently in escrow, but one of the terms of the deal was that Ng wanted at least two weeks to give people a chance to say goodbye.
Still, Ng isn’t completely shutting the door on Country Cheese Co. Since she’s selling the building, but not the business, she still retains the company’s name. There’s a chance in the future, she said, for the return of Country Cheese Co.