This is a story about cheeses and a 35-year-old store that sells them. It’s about a burgeoning alternative gourmet ghetto in a less than affluent part of west Berkeley. And it’s about an immigrant family that has established a niche for itself and become, if not totally Americanized, decidedly Berkeleyized.
The store is called Country Cheese. It has been on San Pablo at Addison since it first opened in 1968. The neighborhood has never been upscale—a check-cashing establishment on the next block testifies to that—but a theater space around the corner currently occupied by Freight and Salvage and a post office next door have always guaranteed a flow of customers. Today a number of food stores and restaurants within a few blocks of University and San Pablo offer a veritable feast of ethnic diversity for the budget conscious gourmet. A couple of markets selling products from Italy and several central and south American countries are right across the street and within a few blocks there is an Indian restaurant with white tablecloths, a Turkish restaurant with average decor and a very informal Everett and Jones barbecue.
Getting back to Country Cheese and the part of the story that touches the heart as well as the stomach, we meet the owners, the Raxakoul family. Usually at the front counter is the mother, Khamyong Raxakoul. Her husband has a full-time job but comes in after work. Her son Pete is the general manager of the store, son Paul handles the deli, daughter Mola is a student and helps part time. They bought the business 14 years ago and just last year purchased the building. Now they will not have to worry about the rent being raised.
The family immigrated to the United States from Laos in 1979, landing at San Francisco airport with $35 and not much else. They had fled Laos in 1977 and spent the next two years in a refugee camp in Thailand. Pete tells their story. He was 7 when they left Laos and he remembers; “It’s not a pretty sight. (We were) very poor. ... we sold everything just to have enough money to pay someone to get us across safely into Thailand.” He recalls the first weeks in the processing center in Bangkok. “It was monsoon season and we were sleeping on pallets. And the pallets were floating away.” The facilities in the refugee camp were minimal, they had tents to sleep in and a thin soup to eat. Some fortunate people received financial help from friends abroad. Others might get permits to leave the camp to work and earn some money.
In spite of the hardships, Pete says, “We were fortunate that we came to the United States with the full family intact.” None of them spoke any English but they had friends here who put them up when they arrived. Then, through their church they met a family in Hayward who took them under their wing. They “helped us with clothing, money, processing paper work, taking us to Kaiser, getting us shots, just showing us how to live. Showing my mom how to do canning with fruits, teaching us how to read and write. Everything.”
They worked hard. For a time their father worked four jobs. Both parents took ESL classes. There was a cousin who was working at Country Cheese and in 1984 Mrs. Raxakoul got a job there. Pete worked there during summer vacations when he was still in high school. So in 1991, when the owners decided to sell the business, the Raxakouls took the plunge. It was a bit of a stretch—they didn’t really like cheese. Cheese is not a popular food anywhere in Asia. Pete says, “They were a little skeptical, but they start to like it. They even have their favorites now.” It’s a good thing, because the store carries more than 300 different kinds of cheeses, sometimes as many as 360. There are also deli meats, grains, spices, coffees, teas, baked goods, canned and packaged delicacies, big jars of pickled herrings and capers, and lots more—most of it at bargain prices. There are made-to-order sandwiches and smoothies for the lunch crowd.
Pete does all the buying. He explains that “you just have to have a feeling for it, the way people eat, the way people change their habits of eating.” He waxes enthusiastic. “Berkeley eats everything. They do not discriminate in food, Berkeley loves to try new things. That’s what I love about Berkeley. It’s like, ‘wow, it’s new, I’m gonna try it!” He started expanding beyond cheeses when the Middle Eastern Market across the street burned down and went out of business. “A lot of customers suggested selling their products,” Pete says. “Customers brought me lists of products that they want and then one of the reps who used to deliver to their store suggested bringing in their stuff.” Now the store has shelves stocked with Middle Eastern foods. “Hummus is such a big thing in Berkeley!” he says.
Besides providing variety and encouraging his customers to try new things, Pete has deeper principles. “We try to do more organics, more fair trade. We like to support small business because we are a smaller business and we want to keep that going.” He decries the big corporations that are buying up the small companies and lowering the quality and raising the prices of the foods they produce. He is determined to provide good quality at reasonable prices, recognizing that “a lot of elderly people come in on fixed incomes, retired, looking for bargains. ... We want to give the best.” And indeed, they do.