Oy, cheeses of frustration, cheeses of timing,
chesses pregnant with children and cutting
back on their hours. Young cheeses full of commitment,
cheeses of cooperative effort — will you ever
change the world?
—Jonas Osmond, former member,
Cheese Board Collective
Pliny wrote about it. The moon is made of it. Legends are full of it. And the best part is, you can get it all right here in Berkeley, courtesy of the Cheese Board Collective.
There’s a new kind of buzz going around the Collective, and it’s not the recipe for the Vacherin Mont d’Or that’s behind it.
The Cheese Board is turning 40 this October, and the Collectivists are busy scratching their heads to find ways to celebrate it.
“There is a lot of excitement about it,” said Cathy Goldsmith, member, who first got hooked on cheese when she tasted Buffalo Mozzarella in Florence, Italy, almost twenty years ago.
“It’s like a milestone. We don’t know what we want to do about it but lots of ideas were thrown out. Honestly, we are a bit stymied by what we should do. I was thinking of handing everyone the joker card on Saturday but that would drive everyone crazy.”
Instead of taking a number while you wait for service, customers at this quaint North Shattuck cheese shop grab a playing card from a hook.
You know it’s your turn to taste the delicacies behind the counter when the cheese clerk calls out ‘who’s got the queen of hearts?”
You’re in luck if you draw the joker, because it’s wild.
“It’s like playing a game,” Goldsmith said, wiping some dough off her arms. “People seem to like it and we like it too. Our 3,400 different kinds of cheeses might seem a bit intimidating at first, but we try to give everybody a taste of everything. The thing about cheese is that it’s just salt, water and rennet, but then it comes out in so many more ways. It takes you back to a different place.”
Goldsmith attributes the success of the business to its old world charm
“It feels like the village marketplace,” she said smiling. “People want to connect with other people. You can buy your bread and cheese here, fish there, vegetables down the block and support your community. I hope it continues to be this way. It’s what makes Berkeley Berkeley.”
10 a.m. on a Friday morning is chaos incarnate within the four walls of the cheese shop.
Babies cry in their strollers while moms shop for Provolone olive bread. Couples stroll around lazily tasting the deep dark chocolate loaves. The Cheeseboard is the the center of the universe for its customers.
Peace reigns inside its bowels however, as the collectivists work their magic to rustle up English muffins, cherry scones and baguette pieces.
“It just feels so fresh,” said Tara Rayder Baker, breaking off a piece of the cherry scone and giving it to her son Jake.
“We just moved here and I’ve been coming here every week since then. It’s a Berkeley institution, there’s no doubt about that.”
What is now a full-fledged bakery, cheese shop and pizzeria first opened its doors in 1967 as a small specialty store in a tiny, narrow storefront tucked into a converted alleyway on Vine Street.
Owners Elizabeth and Sahag Avedisian wanted to bring a little bit of Europe to Berkeley and in doing so brought the whole world to their store.
Guided by a strong belief in the equal distribution of wealth and inspired by their travels to an Israeli kibbutz, the Avedisians sold their shop at a loss to their employees.
The Cheese Board has remained worker-owned and-operated since 1971, functioning as a dynamic fluid single democracy.
“Who’s the boss?” is a question that’s tossed around often by curious visitors who are new to the idea of a co-op.
“No one,” yells out Steve Manning, who works next door at the pizzeria. “I look like the boss but that’s just because I have a gray beard. I also like teasing all my co-workers mercilessly and endlessly. It helps take off the pressure a bit.”
The line outside the pizzeria is endless. It’s lunchtime and there are mouths to feed, pies to sell and money to be made.
“But the fact remains that it is a collective,” Manning who worked as an environmental affairs officer for the Discover Channel store said.
“We aren’t getting rich but we all make a decent wage together. There’s a benefit in knowing that the money is not going to some fat cat in a corporation. We can put more money into our ingredients and that’s why our customers stand in line.”
Manning added that one individual could stop anything at The Cheese Board.
“We try not to come to a strict majority,” he said. “We try to come to a consensus.”
Goldsmith quips in, “We are all the big boss. We are all very bossy.”
Nine hundred whole pies have seen the light of day since 7 a.m. on Friday morning and more will be made till the store closes at 10 p.m. The hours are funky but no one really cares.
“We don’t know what we are making until the very last minute,” said Manning, dividing the dough into batches and letting it rise.
“It’s bell peppers, onions, cilantro, olives, sharp feta cheese and herbs today but it will be four cheese pizza Tuesday. We try to find out what’s fresh and in-season in the local produce market. We are not real strict about organic but if we can and the price isn’t too much we try to get it.”
A quasi-separate entity from the cheese store and bakery, the pizzeria recently doubled its floor space after it took over a former hardware store in the building.
Customers can now enjoy their sourdough crusts in the store itself, while live jazz plays in the background and the smell of roasted garlic turns the spot into a little piece of heaven.
“Our pizzas are variations on a theme,” said Artemio Maldonado or “the mastermind”, who has worked at the collective for a decade.
“Most of our pies are built by layering the ingredients in the following order: Mozzarella, onions, other vegetables, more Mozzarella, a different variety of cheese, and, after baking, the application of a flavored olive oil and an herb garnish.”
It’s past 2 p.m. but there’s no sign of the line dwindling. Janet Newman, a Berkeley resident has been waiting for ten minutes.
“It’s that good,” she said smiling. “Sometimes if you are lucky the line moves fast enough. But I really don’t care. The Cheeseboard will always be a special trip for me.”
Photograph by Riya Bhattacharjee.
The Cheese Board, at 1512 Shattuck Ave., offers a wide selection of breads and cheeses.