There’s been a lot of talk about the state of the Cheese Board union.
Berkeley’s 55-year-old cheese shop, bakery and associated pizzeria has been a Shattuck landmark since 1975, taking over multiple storefronts along the street as its worker-owned business expanded. In 2017, it announced plans to open a larger retail space inside a neighboring grocery store, but folks watching the space haven’t seen much progress since.
More than one area resident has claimed that the planned expansion had been canceled, but a spokesperson for the collective confirmed to Nosh that that’s just not true. Instead, she said, the business is currently playing to its strengths, in hopes that it can roar back at full force in the future.
Started as a Berkeley cheese shop in 1967, the Cheese Board’s owners sold the business to its employees in 1971 , making it a worker-owned collective. That same year, Chez Panisse opened at 1517 Shattuck Ave., and — allegedly — a member of the collective coined the term “Gourmet Ghetto” for the neighborhood. (That term that has since been replaced by the less problematic “North Shattuck” as a designation for the dining district.) In 1975, the Cheese Board moved from its original spot on Vine Street to 1504 Shattuck, right across the street from Chez Panisse. It’s been there ever since.
As the years went on, the Cheese Board eventually scooped up every storefront on its side of the block but one, making more and more room for its growing selection of pastries and baked goods, as well as a destination cheese counter. In a big move in 2007, marking its 40th anniversary, the Cheese Board even took over a former hardware store at 1512 Shattuck Ave. That’s when its pizzeria — yes, the one controversially named by Yelp as the best in the U.S. — was born.
A decade after that, another announcement. Sam Hort, the owner of the longstanding Berkeley Produce Center at 1500 Shattuck, was ready to retire. Hort had always “had a friendly relationship” with the Cheese Board, collective spokesperson Ambri Pukhraj told Nosh. A deal was made, and when Hort officially retired in 2018, the Cheese Board took over that space, too.
An ambitious new plan
Speaking to Nosh in late 2019, Cheese Board member Cathy Goldsmith outlined the collective’s vision. “The space will be more of us: some new products, a reimagined cheese counter, more grab-and-go items, and more room for customers.”
In addition, Goldsmith said, “we will be using a third of the space as a production kitchen” as “both the bakery and the pizzeria have been bursting at the seams.”
Even then, Cheese Board members knew that adding this new space to its portfolio wouldn’t be easy. The idea is that the current store will open into the new space, a design complicated by uneven flooring between the two spots.
According to Goldsmith, the work to fuse the storefronts couldn’t begin until they completed extensive structural repairs, which they did by August 2019. Then, she told Nosh at the time, “We need to lower the floor” at the former Produce Center “so that we can connect the two spaces,” after lowering the sidewalk in front.
Back then, Goldsmith said that the collective was aiming for an opening by the summer of 2020, with several East Bay-based designers and builders helping with the project. The pandemic, Pukhraj said, threw all those plans out the window.
The ‘corner store committee’
When I spoke with Pukhraj, she’d just come out of a meeting of “the corner store committee,” which is what the Cheese Board calls the folks charged with moving this latest expansion forward. According to Pukhraj, though “the pandemic has been kinder to us than most businesses,” it’s slowed the expansion to almost a standstill.
The cooperative completely closed when the Bay Area lockdown started in March 2020, and didn’t reopen until June. First, Cheese Board members “worked in pods” and customers signed up for shopping slots, all to reduce the chance that they’d spread the virus. As things went on, the Cheese Board grew busier and busier, especially at the pizzeria.
After some discussion, the collective agreed then that the best way to move forward was to stick to a simple mission: “that people get fed and that we take care of ourselves,” Pukhraj said. That meant paring down the menu at the bakery to the most essential products. It also meant that, for now, the Cheese Board wouldn’t replace any members who stepped down, so in time the business became “quite short staffed.”
Unlike some businesses, the Cheese Board’s new worker training is a complicated matter, Pukhraj said. “We don’t take it lightly,” as “we have to make sure they truly understand how we do things, and what we’re all about.”
“Hiring takes time and training,” Pukhraj said. “Are we really ready to hire someone when we can’t commit to it?” When they realized the answer to that question was “no,” they realized that meant the expansion had to pause, too.
Until the collective is fully staffed, Pukhraj said, “we don’t have full capacity and energy to move that project forward as we planned.”
Rebuilding the Cheese Board
The good news is that the Cheese Board is already on the path to building its numbers back up, Pukhraj said. It posted its first hiring notice since before the pandemic just last month, and more calls for members are on the way, as “we will need to do multiple hiring rounds,” she said.
Even so, Pukhraj was reluctant to even guess at when work on the Cheese Board expansion might resume in earnest. There is still significant structural work to be done, she said, before the collective can make final decisions on layout, design and finishes. It’s a goal that feels very far away, and “we honestly don’t know when we’ll pick it up again,” Pukhraj said, citing how thoughtfully every decision at the collective is made. “We are still discussing ideas of what to do.”
It’s a less definitive an answer than many Cheese Board patrons might hope for, Pukhraj admitted, but she didn’t seem too anxious about any fallout. “Our landlords are extremely supportive,” she said, and “most customers are so kind.”
She, and the collective, understands why there’s been speculation about the expansion, she said, and she hopes that the Cheese Board’s patrons will understand why they’ve slowed things down. “We just feel so grateful and supported by the community,” she said. “People have shown up for us in so many ways.”