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Cheese, Bread, and Thou

In a shop in Berkeley, you'll find handmade crusty bread, sharp cheese, and pizza slices fresh from the oven. You'll also find vibrant community, live music, and a new vision of work.

As you enter the Cheese Board Collective store in Berkeley, California, a multitude of sensations surrounds you: the aromas of fresh baguettes, hot cheese bread, and garlic oil from trays of focaccia. From the cheese counter comes the barnyard smell of goaty chèvres and the sharp tang of the blue cheeses. The open kitchen allows you to see the whole operation. Everything is in motion: in the front of the store, workers are selling cheese and customers are browsing and choosing breads and cheeses; in the back, workers are rolling and baking bread. Forty feet of cases hold more than 300 varieties of cheese from around the world. Sourdough products are a store specialty, as are hearty wheat breads, hefty scones, muffins, and savory breads.

Customers seem to prize the store as a gathering place for social nourishment as much as a place to buy food. There is a loud party atmosphere of busy shoppers waiting for service and catching up with old friends.

A few doors down from the bakery and cheese shop is the Cheese Board Pizzeria. The pizzas feature a crisp sourdough crust, Mozzarella, and different combinations of fresh seasonal produce and, of course, specialty cheeses for the topping. Just as the hot pizzas are taken from the oven, garlic-infused olive oil is brushed over the crust, creating a heady scent. There is always live music—piano and stand-up bass, sometimes a drummer—and occasionally musician friends drop by and bring their horns, saxophones, guitars, and flutes. Jazz, the roar of the oven fans, aromas, and conversation fill the small space as customers wait in line for slices or whole pizzas.

Art, an employee-member of the Cheese Board, says, “It absolutely changes people to work here. You learn about yourself, you learn about trying to get along with people. Hopefully, before you die, you learn that these are the most important things in life.”

Elizabeth and Sahag Avedisian first opened the doors of the Cheese Board in 1967. Their dream was to run a small specialty shop together and make use of slow moments to pursue their interests and studies. The location was a tiny, narrow storefront wedged into a converted alley on Vine Street, in north Berkeley. While south Berkeley and the university campus were often roiled by the political actions of the era, the Cheese Board's immediate locale seemed nothing more than a quiet corner of a small college town.

The Avedisians selected the first cheeses for the store by randomly paging through a Domestic Cheese Company catalog. By reading and tasting, talking and sharing, they soon developed a sense for what they liked. By offering samples to customers they learned more about what was delicious and popular. Despite having no real retail experience and little knowledge of cheese, Sahag and Elizabeth soon had a steady business. Within three months it became necessary to hire a few people to help out in the busy store.

A history of generosity
Arising from a deep belief that a more equitable distribution of wealth was necessary for a good and just society, and inspired by time spent on an Israeli kibbutz, Elizabeth and Sahag offered to sell the shop, at cost, to their employees. In 1971, the two owners and six employees formed a worker-owned collective. “Sahag and Elizabeth had the chance to become serious capitalists, and they turned it down for the benefit of the workers,” said Darryl Henriques, a former employee-member.

The transformation from a small, privately operated store into a collective with a completely egalitarian pay structure was revolutionary. The generosity of this act has graced the workplace for succeeding generations of workers.

“We still believe that everybody's time is worth the same amount of money. The quintessential element of the Cheese Board politics is that notion,” said Michael, a current member.

The transition to a worker-owned and -operated cooperative relied upon a shared work ethic, high standards, and the strong emotional connections among the group. Decisions were made, after much debate, either on the shift or at the monthly meetings. The operation and management of the collective was, and is still, a constantly evolving process. Meetings in the first years were frequently loud, argumentative, and unstructured.

The new owners shared a belief that the collective process would organically create a truly democratic society. The utopian vision was, however, firmly grounded in an everyday reality.

“During one member's job interview with the entire group, she asked, ‘Do I have to agree with all those posters and signs in the front window of the store in order for me to work here?'” said Craig Knudsen, a former member. “We all told her, ‘Of course not.' She wouldn't have worked here with us unless we had said that.”

Another member said, “Being a collective does not make you exempt from market forces. You still have to create a place customers want to shop in so that you can generate enough income to pay a living wage to your members.”

The introduction of bread for sale, like so many changes at the Cheese Board, wasn't planned. One day friends brought by a loaf of hearty whole-wheat rye as a gift. Inspired, the members invited the friends to bake loaves to sell alongside the cheeses. Bread making was seductive—it was a hands-on, tactile experience that was deeply satisfying. Customers loved the bread, and the new product added variety to the store, inspiring members to develop recipes for other breads.

With a steadily growing business in cheese and new breads, the Vine Street store was bursting at the seams. When a larger storefront became available around the corner on Shattuck Avenue, the opportunity was too good to pass up.

It wasn't long before the Cheese Board was one of many food establishments in the area: Lenny's meat market; North Berkeley Wine; the restaurant Chez Panisse; Cocolat, a decadent chocolate shop; the Fish Market; and the Juice Bar, another collective, which took over the original Cheese Board location, and others. The neighborhood exchanged ideas over food, and there was a shared belief that good food was essential, honest, and important. Alice Kahn, a local writer and humorist, labeled the neighborhood the Gourmet Ghetto, a title that has stuck to this day.

Hard times and opportunity
When the recession of the 1980s hit us in California, the business suffered. At the Cheese Board, we brainstormed about ways to stay viable. There was talk of taking a pay cut. As business was slow, there was time to play around. “Initially, someone started making pizza once a week on Tuesdays. Then people on other shifts began experimenting, too,” said Art.

Pizza became a regular staff lunch. Someone grabbed cheese from the case, someone else would run next door to the Produce Center for vegetables. A half an hour later, pizza was served. Customers noticed and wanted a piece, too. Before we knew it, we were selling slices for lunch. What started out as a whim ended up reinvigorating our sales. It was so successful that we needed to open an entirely separate storefront and add new members to handle the volume.

The pizzeria quickly developed its own character. Nowadays, friends and families listen to live jazz while sitting at café tables inside and out on the sidewalk in front. The tiny space fills up quickly and spills out into the neighborhood. In good weather, picnickers spread out on the median strip, and the sidewalk is full of people eating a slice as they walk along. The line out the door is echoed down the block by the coffee line at the French Hotel.

Recently, the Cheese Board has participated in an effort to launch a network of worker cooperatives modeled on the Cheese Board and using its bread and pastry recipes. The network is called the Association of Arizmendi Cooperatives, in honor of the priest Jose Maria Arizmendiarrieta, the founder of the Spanish Mondragon Cooperatives. This network has opened one Arizmendi Bakery Cooperative in Oakland and another in San Francisco. These are independent cooperatives owned and operated by their workers. The Cheese Board provided some initial seed money and training and gave the new bakeries Cheese Board recipes. At the time of this writing, the newest Arizmendi Bakery is being established in Emeryville, just south of Berkeley. The new cooperatives, which are members of the association (and own the association), will then provide financial and technical support for starting other new cooperatives based on the same model.

Much of what we have done has come about by chance, by following our passion for food with the support of our community. The belief that every voice is central has sustained us over the years. We have never wavered from the original vision of a democratic workplace. This commitment has made it possible to constantly reinvent ourselves while remaining faithful to our political vision and our belief in good, honest food.

Adapted from the introduction to The Cheese Board Collective Works, by the Cheese Board Collective. Used with permission from Ten Speed Press, Berkeley, CA, www.tenspeedpress.com

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