Cheesy Culture Unites All In Berkeley

April 26, 2011
Written by Chris Benguhe in
The Welcoming Table
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Unique menues and great prices offered at Berkeley’s Cheese Board Collective.

Not to be rude, but some vegetarian restaurants keep us carnivores out by boring our taste buds with food that tastes like cardboard, ambience that puts us to sleep, and by making anyone who is not a vegan feel like a criminal.

But Berkeley’s Cheese Board Collective is the ultimate and delectable opposite. Even with good stuff like pepperoni and red sauce removed, the pizza is incredible. And instead of being a bastion of carnivore hating hippies, it is a community gathering spot for Bay Area foodies that unites all ages,  attitudes, and appetites to revel in good times, good food, great music, and humanitarian and egalitarian ideals.

As a friend and I tried North Berkeley’s favorite place for plain folks to hang out, customers filed in for lunch. And the Betty Shaw trio – a dark-haired older Anglo woman at the piano, a balding blond guy in blue-and-white shirt making music from a brown accordion, and a bearded guy sporting a Safari-style hat strumming an acoustic guitar – was in full swing.

A young mother held an orange-haired toddler as she listened. A wispy-bearded UC Berkeley student chewed on a bagel. A white-haired, fair-skinned senior couple shared a muffin and a newspaper.

My friend and I lined up behind a young Asian woman and her African-American date discussing the pros and cons of merit pay for teachers. Behind us, three generations of Swedes shepherded a bevy of blond toddlers.

Through a pair of wide-open doors that opened into another room, an African-American man bought a baguette from the bakery counter, while a pint-size woman in a Muslim headdress held a navy-jumpered toddler on her shoulders.

Through another set of wide-open doors opening up into yet another room, a tan-skinned Latino pizza maker was spinning dough. A darker brown woman with her hair neatly pulled back behind her ears, stood behind the counter waiting for a pony-tailed college girl to order. In the center of the shop stood a mature white matron extending a big chocolate-chip cookie to a young boy. All of the employees, white, brown, and black had one thing in common – they all had a stake in this hugely successful business.

altCheese Board Collective grew out of a small cheese shop whose owners, Elizabeth and Sahag Avedesian, wanted to establish a utopian collective community where all workers owned equal shares, had an equal voice in management, and received equal wages. To finance it, everyone, including the Avedesians, took a fifty-cent-an-hour pay cut. The new collective became a North Berkeley favorite.

Cheese Board soon added a bakery where inventive employees started concocting their
own lunches with scraps of dough and leftover veggies when they were off the clock. These spontaneous pizzas smelled so scrumptious that customers buying cheese clamored to buy them. And today, forty-some years later, this small cheese shop has been transformed into a thriving triple threat combination of cheese store, bakery, and pizza emporium.

But one thing that didn’t change was Cheese Board’s collective ethical spirit. Even though it is located in an upscale part of town surrounded by high-end restaurants, the collective’s goal is to give ordinary people good food at a fair price. Customers pay less than $10 per person, while the shop next door will set them back at least $100. Cheese Board also helps low-income families with a 10 percent discount at the register and takes the customer’s word for being needy.

When other would-be collectives came to Cheese Board for advice, the co-owners happily helped out and even shared some of their secret recipes. In the 1980s, they gave advice and labor to a Bay Area cooperative that became the Network of Bay Area Worker Cooperatives, which is now thirty-some members strong. The LA Times gives Cheese Board credit for starting the California food movement.

In January, Cheese Board hosted a benefit concert by Z’Amico, a young internationally-flavored blend of Hispanic and Anglo players trying to generate social interaction and change through their music.

Their concert promoted unity, relationships, human emotion, and soul connections – and there was no charge for the concert.

Our pizza that day was arguably the best I ever sank my teeth into. Even without the pepperoni or the red sauce, the flavor of the collective made up for it.

The Welcoming Table