Turns out you can sell cheese-indeed, be surrounded by more than 125 different types of cheese, from cow and sheep and goat, from Red Dragon to St. George, from Australia to Zamora, Spain-for four years and still like it. That’s the case for Michael and Kathryn Graham of C’est Cheese, anyway, who celebrated their store’s fourth anniversary December 6. “I kind of expected it would be like an ice cream shop when you’re working in high school and we’d get sick of [cheese],” Kathryn said. “I don’t crave cheese as much as I used to but we still eat a lot of cheese.”
In addition to the delicious dairy products they sell, the Grahams have made their shop particularly welcoming to customers. “We wanted to express how down-to-earth people are in this industry,” Kathryn explained, “get rid of that intimidation factor. From day one we had pronunciation tags, identified farms, were forthright about prices” (unlike that price per Â¼ pound trick to make things seem cheaper than they are). Turns out beyond the punning name requiring you to parle un peu fran§ais, which has left some folks unable to find “Say” Cheese in the phonebook, the Grahams have become proselytizers for the church of cheese. “We have some customers who didn’t like cheese,” Kathryn said. “I didn’t think we’d convert people, but now that they can taste it, they’ve become big cheese fans.”
The conversion process is aided by the fact that in addition to offering samples to customers, the store has monthly cheese tastings-paired with wine and sometimes beer-that provide a dairy-licious education. Kathryn leads these evenings, providing information for your brain as the cheese provides tastes for your mouth. The events are so popular the store could probably start scalping tickets. (To find out about those pairings, you’d best sign up for the store’s e-newsletter at .)
Though the Grahams have made a successful go of their shop, in the beginning they weren’t sure their story would have a happy ending. “We can’t believe we’ve made it four years,” Kathryn said. “It’s so cool that people come in and say, ‘I didn’t want to tell you, but I didn’t think you’d make it : but I’m so glad you did.'” Kathryn admitted that if she could go back in time and give herself advice she’d say, “‘Don’t worry as much.’ We opened and we were so sparse; we had nothing in the store. It was the smart way to do it, as people knew each time they came in we’d be tweaking something, adding some new product.” Now the store offers much more than cheese-all sorts of gourmet food products, from the highest quality salumi to handmade pasta and artisanal chocolates are carried. Plus, they’re represented at many of the top-notch restaurants in town, from bouchon and the Hungry Cat to the Sojourner Cafe and Wine Cask. Kathryn continued, “Still, [success] was hard to [achieve] since we’re living in an age with perfectly stocked supermarkets. But people liked watching us go from here,” she held her hand low, “to here,” she raised her hand high.
The Birth of C’est Cheese
How the couple got here, as in Santa Barbara, is a fascinating tale. “Both of us had a passion for food and wanted to do something in the industry,” Kathryn said. “Before that, we were definitely in the rat race. We had six or seven ideas, all in the food industry.” Assisted by family on both sides who had experience as small-scale entrepreneurs and in business, and hoping to move to California (Kathryn is a UCSB alum), they visited Santa Barbara and realized the town had no cheese store. Soon they were at the Food Show in San Francisco, wearing badges claiming they were from the nonexistent shop Cheese on State, and there they met their fairy cheese-mother, Lynne Devereux of the California Milk Advisory Board. According to Kathryn, “Lynne said, ‘I’ve been waiting for someone to open a cheese store in Santa Barbara,’ and she took us under her wing. She introduced us to all sorts of people. The makers are so passionate; it was refreshing after being in New York City [where it] was about making money.”
To make their long story of opening the shop shorter, suffice it to say they were aided by Steve Cushman of the Santa Barbara Chamber of Commerce and Mike Coffman, who connected them to Women’s Economic Ventures (WEV). “They awarded us a third of our start-up costs,” Kathryn claimed. “Now, any time WEV comes calling, I’m like, ‘Sure, whatever they want.'”
It’s hard not to want to eat all the cheese the Grahams have to offer as they’ve a fine sense for discovering the best purveyors. “We found an importer that has amazing quality of cheeses; it’s nothing like what you get at the grocery store,” Michael said, referring specifically to his favorite, Gruyre. “The customer’s reaction is always ‘Wow!'” Kathryn interpolated. Michael continued, “Especially if they know cheese. They end up saying, ‘I’ve had Gruyre, but I haven’t had anything like this.'” Sadly, some of the most famous cheese styles started out as something crafted, but like so many good things, were turned into items to be cranked out cheaply, the widgets of the food world. “I wish people knew cheese is an agricultural product, like fruit, rather than something extruded from machines and wrapped in plastic that can taste the same every time,” Michael said. “I got a call two weeks ago: ‘Somebody gave me a piece of Stilton-I was wondering if I can keep it until Christmas and re-gift it.'” The look on Michael’s face was pure disgust.
Fortunately for Michael-and the possible recipient of over-aged Stilton for Xmas-that caller isn’t a typical C’est Cheese customer. “We’re kind of like the neighborhood bar,” Kathryn said. “We get all of the gossip. Sometimes we know about things before lots of people, like when a woman who hasn’t made public she’s pregnant tells us she can’t eat raw milk, but then makes us promise we won’t give away her secret. We have such an amazing customer base that all the hard work is worth it. I’d love to be able to just hang out in the front of the store, hand out cheese samples, and just chat with everyone.”
C’est Cheese is located at 825 Santa Barbara Street. Call 965-0318 or visit cestcheese.com.