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C’est Cheese, the popular fromagerie on Santa Barbara Street that opened in December 2003, is now closed, according to an email from owners Kathryn and Michael Graham sent to fans over the weekend.
“As most of you know, we had a big setback a few years ago during the Thomas Fire and resulting mudslides,” they wrote on Saturday. “Ever since, we have been working to recover from its impact, but the current pandemic has been more than we can overcome. We hung on as long as we could, but unfortunately the time has come for us to close our doors. With a heavy heart, we regret to inform you that today was C’est Cheese’s last day in business.”
It is not the first closure triggered by the shutdowns ordered to slow the spread of COVID-19, and it certainly will not be the last. But given that C’est Cheese’s opening more than 16 years ago symbolized the maturation of Santa Barbara into a culinary hotspot — and that the shop became a steady part of the lexicon for both celebrated chefs and occasional party throwers — Saturday’s closure sent waves of dismay across the region’s epicurean community.
C’est Cheese’s rise could not have been any more personal for me. I lived directly across Santa Barbara Street in that yellow-and-green clapboard house, which wasn’t much more than a shack at that time, but a beloved home during a critical time in my life. As the Graham’s gutted a former interior design office — then next door to Thrasher Books and two doors down from Our Daily Bread bakery — I sat on my front porch drinking beer with friends, wondering aloud why Santa Barbara needed a cheese shop.
I was incredibly naive. C’est Cheese was exactly what we needed at that time. It became our community’s reference point to the fine cheeses and charcuteries of the world, a steady lesson in foreign flavors and textures, but also a reminder that the United States was strong in the cheese game too. As a wannabe bon vivant, but one without the required budget, the proximity to such a daily display of global delicacies was eye-opening. My foodie vocabulary grew dramatically. My world grew more interesting. No amount of books could replicate the education I received, almost by osmosis.
My girlfriend at the time, now my wife, started working evening tasting events there. She was proud to flex her French roots — though American, she was born in Bordeaux — while also connecting with the Grahams who, like her, are from Michigan. Joanna would shuffle extra tasting plates across the street to me, complete with each slice’s biographical details. Then she’d use her couple hours of wages, plus the 35 percent employee discount, to stock up. She was essentially paid in cheese, and I got a crash course in the heavenly creaminess of Fromage d’Affinois, the savory crunchiness of Ewephoria, the ashy, addictive brilliance of Humboldt Fog.
For our 2007 wedding, just months after I moved out of 828 Santa Barbara Street, we finished the party with a massive C’est Cheese table. It was a hit. When we had our son, Mason, in 2009, his first babysitter was Michael’s sister, Stefanie Graham, and often her boyfriend, now husband, the Oreana winemaker Danny Miles. They practiced a bit of parenting on our kids, and now have three children of their own.
In 2014, C’est Cheese expanded from a small shop into the entire bottom floor of their building. Many lamented the losses of Thrasher Books and Our Daily Bread — the same way we worry about monoculture out in the fields — but the Grahams started a cafe as well to fill the loss of the bakery, started selling more wine and other beverages, and grew their offerings, including many pates and other goods made in-house. They incurred a large amount of debt to complete the expansion, and never seemed quite to get properly ahead. It was altogether delicious, but it was a bit too much to chew.
When the month-long Thomas Fire raged in December 2017, C’est Cheese was forced to close the cafe operations. In moved the tasting room for Frequency Wines, which fit well on the block. The ensuing 1/9 Debris Flow only made business more difficult for everyone.
Then came the pandemic. We’ve ordered cheese, charcuterie, and other goods — those tart Michigan cherries, those oily marcona almonds, that silky mortadella and slightly funky Rosette salami — a few times during the coronavirus era, including the first weekend they announced curbside pickups. Those unique but now familiar flavors provided both sustenance and a needed sense of treat-yourself style, which is so lacking in these primarily eat-at-home times.
The email about the closure hit our entire family and close friends rather hard. We enjoyed most of our last order on the deck of our friend’s work boat in the harbor, crunching on OG Kristal and slathering the throat-tickling, ammonia-like punch of St. Agur on crisp nut crackers. We didn’t know it was our last order, but I’m not sure we would have done anything differently.
C’est Cheese taught us to never take what we put in our mouths for granted, that every bite can tell a story, reveal a new corner of the planet, remind us that the best foods are made by people who care. C’est Cheese became the vessel for these producers from all around the world, bringing us all a little closer together. I don’t think we’ve seen the last of Kathryn and Michael Graham — and there are other places to buy fancy cheese — but I’ll make sure to enjoy that last slice of salty mortadella and creamy wedge of d’Affinois extra slow tonight.
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