There was an overwhelming outpouring of support that came when Kathryn and Michael Graham abruptly announced the closing of their beloved fromagerie C’est Cheese in July.
“The reaction floored us,” said Kathryn, who received more than 100 texts as well as phone calls, emails, and even handwritten letters from fans of the shop, which first opened in December 2003. “We knew we had a nice corner going,” admitted Michael, “but this was insane.”
Little did everyone know that “Plan Brie” was already in the works. “We were confident that we could pull something together,” said Kathryn. “But nothing was definite.”
That backup plan will officially bloom on October 1 with the opening of Cheese Shop Santa Barbara. In perhaps the most surprising twist, the new fromagerie occupies the same exact space at 825 Santa Barbara Street in the Presidio Neighborhood, employs almost all of the same staff, and focuses on what brought the Grahams to the business in the first place: top-shelf cheese from around the world; a range of charcuterie, some made in-house; and artisanal foods and drinks to round it all out.
“If we hadn’t wanted to do this prior to closing, the reaction alone was so incredible that, how could we not?” asked Kathryn. “Why would we be doing anything else?”
The demise of C’est Cheese was tied to the 2012 loan that the Grahams took out to expand the space from a one-door shop to the entire bottom floor of the building, including a café. That spread, which took two years to permit and build, debuted in 2014. It was just starting to gain steam when the Thomas Fire of December 2017 shut down business in Santa Barbara for nearly a month during the ever-critical holidays, and then the debris flow of January 2018 further drowned the regional economy.
C’est Cheese closed the struggling café, subleased it as a tasting room to Frequency Wines, and relied on their bustling catering and retail business to pay back the loan. “It was just like treading water,” said Kathryn. And then, said Michael, “The pandemic just tipped us over the edge.” Explained Kathryn, “We lost all of the catering overnight. That whole side of the business evaporated. There’s no way we could take that hit. It was the nail in the coffin right there.”
From the outside, cheese commerce appeared steady during COVID-19, and it was. “Oddly, we felt like we were doing better than most businesses,” she said. “We were able to stay open, and the retail was doing quite well. It was this weird juxtaposition. We felt so grateful.” When they realized that the pandemic wasn’t just a two-month affair, the writing was on the wall. “We ran out of money,” said Michael. “I guess that’s it.”
With help from an attorney, the Grahams were able to get out of their expansion loan in a manner that allowed them to be able to open the same business in the same place, further aided by landlords who believe in fostering hometown entrepreneurs. What also helped is that, unlike many businesses that go under, the Grahams didn’t just skip town and stop paying their suppliers. “We did not default on our vendors,” said Kathryn. “It was really just about the loan for us.”
With the financials on the right track, the attorney reminded the Grahams that they could do anything with their lives now, like take an office job, make more money, and not have to deal with employees, payroll, or even the public. “He pulled out all of the triggers,” said Kathryn. “But we’d thought about it a lot. Unfortunately, we’re addicted to this, and we love it.”
Although the bank respected their responsible approach, keeping the C’est Cheese name was a bit too much of a reach. “We realized that we couldn’t be cuter than C’est Cheese,” said Michael, “and so many people just called us ‘the cheese shop’ anyway.” Hence: Cheese Shop Santa Barbara. Now, almost certainly, the Grahams own one of those great Santa Barbara places known by two names — one official, like Arroyo Burro Beach and Cheese Shop Santa Barbara, and one colloquial, like Hendry’s Beach and C’est Cheese.
They are doing a “full refresh” on the brand, deep cleaning the space, investing in new equipment, and rediscovering their passion for cheese. “We didn’t realize how much that had been weighing on us for so long,” said Kathryn of the debt stress. “You get so mired in it that the fun stuff has to go by the wayside. We get to research cheese again. In the end, we are getting right back to what we started as. It’s back to the basics.”
Unlike when they started nearly 17 years ago, the Grahams understand the retail cheese business better than most anyone. “There’s no guessing now,” said Kathryn. “We know all the numbers.”
They will remain pick-up only until the pandemic lightens up and anticipate a robust return to catering once the world returns to life. “When, knock on wood, things open up,” said Michael, “what we’re doing now will help us grow better in the future.”
825 Santa Barbara St.; (805) 965-0318; cheeseshopsb.com [launching soon]
Every day, the staff of the Santa Barbara Independent works hard to sort out truth from rumor and keep you informed of what’s happening across the entire Santa Barbara community. Now there’s a way to directly enable these efforts. Support the Independent by making a direct contribution or with a subscription to Indy+.