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Sonoma Cheese Factory sold

The Cheese Factory’s complicated past

Although the Sonoma Cheese Factory was founded in 1931, the idiosyncratic deco landmark on Spain Street was built by co-founder Celso Viviani and his son, Pete, in 1945. Cheese was last made at the location in 2001, though the brand continued to be produced from other dairies. David Viviani, the eldest son, operated the location as a deli into the 1970s, when his father returned from Mexico to take back the business.

When Pete Viviani died in 2001, the property was turned over to the Nina & Maria Viviani Trust in the name of his younger daughters. They have continued to operate it in the intervening decades.

In 2018, the Vivianis proposed expanding the Cheese Factory into a multi-vendor marketplace, similar to the Oxbow Market in Napa. But the proposal failed to gain City of Sonoma approval, and the Trust struggled through much of 2019 to establish a use permit under which they could operate, and expand. They eventually managed to get approval from the City Council to re-establish a 2004 use permit, an effort that had been denied by the Planning Commission.

But the council’s approval led an ad-hoc local group called Protect Our Plaza to file a lawsuit challenging the city's decision to allow the business's planned expansion without environmental review. That suit is still in the courts and yet to be resolved.

At the end of 2018 the Sonoma Cheese Factory closed and, save for a few limited reopenings, has been dark since.

– Christian Kallen

Sonoma’s Best Hospitality Group, a group of companies owned by real estate investors and developers Ken and Stacy Mattson, has purchased the Sonoma Cheese Factory. The deal closed Friday, Aug. 4, according to Karin Rogers, SBHG’s director of operations and business development.

The iconic 11,420-square-foot Plaza building was listed for sale by a trust for Sonoma’s Viviani family for $4,275,000 in May. The terms of the SBHG acquisition were not disclosed.

Casey Thompson, a former contestant on Bravo’s “Top Chef,” will oversee future plans for the property, according to Rogers. Those plans will include a wine bar, a café, specialty foods, gifts and barbecue deli, as well as a cheese shop.

The Sonoma Cheese Factory will reopen on Friday, Sept. 4.

Rogers told the Index-Tribune that SBHG plans to keep the Sonoma Cheese Factory name and “there are no significant changes planned to the building.”

Former ’Top Chef’ contestant Casey Thompson oversees culinary projects for Sonoma’s Best Hospitality Group.
Former ’Top Chef’ contestant Casey Thompson oversees culinary projects for Sonoma’s Best Hospitality Group.

Thompson, 42, is Sonoma’s Best Hospitality Group’s director of culinary development. In addition to overseeing the Cheese Factory project, she is also developing the former General’s Daughter into a new restaurant called Georgette, and she is due to open a new dining spot, Folktable, at Cornerstone, this fall.

“I am thrilled to oversee the next phase of the Sonoma Cheese Factory,” said Thompson via an email announcing SBHG acquisition. “I look forward to honoring its important history within the Sonoma community while infusing its offerings with a refreshed seasonal menu sourced from our local farmers and purveyors.” She added that she hopes “to pay homage to that history with special seasonal menus that highlight the Cheese Factory’s signature local creation.”

Maria Viviani, whose family trust previously owned the Cheese Factory. (Photos by Robbi Pengelly/Index-Tribune)
Maria Viviani, whose family trust previously owned the Cheese Factory. (Photos by Robbi Pengelly/Index-Tribune)

“We are working closely with the Nina and Maria Viviani Trust to ensure that the spirit of the Sonoma Cheese Factory lives on,” Rogers said via email.

The Cheese Factory has been closed and vacant for almost two years. Sonoma Mayor Logan Harvey told the Index-Tribune that the reopening was “welcome news.“

"Some of my earliest memories are of watching the cheese makers work their magic in that building,“ he said. ”I wish the Viviani family the best in their future endeavors and thank them for their years of service to the town, producing world famous cheese, serving up delicious tri-tip sandwiches and employing generations of Sonomans.

“I hope the Viviani tradition of providing a locally grown, family friendly, inclusive atmosphere will be continued by the new owners and that all members of our community feel welcome at the Cheese Factory for years to come.“

When it reopens on Friday, the Sonoma Cheese Factory will offer a limited menu and outside seating only until further notice. The property will “strictly observe” the county’s COVID hygiene and social distancing guidelines, according to the company.

Since their first acquisition in Sonoma Valley in 2018, the Ken and Stacy Mattson Trust, along with a partner company LeFever Mattson, have purchased approximately $100 million Sonoma Valley real estate.

Ken and Stacy Mattson named their hospitality portfolio after the Sonoma's Best deli, which was among their first business purchases in the Valley.
Ken and Stacy Mattson named their hospitality portfolio after the Sonoma's Best deli, which was among their first business purchases in the Valley.

Other Sonoma’s Best Hospitality Group properties purchased over the past two years include Ramekins cooking school and event center, the General’s Daughter restaurant, Cornerstone Sonoma, the Boyes Food Center, the Cocoa Planet Chocolate Factory, the Dirty Girl Donut storefront on the Plaza, Sonoma’s Best deli, the former Ravenswood Winery property, Leland Fishing Ranch as well as more than a dozen of local residences in the area.

Facade of the Sonoma Cheese Factory is one of the most recognizeable features of the Sonoma Plaza area. (Christian Kallen/Index-Tribune)
Facade of the Sonoma Cheese Factory is one of the most recognizeable features of the Sonoma Plaza area. (Christian Kallen/Index-Tribune)

The Sonoma Cheese Factory is located at 2 W. Spain St. in Sonoma. A new website launches this month at thesonomacheesefactory.com.

Contact Lorna at lorna.sheridan@sonomanews.com.

The Cheese Factory’s complicated past

Although the Sonoma Cheese Factory was founded in 1931, the idiosyncratic deco landmark on Spain Street was built by co-founder Celso Viviani and his son, Pete, in 1945. Cheese was last made at the location in 2001, though the brand continued to be produced from other dairies. David Viviani, the eldest son, operated the location as a deli into the 1970s, when his father returned from Mexico to take back the business.

When Pete Viviani died in 2001, the property was turned over to the Nina & Maria Viviani Trust in the name of his younger daughters. They have continued to operate it in the intervening decades.

In 2018, the Vivianis proposed expanding the Cheese Factory into a multi-vendor marketplace, similar to the Oxbow Market in Napa. But the proposal failed to gain City of Sonoma approval, and the Trust struggled through much of 2019 to establish a use permit under which they could operate, and expand. They eventually managed to get approval from the City Council to re-establish a 2004 use permit, an effort that had been denied by the Planning Commission.

But the council’s approval led an ad-hoc local group called Protect Our Plaza to file a lawsuit challenging the city's decision to allow the business's planned expansion without environmental review. That suit is still in the courts and yet to be resolved.

At the end of 2018 the Sonoma Cheese Factory closed and, save for a few limited reopenings, has been dark since.

– Christian Kallen

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