Viviani family members air ‘dirty laundry’ in Cheese Factory dispute

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While the Sonoma Cheese Factory awaits a June 3 vetting of its expansion plans before the Sonoma City Council, a family disagreement over the future of the venerable Plaza fine-food shop has been playing out behind the scenes.

The Council on June 3 will consider an appeal filed by the Viviani Trust, which owns the Cheese Factory, challenging the Sonoma Planning Commission’s recent refusal to reinstate the terms of the Cheese Factory’s 2004 use permit. Until the commission denied the use-permit recertification, the Cheese Factory had hoped to remodel its interiors and expand its services to include a restaurant.

The Cheese Factory has been closed since the first of the year; sibling owners Maria Viviani and Nina Viviani Respicio said at the time they were trying to cut costs during the winter slow season.

But in advance of the June 3 meeting, an effort was launched by the Viviani sisters to dispel any idea that their brother David Viviani – who’s no longer involved in ownership of the Cheese Factory – was negotiating to lease the business from the Viviani Trust and, in his words, “make the Sonoma Cheese Factory a viable enterprise immediately.”

That offer, put forth by David Viviani and business partner Montie Toscano, was made in an informal February meeting between Viviani and his younger sister, Maria, and backed up with an appeal to Comerica Bank, the real estate partner in the trust.

In his letter to Sharon Fong of Comerica Bank’s real estate trust department, David Viviani wrote, “We believe we are the best candidate to rebuild and renew the SCF,” basing that on his life-long involvement with the business. While acknowledging his “shock” at his being excluded from the family trust upon his father’s death in 2009, he said, “We have kept an appropriate distance and respected the Trust.”

But last week, David Viviani’s offer evoked an “update from the owners of the Sonoma Cheese Factory” – a May 10 statement sent to the Index-Tribune, posted on Facebook and at sonomacheesefactory.com.

The two-page message reiterated many of the reasons why the Cheese Factory had to close – temporarily at least – at the end of 2018, citing such concerns as a business downturn in the wake of the 2017 wildfires, as well as its use-permit delays.

But the letter went on to accuse David Viviani of “scheming,” saying, “one of our biggest hurdles isn’t from our neighbors, it’s from our brother David.” The statement accused him of “leaking private (family) details” and “playing on people’s sense of nostalgia about the Cheese Factory” that were “designed to interfere with our approved plans.”

The statement concluded: “It’s not our style to air dirty laundry, but we need to make it clear that our brother has nothing to do with the Sonoma Cheese Factory.”

While David Viviani, 74, is proud of his career working with his father Pete and other family members in the Sonoma Cheese Factory – especially being an early “disrupter” in the food industry by adding peppers, garlic and other flavors to jack cheese, and establishing the Sonoma Jack brand – he denied any ill will toward his younger sisters.

“If they can’t get plan A through or plan B, there needs to be a plan C,” said David Viviani of his February meeting with his sister. “The (Cheese Factory) building needs to be open, it’s like having a smile on the Plaza.”

Upon Cheese-Factory founder Peter Viviani’s death in 2009, Maria and Nina were named to the Viviani Trust, while David and his sister Donna Viviani Harland were excluded.

The Sonoma Cheese Factory use-permit appeal is expected to go before the Sonoma City Council on Monday, June 3, at 6:30 p.m. at City Council Chambers, 177 First St. W.

Contact Christian at christian.kallen@sonomanews.com.

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