Is it the end of an era for Sonoma Cheese Factory?
One of Sonoma’s oldest food producers closed on Monday, New Year’s Eve at 3 p.m., announcing plans to shutter for the slow winter season with plans to reopen in April.
Staff members said they were told by general manager Rachel Oelhafen on Dec. 21 that their jobs would end Dec. 31.
Visits last weekend revealed that the “everything must go” sale was down to 70 percent off original pricing with a long line of locals and tourists waiting to pay in the back room, where cheese used to be made. People were buying everything from synthetic blankets made in China and jarred sauces and olives to cutting boards, aprons, pot holders and “sliced” cheddar cheese that hadn’t yet been sliced.
While staff was told of the plan to reopen in April, they were also told they would need to re-apply for their jobs. Most are now looking to find new jobs.
This is not just the closing of a store. This is the closing of a Sonoma institution where generations of locals and tourists met, watched cheese being made in the back room, bought sandwiches to take to the park, met for coffee or tasted free toothpick-stabbed cubes of cheese made onsite.
In 1931, Celso Viviani and Joseph Vella started making cheese on Second Street East, where Vella Cheese is currently located. After a business split, architect Pero D. Canali designed the angular, somewhat-Deco period piece building on Spain Street in 1945.
Eventually Pete Viviani, his son, David Viviani, and Fred Harland ran the cheese factory and shop. Locals and visitors used to press against the back window to watch the cheesemakers. They ceased making cheese there years ago after a listeria scare, and that room was converted to a retail shop and eventually ice cream and coffee shop. The cheese-making operation was sold a couple of times, and David Viviani’s sisters, Maria and Nina, retained the store on the Plaza.
In recent years the Viviani sisters generously catered Sonoma International Film Festival events and did their best to keep the business strong.
Last Spring, the Cheese Factory announced a planned remodel of the facility into a more expansive food marketplace. The development company tapped to lead the remodel, Sonoma Square Market, is led by Steve Carlin, who founded the Oxbow Market in Napa. The proposed remodel was approved by the Sonoma Planning Commission last April, but owners of the neighboring buildings that house the Swiss Hotel and Mary’s Pizza Shack appealed the approval and the project has since been in limbo.
David Viviani told the Index-Tribune this week that, after the appeal hearing to the City Council was delayed in June, Carlin and his project partners “have gone silent.”
“It saddens me,” wrote David Viviani in an email. “The 2 Spain St. address, on Sonoma’s historic Plaza, is one of the best addresses in Northern California.”
Last weekend all that was left of the Cheese Factory’s inventory were $5 pre-made sandwiches on Dutch Crunch rolls or corner-curled dried sourdough in the deli case to be pressed into panini, plus some olives and crackers.